This post was inspired by a conversation I had with an athlete this week and is shared with their permission.
We are working on increasing this athlete’s confidence and consistency. One major barrier to that has been their self-talk – the things we all say to ourselves in our own mind. Their self-talk has historically been quite critical.
Realizing we had a short turn-around between our session and an upcoming tournament this weekend, I was looking for ways to have them practice the skill of quieting their mind in everyday life between now and game time.
“Are you as critical of yourself in everyday life as you are in Ultimate?” I asked.
A knowing laugh and sheepish “yes” was the answer.
“Me too!” I said. (I don’t think they were expecting the mental skills coach to say that).
“For example, this morning when I was unloading the dishes from the dishwasher (and our son was sleeping in the next room) I banged a metal baking pan against another pan. I instantly berated myself with a harsh, ‘aw c’mon!’”
There was that knowing laugh again.
“But that was the end of it,” I said. “I couldn’t stop that first millisecond thought, but after that one thought I took a breath and emptied my mind.”
“But don’t you want to fix it?” They asked. “Isn’t the point of the criticism to help you fix the behavior and wouldn’t it be selfish not to fix it?”
“Absolutely. But who says I didn’t fix the behavior? I did: I was more careful and quiet with the rest of the dishes with a quiet mind instead of continuing to berate myself.”
This story might make me seem like I'm good at this all the time. I'm not. Quieting the critical mind is a skill, a process, and a practice. We may not always find success, we may not always remember, but the point is that we always choose to return again.
This is the choice we all have: We can continue to berate ourselves as we fix the behavior, correct the mistake, or simply carry-on with our task. Or, we can fix the behavior, correct the mistake, or simply carry-on with our task with a quiet mind. That quiet mind allows us to be in the present-moment instead of in the past. Being in the present moment is our best chance of being our best.
“But don’t some people use that self-criticism to motivate themselves?” They asked.
“Sure, we can do that. But is it the most helpful and effective motivation?” I said…answering a question with a question (my athletes get used to this overtime).
We talked through another example, this one Ultimate related: you drop a pull in a close game.
In that moment, you could think of that dropped pull and maybe the guilt you’re feeling and use that to motivate yourself to play really hard defense and work and try your hardest to ‘get the disc back’ by making a big play. And we see TONS of athletes do this…and coaches reinforce it. But that motivation can be counterproductive.
If you're over-amped and working so hard to make a big play to get the “D” – you might be thinking about poaching the lane and let your cutter get away from you. Or you might be thinking so much about redeeming yourself with a hand-block causing you to over commit on a fake and give up an easy around.
If you were able to let-go of that mistake, quiet your mind, and play in the present moment you would be more likely to be focused on playing your best defense in that moment. You'd probably stay more focused on your cutter and stay truer on your mark…which is what your team actually needs from you in that moment.
I wanted to share this quick story because I think a lot of people are in this boat together. We think that being critical of ourselves can motivate us to fix the behavior or the mistake we made. Perhaps that’s true, but couldn’t we also fix the behavior or correct the mistake with a quiet and gracious mind? How would life be different if that’s how we operated?
The point sank in for my athlete. “I feel like that’s a big life change to make,” they said sort-of jokingly.
So often when I work with athletes on their mental game in sport, we also end up talking about their mental game in life. If you train your brain to think in a certain way all day every day, how can you expect it to think differently on a moment’s notice?
That couldn’t be more true of a critical mind. Learn to quiet your mind in daily life and the skill will transfer to the moments that matter.
JOURNAL WORK: Learning to quiet the critic
When you make a mistake, become aware of the critical thoughts that enter your mind. As soon as you regain control, find a way to empty your mind.
For me, I actually either say the words “blank” or “empty” to myself, take a breath, and fill my mind instead with my current surroundings. If I’m in the kitchen, it’s as if my mind becomes the kitchen. It might seem silly, but it literally takes your attention away from the self and puts it in the task or moment.
