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How are these two scenarios related?
This past week I was sitting in a restaurant and saw a father eating with his young (about age 5) daughter. She had spilled her milk and it was clear he was a bit frustrated. I heard him say several times to NOT play with the toy she had a long and to NOT grab her hamburger in one hand and her milk in the other. None of this was said in a mean tone. But it seemed like it would be helpful if he would just tell her what to do instead of what not to do. Or show her. I kept wishing he would just say to her, “move your milk to the middle of the table so it is out of your way”. Or show her how to have just one item in her hand. I suppose it was easy for me, a psychologist, to feel like I had the solution, but it really got me thinking about how we do this negative self-talk to ourselves when we play sports. And sometimes it is so subtle that we do not realize we are doing “do not do” self-talk.
Imagine for a moment that you are watching one of your favorite shows on Netflix. Your friend or family member walks into the room and asks if you can talk about cleaning the apartment/house. You tell the person that you want to talk about that at some other time and not at that moment. So you make a conscious effort about where to put your focus and resume watching your show. At that moment you consciously opted for one choice over several options. You could have chosen to try to do both, possibly only hearing some of the conversation or some of the show. You could have felt frustrated if you really wanted to watch the show and you had turned it off in order to have the conversation. Then your mind might be wondering why you opted to have the conversation as you were still thinking about the show?! But you made a choice as to where you wanted your focus, which was to watch the show and then talk about cleaning. We can do this in sports. My point is athletes often say how hard it is to focus on what they want, but we do it in other areas of our lives. Thus, it is possible to do this when we play sports.
Self Talk: What To Do
There is a great deal written about positive and negative self-talk in the sport. But we should also be addressing and using self-talk that is directed towards what you want to occur in practice, training or competition. This means instructing to yourself about what to do.
So the answer to the question-how are these two scenarios related: they are about how we talk to ourselves and this self-talk affects our focus. In his book, On The Sweet Spot, Richard Keefe wrote: “If a golfer becomes nervous that he is closing in on the best round of life, and wants to focus on the current shot instead of his intense desire for a low number, the ability to maintain control of his thinking at this crucial time will greatly improve his chances of avoiding the distractions of his expectations.” This would include having self-talk about having an orientation toward the target and rather than the hazard. Self Talk about instructing himself on his grip or follow through would also be helpful for focusing on the task and rather than his score.
I like to use two events in track to compare the link between our body and brain. One event is the open 100m and the other is the 100m hurdles. Sprinters will finish the race faster when running the open 100m. When we give ourselves too many descriptions of what not to do I think it is more like running 100m hurdles. The sprinter will get to the finish line, but it will take longer if there are hurdles instead of the open 100m. When you can get good at telling your brain what you want to do or have happened, and keep that as your guiding self-talk, it is more like sprinting the 100m. The circuit from your brain to your body is faster. Scenario 1 from above is like running a race that has hurdles. Scenario 2 from above is like running a race with no hurdles. In scene two it was a quick decision to watch a show and not divide attention between a conversation and a show.
Talking to Yourself is Normal
It is okay to talk back to yourself. Not everything you say in your head is true. When you opt to talk back to your “do not” voice this does not mean you are crazy. In fact, it might mean you are resilient. We all have fears. But if you face them and direct your self-talk to the moment at hand, and what you need to do in that moment, then you can skip some of the hurdles.
Three Keys to Remember
1. We all dialogue in our head.
2. When we use more dialogue about what not to do or what to avoid, then we are on a path with hurdles and it takes longer for our brain and body to “talk.”
3. Talk back to yourself about what you want or what your target is when your fears creep in. You might do it a 100o times in an hour but it will get easier with time.