Mary had a little _______. I’m betting you said “lamb” there, didn’t you? And why not, it would make perfect sense if you did. Your brain used what it knows and made an assumption to fill in the gaps. This is a perfect example of how your brain works all day long. There is too much information in our environment for the brain to sift through. So instead, it takes bits and pieces of information and makes assumptions, places it into categories or heuristics, and creates narratives to make sense of it all. That is why we make stereotypes, it is why we love to put things into labels and categorize things and is why we have schemas to explain the world around us.
Much of the time these cognitive shortcuts are helpful, for instance, tehy aollw us to udnresatnd tihs snecante whituot mcuh dififctuly. However, these shortcuts also lead us to think in some ways that can negatively impact performance.
One of the fallouts of the way our brain works is that it leads to faulty internal dialogue. Our inner voice, which often runs outside of our awareness, falls victim these shortcuts, causing our thoughts to be riddled with incomplete information, biases, cognitive distortions, and assumptions. One of the ways these shortcuts impact our thinking is through organizing our thoughts and the world around us into narratives and stories. These stories are often critical and negative, especially when it is about ourselves*.
These critical or negative thoughts we have about ourselves turn into stories we tell ourselves and believe to be true. To make matters worse, once we believe a certain story to be true, we then only find information in our environment to confirm that “truth”, a phenomena called confirmation bias. Now, add in the powerful emotions that our thoughts create and you have a perfect storm for turning a somewhat irrational thought into an emotion laden narrative that you are convinced to be true. So, how does this show up in sport? Maybe you are a pitcher that had a bad first inning against a rival team years ago. That memory has stuck with you and now you’ve begun to tell yourself that you aren’t very good in the first inning. As you walk to the mound you are trying to “just think positive” but that isn’t working – you can’t shake this feeling that you’re just going to screw up. You look over to your coach for reassurance and see him shaking his head. You think to yourself “great, my coach doesn’t even believe in me” (confirmation bias). Now, your confidence is rattled, you're frustrated and nervous, you’ve got a battle going on in your mind trying to stay positive, and you’ve become acutely aware that your three warm-up pitches have all been balls. All of this started because you have a thought, a story that runs in your head, that you believe to be true. Dr. Susan David, author of the book Emotional Agility, calls this being “hooked”. You are hooked on a thought about yourself that impacts you in a negative way. So, how do we become “unhooked” by this series of faulty thinking? Dr. David outlines her method in her book, which I have consolidated below. 1. Accept Don’t shy away from your negative thinking. Don’t try to ignore it and “just think positively”. This will just create more tension. Accept your thoughts, acknowledge their existence, and face it head on. 2. Remember Remember that your thoughts are not facts. Now that you know what you’re thinking, remember that just because you are thinking it doesn’t mean it is true. In fact, there is a very good chance it is down right wrong (remember all those shortcuts that lead to faulty thinking?). 3. Replace Replace your negative thoughts with: A focus on the present moment A thought you know to be true, one rooted in your values Your breathing Victor Frankl, a psychologist who survived the holocaust and documented his experience in Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote: “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”. In order to perform in accordance to your goals and values you must be able to regulate your thoughts. Being able to overcome negative thinking is no easy task; it requires self-awareness, an understanding of your core values, and mental skills. If you want to learn more about how to overcome your negative thoughts and learn how to use your mind to your advantage, give me a shout. Let’s get to work.