Imagine how powerful that would be if you were on the Ultimate field and your mind became the field and everyone on it and that was the only thing in your mind. That is present-moment-focus.
Quieting your mind is a skill.
Your way of emptying your mind may be different than someone else’s. You may have to do some trial-and-error to discover the best strategy for you.
Quieting your mind is a process.
Success may ebb and flow. Some days may be easier than others.
Quieting your mind is a practice.
You may not always remember, but always return again.
Question: "Are there mental warm-ups we should be doing in addition to physical warm-ups?"
I love this question.
Think about the purpose of a physical warm-up: to prepare your body for whatever you're about to ask it to do...train, practice, or compete. We know - and have normalized - the fact that our bodies need some deliberate preparation to perform optimally.
Funny thing is, while most of us acknowledge that our minds also need to be ready in order to perform optimally, we haven't normalized that our minds also need deliberate preparation.
I have two opinions/approaches/recommendations on both physical and mental warm-ups that I'll share first. Then I'll dive into a few strategies to try.
First, your physical warm-up should be what you need as an individual player to get your body ready. I know most teams have specific team warm-ups with running and plyos and mobility and stretching. All of that is good. And, each individual athlete, if they want to perform at their best, has to know which of those exercises in which order at what intensity is right for them.
My opinion is that while teams can/should run some element of a structured physical warm-up for those who need it, they should also be open to athletes who say "I need something different."
I insert this opinion on physical warm-up within the 'mental warm-up' post because ultimately, being ready physically can have a big impact on our mental readiness. Allowing individuals the time and space to do what they need to do to be ready is one small step captains/coaches/leadership can take to improve the mental performance of their athletes.
Second, your mental warm-up should be what you need as an individual player to get your mind ready. While I would say the vast majority of teams still don't incorporate deliberate mental warm-ups at all, I would also say those that do often miss the mark. Largely what I've seen is captains/coaches/leadership taking the same approach as they do to physical warm up: asking everyone on the team to do the same mental warm-up at the same time. This is usually imagery of a highlight reel, talk to your pump-up buddies, or breathe/meditate.
While these are three great go-to strategies, the trick is in encouraging individuals to customize their warm-up to incorporate them when needed (which I'll discuss more below). Now let's talk about how to improve those mental warm-ups or create them from scratch.
#1: Know your end state: what physical/mental/emotional state are you trying to create with the warm-up. I wrote a series of posts on this topic called so that I could tease-apart the details and help people understand how to identify their ideal state. "Switch On" Part 1 and Part 2 deal with identifying your ideal state and you can find those posts here and here. The general idea is: you have to know where you're trying to go if you want to get there on purpose.
#2: Develop/discover how to get there: Some athletes really like having a set routine you do the same way every time. Some athletes have bits and pieces they incorporate as needed. Some athletes discover what they need day-by-day. Interestingly enough, the world of sport psychology is rather polarized on this issue: some say you need a set routine and some say you don't. My approach is that you have to know you...How you get to your ideal state is up to you. "Switch On" Part 3 is largely about discovering and developing what you need to be mentally ready. Hint: it takes some work so you'll find most of what you need in the "Journal Work" section.
#3: Have a variety of strategies to introduce or try: Different strategies produce different results. And, sometimes a strategy that worked before doesn't work in a particular moment and you need another option. Below is a short-list of strategies to try.
Finally, as always...Train your mind like you train your body: Warming-up physically for a competition isn't the first time you've warmed-up physically. You physically warm-up for training and practice as well. So my question is, are you mentally warming-up for each of those events as well? If not, start there. Try these strategies in practice first to see what works best for you.
Let me know what questions you have from this post. And, this list of strategies is nowhere near complete. Please feel free to comment on our FB page with the mental warm-up strategies that work best for you, especially if I didn't cover it here!
Hi! I'm Piers. I am an Ultimate player, spouse, parent, and human performance coach. My passion and my profession is to help individuals and teams perform at their best through research-based mental skills, resilience, leadership and team dynamics training.
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