The Sport Psychology Blog
Have you ever got frustrated with thoughts that keep popping into your mind? Have you ever said or thought to yourself, frustratingly: “arrghh stop thinking about that!!”
Stopping thinking is difficult. The mind is constantly thinking. The need to try and control it is well intentioned but difficult. And it is often the wrong way to go about things. It is also really, really hard to do!
We can often control our attention and bring our focus onto the things that we want to focus on, but sometimes the thoughts that we have and the fears of certain thoughts or feelings, keep coming back at us, and this can cause us to focus on them even more.
Imagine if you’re about to perform a really important task in a sporting situation. Maybe you’ve got to serve for the match or you’re on the free throw line. And it is a situation that makes you particularly nervous (maybe a “big” game). You don’t want negative thoughts about failure to come up, that’s true in some sense– since they aren’t exactly fun to have, but can we control our brain enough to completely get rid of these thoughts? I would say, not likely (although everyone is different).
Many (including me) would argue that level of thought control is really not possible. This is because, If you have already categorised thoughts as bad and that they are something that will lead to poor performance, then logically the fear that the negative thoughts will come up will be real. And it will then make it quite likely that they will. Your mind will start looking for them!
It’s like that time when you really, really need to get to sleep. You’re sooo tired that you must get to sleep straight away otherwise you’re not going to function the next day. So… you try really hard to quiet your mind. You try to stop thinking, to stop worrying about getting to sleep, but the worry train keeps chugging along and it doesn’t happen, definitely not quickly!
It’s a bit like that when are trying to find our flow-state in sport. Thoughts about how we are feeling and what we are thinking are just going to delay the chances of us dropping into the moment and performing with freedom.
This might be because of what Charles Baudouin in 1921 called “The law of reversed effort” when introducing this ironic process he stated: “The harder we try to think the good idea, the more violent will be the assaults of the bad idea…” Does this sounds like something you might be familiar with?
Have you ever tried to only think positively about situation only to have all the negative thoughts come back? It may seem to you like you lack the mental control and brain power to control your mind, and some people may even tell you this.
Don’t listen to that crap.
Your brain is doing what it is programmed to do. It’s looking for threats, worrying about what might happen, all in an attempt to keep you safe. To keep you alive.
We’re animals and that is what our brains are wired to do.
So, if the thought control battle is actually one we can’t ever win - then we are going to need to look at it from a different approach. Instead of being involved in the battle in our brains, maybe we step back and observe this battle that is going on. We can notice what are we saying to ourselves, almost step back and say aahh that is my mind doing it’s normal thing, its not actually me. It's not actually harmful.
This also means acknowledging and accepting thoughts, being willing to have them.
Then we need to go about performing the task without spending too much mental energy trying to win the battle in our minds. We need to connect to ‘The Now’ and perform in that space. Connecting with The Now is a skill as well, but its not about eliminating The Noise in our minds.
With this approach, over time, you can take away the power of thoughts, acknowledge that they are just thoughts and not let them be the controlling factor for your performance. The quote below talks about fostering understanding, but I think it fits perfectly with performance as well:
“The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. We cannot make ourselves understand; the most we can do is to foster a state of mind, in which understanding may come to us”. – Aldous Huxley
I would say, what we can do is foster a state of mind in which flow will come to us. That comes from a state of mind that doesn’t fear fear. A mind that doesn’t worry about worries and a mind that doesn’t try to control itself.