The Value of a Neutral Mind in Sports: Five Reasons To Think “Yellow”

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“I worked very hard. I felt I could play the game. The only thing that could stop me was myself.”

–Jim Abbott

Many sport psychologists and coaches talk with athletes about having positive self-talk or talking themselves into a game or simply to think positive. But there are times when being positive is challenging, especially when a performance is not going well.

Signal LightTraffic Light: Red, Green and Yellow

There is the analogy that the athlete’s mind is similar to a traffic light.
Red lights represent negative, unproductive thoughts or thoughts that take you out of your game.
Green lights represent positive, helpful thoughts or thoughts associated with a positive performance.
Yellow lights represent neutral thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts act a warning that your thoughts need to change prior to moving into red.
Despite their ‘warning’ connotation, yellow thoughts or actions have incredible value and need more attention. As a nine-year-old once said, “there would be a lot of crashes without yellow lights.” She is right!

Five Reasons to Think Yellow or be Neutral

  1. A neutral mind takes you out of good or bad thinking (judgment thinking). Have you ever played terribly and then thought that you were a terrible person? Our performance often gets enmeshed with our entire sense of being rather than remaining as it’s own action. By assuming a neutral mind one can avoid catastrophizing a poor performance.
  2. A neutral mind knows thoughts and performance are temporary and that the present moment is ever-changing. That is why the traffic light is a good analogy. Our thoughts and actions will change but in what direction?
  3. A neutral mind knows you cannot lie to yourself. When an athlete is having a bad day it can be a mind battle to try to think positive, or to get to the green zone. But if you can at least think neutrally rather than completely pessimistically you can work yourself back to a better frame of mind.
  4. A neutral mind helps to avoid the internal arguments we have when we know we should think positive but then go negative and then get mad that we are being negative! This is a double bind. We are thinking negative and now we are mad that we are thinking negative. A neutral mind helps to prevent this downward spiral.
  5. A neutral mind reminds us that the mental process is okay and we do not need to be perfect.

What would Neutral (Yellow) Sound like in your Head?

Neutral mind in sports is using more action-focused words. The most simple action word that we can tell ourselves that is neither positive nor negative is “breathe”. As I tell athletes, “when in doubt, breathe out”. Do it, say it, and keep your mind from judgment. Alternatively, you can give yourself an action step to take, such as “quick feet” (hockey), “follow through” (basketball shot) or “high knees” (sprinter). Action talk is neutral, and again, nonjudgmental. Use it and you will see the value of going yellow!

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