Don't Think About A Blue Elephant:
And All Of The Other Things You Shouldn't Think About
Many of my recent blogs have attempted to bring awareness to the challenges we face in our pursuit of consistent and confident performance. You will find that most of these blogs look to address in some way our mindset, or thinking, as this tends to be the major cause of poor performance; but is also of course our greatest tool for success. The mind is powerful, and what we place our attention on in training and in competition will likely determine the outcome.
It boggles my mind though that we don’t spend more time addressing the faculty of our attention. What we focus on, pay attention to, or are aware of determines so much of our experience in life and how successful we are. Parents, coaches, and teachers certainly value attention as they ask for it often but kids or teenagers are not taught how to manage their attention, how to train it, or even what it means to be aware. It’s also short sighted to always ask someone to pay attention to something externally, when what really matters is what is going on internally.
When I am working with an athlete, I without a doubt want to know what their internal focus is; before, during, and after their competition. What are they thinking about? What images do they see before and after? What thinking traps do they experience? What are their beliefs about their capability to do well? And then, how effective are they at getting out of their heads when they need to perform, and be in the present moment?
The Unfortunate Power of "Don't Thinking"
I find that athletes that are underperforming or are in a slump have an internal focus that either is negative or is focused on what they fear may happen. A popular mental exercise a sport psychologist may utilize is to ask the individual, group, or team to NOT think about something. For example, “don’t think about a blue elephant,” or “don’t think about what your parents look like,” or “don’t think about the Eiffel Tower.” The mind doesn’t register the “Don’t” in a sentence, it just registers the subject of the sentence, and then conjures up images of it.
Now what type of “don’t” thoughts might an athlete be thinking of if they have recently be in a slump, or fear failure, or have a low self-belief. It may sound like this:
“I hope I don't strike out”
“I hope I don't let the team down”
“I hope I don't screw up”
“I hope I don't miss an easy play”
If it’s not the inner voice creating these thoughts, there is most likely images in the mind of what it would look for these things to happen.
Now it certainly makes sense for athletes to bring images of the things they hope do not happen in their competition. Those situations are typically riddled with disappointment, frustration, and embarrassment; and the brain, in its attempt to keep us safe, likes to analyze, judge, and plan out how to manage these scenarios. The only problem is that for many underperformers, it’s the only image that gets conjured up, one of failure. Those images create an emotional state of fear, anxiety, and doubt, which leads to a cascade of consequences on our performance.
So what should we do instead?
Athletes need to be able to shift their attention from what they hope doesn’t happen to what they hope does. They need to have an awareness of what they are thinking, and the ability to stop and shift their thinking when those thoughts are not helping them. Their focus should be on success and the process that gets them there. They need to be able to manage mistakes and failures without dwelling on them. And then, suddenly, on cue, let it all go during a performance and just be in the moment, trusting themselves, without thinking much at all.
THIS IS MENTAL STRENGTH!
It should be trained and reinforced. As we start to have successful experiences, our self-efficacy, self-esteem, and confidence improves along with our motivation to continue to get better. I believe that every athlete, and person, deserves this training. Would you have performed better if you had it?
Powell Cucchiella, LMHC