Whatever you do, DO NOT think of a pink elephant…

I walked across a University campus last week following a sport psychology consultation with an elite athlete. As I walked, I reflected on how the session had gone and started thinking about some of the psychological skills we had been working on. This particular athlete was more inclined than others to be negative in his thinking. We had spent some time during that session focusing on the use of positive self-talk and the reframing and the countering some of his common examples of negative self-talk. The athlete had talked about the preparation for his race and explained that he worried about what might go wrong, that he may tire too early in the race, that he may false start, that he may fall behind his competitors, and that he was scared of disappointing his coach. We discussed the link between his thoughts and subsequent behaviours and started to counter some of his more irrational thoughts. For example, we talked about the number of times he had false started, which he admitted was none, and resolved that the concern had little value other than to create a negative state of mind and, more importantly perhaps, by focusing on false starts he was increasing the likelihood of them occurring.

As I reached my office, I saw a sign scribbled hastily on the side of a cardboard box propped up against a railing . . . “Wet paint – do not touch” it said. The child inside me took over from the sport psychologist; it took all my willpower not to touch the railing, just to check. Was the paint really wet? Until that point I had not been aware of any desire to walk over to a random railing and touch it. Where did that urge come from?

It made me think back to some other instances where I had noticed the ubiquitous use of the word NOT or DON’T when giving instructions. As part of a recent observation of a gymnast who was struggling with a ‘mental block’ on some of her moves, I noted that her coach told her: “don’t stand for too long”, and “don’t worry, you are not going to fall”. The effect on the gymnast was immediate and powerful. She paused before her move, looked at her feet, shuffled and paused again, and she looked frightened and concerned. In both of these examples the coach was effectively creating negative self-talk in the gymnast’s mind – she was thinking about standing for too long and was worrying about falling. It is possible that without the instructions the gymnast would have executed her move quickly without fear of falling. In swimming one of the habits that coaches detest is seeing their swimmers breathe on the first arm pull after a turn. I have heard many coaches bark at their swimmers: “don’t breathe out of your turn” and observed the swimmer nod dutifully and accordingly breathe on the very first stroke. The use these negatively framed statements is two-fold. On the one hand it primes the athlete to think negatively, to worry about making a mistake, and it does little to assist the athlete in identifying the correct desirable behaviour.

So, as good practice coaches should try to frame their coaching instructions in a positive manner; tell your athlete what you want them to rather than what you don’t want them to do. In the examples that I have come across, the gymnastics coach could have encouraged her athlete to “start your move as soon as your feet are in place”, and “you are going to be steady and stick it”, and the swimming coach could have encouraged “three strokes before you breathe after each turn!” Using these positively framed instructions as opposed to the negatively framed statements will start to encourage positive thinking and to reinforce the desired behaviours in athletes. And whatever you do, don’t think about the pink elephant.

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