'I'm going to miss', 'You are SO bad', This point is so important', 'I'm so rubbish'
These thoughts and many more fall out of the mouths and paint the minds of some, if not all, athletes from one time to another. Often they are accompanied with a whoosh of nervousness or a burst of anger. At this point one of three things usually happens:
The player dwells on it ('Yes it is a huge point. What if I miss? I feel shaky. I can't do this.')
The player avoids it or tries to push it away ('No come on, you're okay, it's not that bad, you can do it'.)
The player does not engage with it.
We can all see number 1 (dwelling on it) is a problem. The athlete might be in a tough situation, but focusing on (and usually over-estimating) how serious it is, will magnify the problem.
Option 2 can seem positive. However, trying to 'fix' or 'avoid' uncomfortable thoughts or emotions can fall into the trap of actually believing those thoughts or emotions have any real value. When in fact, they don't!
Option 3 is the one I often try to steer athletes towards, because this one allows a clearer mind with attention on the task itself, rather than on irrelevant thoughts and emotions, which have no more importance to the actual 'action' of performance, than does a spectator watching the match.
THOUGHTS & EMOTIONS AREN'T FACTS
The reason I encourage Option 3, is that 'thoughts' and 'emotions' are not facts. They can be random, unpredictable and often bear little or no relevance or use to what is going on in the match. For example, athletes can report feeling a level of anxiety akin to having a life or death situation. Clearly this is not true. Tennis is not as serious - but the emotion is telling us it is.
In the face of this then, I often ask athletes to 'accept the unacceptable'. Which means ridiculing those thoughts or emotions. For example, if a thought came up 'my forehand is bad', I'd encourage one of two approaches:
Exaggerate it: 'Yes it is awful, nobody has ever had a forehand this bad, my racket is crying, my forehand could end the world as we know it'.
Accept it and Move on: 'Yes it might be...right what now?'
Each of these approaches involve accepting that the thought might be true - but that it really isn't relevant. That our brains don't need to dwell on it, answer it or make irrational changes because of it.
In this sense, we encourage players to accept the unacceptable - in doing so, the aim is to free them from the whim of thought and emotion and instead, to maintain their focus on performing their best.
James Newman is a Sport Psychologist & Mental Skills Coach offering online support.
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