Accept your thoughts, Change your behaviors
Often times we believe that if we change what we do, we will feel better. If we eat less junk food, we will feel better about our bodies. If we work out more, we'll feel like our day was more productive. If we get all of our work completed, we feel we are great at our jobs. In mental training, we help athletes and performers recognize that the reverse is true as well.
When we think and feel positively and productively, positive actions and behaviors will flow more naturally. This really helps us in sport, as we can't just decide to be better at our sport, but we can impact our performance positively by thinking and feeling in a manner that aligns with how we want to perform.
Now, there are a couple of ways to get to positive and productive thoughts/feelings. One way to do so is through cognitive restructuring, which is recognizing and actively changing (restructuring) our detrimental thoughts. This is entirely valuable! We often get caught in "thinking traps" - cognitive distortions that are often hard-wired into our brains that are worth checking in on and adapting.
Another way of working with these thoughts is recognizing the hamster wheel our brains are on. In a given day we have approximately 60,000 - 70,000 thoughts! That comes to a whopping 2,708 thoughts per hour (based on 65,000 thoughts a day) or, get this, 45 thoughts per minute! That's almost a thought a second. And we wonder why ADHD is on the rise...
Needless to say, our minds are constantly spinning with information, new thoughts, recurrent habits of thought, and correspondent feelings that go with them. So, what to do with all of these thoughts if we are not to restructure or change the negative ones? For one, use mindfulness.
Mindfulness, the age old buzz word. The 2,000 year trend. While this may be seen as "all the rage these days," the reality is that the concept of mindfulness goes back thousands of years and has great inherent value in helping us perform to the best of our ability.
So, what is it?
Mindfulness, as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is
“The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2015)
Now, how can this help you perform? Let's break down the definition.
By directing our attention to our sport performance, and not the parade of thoughts that clutter our minds, we are able to focus on the most important play in our sport, which is always the present play. We can't get back the play before, and concern for the play three plays from now is wasted thought. The only play we can impact is the current one, so paying attention on the task at hand is critical to being our best.
By setting the intention that we will pay attention, we have set a goal and crafted an energy towards the present moment. This intention - deciding to pay attention to the present moment - serves as a self-reminder when you have gone off track to come back to the present play.
In the present moment
Kabat-Zinn likes to say that mindfulness is "simple but not easy." I would agree with his sentiment as pertains to your sport. Playing poorly can impact your confidence. Distractions - internal and external - can take your focus away from what you're doing and get you in your own head. The ability to stay locked in on exactly what you're currently engaging in and blocking out the rest is a critical tool that transfers from your sport to your academics, your work performance, your relationships - virtually all areas of your life!
We are often so self-critical when we make mistakes. On top of that, when we perform well we often think so highly of ourselves! Both sides of that coin can harm your ability to perform. By avoiding judgment (again, not easy) we are able to summon whatever action is most needed at that moment without the cloud of harsh self critique or the unproductive glow of self-aggrandizing. When we learn how to avoid judgment we are uninterested in labeling things good or bad and we are able to hone in on our process as opposed to our outcomes. Taking a process focus allows us to have full control of how we play.
The work of mindfulness is different from cognitive restructuring in that it doesn't require blocking out or changing your thoughts; given the nature of our minds, that isn't very effective! Instead, using mindfulness helps athletes accept thoughts as they come, and watches them go, returning the mind to the most important play: this one. By accepting our thoughts and allowing them to pass, we become laser-like in our ability to be focused and free of the judgments that would cloud and distract our minds.
Where do you stand with a behavior you want to change? Consider the Transtheoretical Model of Change (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1995) as a way to start thinking about it:
Is there an area of your performance or life you're contemplating changing? How will you go about doing so? If you're interested in discussing where you are and want some guidance on how to get where you want to go, drop me a note and we'll set up a free phone consultation!
Good luck on your journey.