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.
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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