Anxiety and Athletes: The Monsters In Our Heads
Have you ever wondered who is that voice in your head that doubts your abilities or who says to you, “you can’t do this!”? Or maybe you have been awake at night battling the monsters in your head that contain messages of self-doubt, worry, and anxiety.
The good news is you are not alone! Taming the monsters in our heads is a worthwhile goal and it is obtainable. But how?
Mindfulness and Anxiety Management
One technique involves mindfulness training. The whole idea of mindfulness is really popular right now. For example, recently Time magazine published a cover story, “Mindfulness Revolution” (February, 2014). Cooper Anderson did a 60 Minutes segment on this in December, 2014. The Seattle Seahawks have mindfulness training available to the football players. And, even Google offers all of its employees mindfulness training.
Mindfulness involves being aware of the monsters and that the monsters in our heads are never going to go away. BUT through mindfulness training, the idea is that you can begin to ‘catch’ the monsters, possibly even tame them, before they get out of hand. The monsters represent our thoughts and a common misunderstanding is that the goal of being mindful is to have NO thoughts. That is not the goal. The goal is awareness of your thoughts. And then knowing when and how to switch and change focus. For example, consider your mind like a traffic light that switches: the red is symbolic for the monster and the anxiety worry thoughts, the yellow light represents our thoughts that are neutral and not negative or positive. The green light represents our thoughts that are motivational and positive. The traffic light is like our brain but we have to switch to the right thought, like the lights, and this takes practice. The point is you will have thoughts but you get to decide where to put your focus.
Taming the Monsters
Some basic steps to make this happen to include:
- Awareness of what type (color) of thoughts you are having at the moment. Then admit it and name it. This is a technique called naming and when you name a thought you bring awareness to your thought. This is a major step in understanding how your mental game can work with you or against you. Most athletes have little awareness of the thoughts running through their minds.
- Engage in switching and this goes back to the traffic light idea. What can you engage on telling yourself that is more in the yellow or green zone? For example:
- Red words: I can’t, it hurts, I may fail, what if I don’t win, what will coach think, I hate this, I suck at this, I am terrible, etc.
- Yellow words: Focus on my quick feet, or say the words “when in doubt breathe out” over and over, like a mantra to get your focus on breath and not worry.
- Green words: I can, go, push, yes, breath, I want this, I own this, etc..
The next time you are practicing or competing, begin to bring an awareness to the type of thoughts you are having and categorize them as red, green or yellow. If you are having red thoughts, and you feel these are impacting your game negatively, then reach for a more yellow thought or action to refocus your attention. Then you can move into green thoughts. This will be a continual process and maybe even moment to moment. There will be days that this is easier and days that it will be more difficult. The most important thing is to keep trying to name your thoughts.
In recent years, researchers have learned a great deal about what goes on in the brain when the monsters are roaring. In fact, they have been able to document brain changes in those subjects who were briefly trained in mindfulness techniques. In a 2013 study, University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson is showing that mindfulness meditation can quickly alter parts of the brain. In this study, Dr. Davidson and his colleagues put a group of experienced meditators through a day of intensive mindfulness practices. The second group with NO mindfulness experience spent the day doing quiet, non-meditative activities, like reading and walking. The participants from both groups were put in a stressful situation by having to give impromptu speeches and perform five minutes of mental arithmetic in form of judges and a video camera. The meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular difference that allowed their bodies to physically recover from the stress faster when compared to the non-meditating group. Ultimately, this means that if you can become more aware of the monsters in your head through mindfulness techniques, then you can recover quicker and be more resilient.