Mind Games: How training the mind like we train the body can enhance them both.
This article originally appeared in the December issue of Our Game Magazine. Subscribe now.
[Sidelines] The idea of athletes training their brains as well as their bodies is far from a new concept. But only recently did I start to understand just how much studying sports psychology and applying some of the tools could help me take control of my game, and my life. I had to understand the workings of the mental game in order to stop losing it. I found that using my mind to study my mind actually allowed me to free my mind!
Psychology classes in college opened the door; reading Gary Mack’s Mind Gym set the table, and the process of learning Vedic meditation all made welcome some beneficial principles. But it was a revelation of “mindfulness” that made it all click. Mindfulness is non-elaborative, non-judgmental attentive awareness of the present moment in which each thought, feeling, or sensation is acknowledged and accepted as it is. In essence, mindfulness is acknowledging each stressful thought and accepting that we cannot control this intruder. By actively refocusing, we can strip stressful thoughts of their power to dictate our lives. The lessons are simple and well worth learning!
At the beginning of my interest in sports psychology, I came to understand the importance of making performance goals – goals that compare me to only me – rather than outcome goals – goals that compare me to others. Performance goals are in my control. Focusing on the things I can control is where I thought I could find my mental strength.
So, on the field, when I start to hear the self-doubt in my head that stems from outcome goal anxiety – if I don’t score, [fill in the blank] is going to take my spot – I get angry at myself and begin the self chastising. I begin by yelling -- Don’t think about this Christen!” In the middle of all this chaos, the game is going on. Perhaps I have lost track of my position on the field, of the ball, or of my teammates. Trying to coach myself into positive thinking consumes all of my attention, taking it away from the most important task at hand: playing football.
Yes of course, I want to think positively about myself, especially during a game. I’d pick confidence as the single most important factor for success. But my mistake is the emotional reaction to my natural stress and worries. By not accept that sometimes I am simply going to have doubts and by getting angry at myself for this, I give power to the negative and remain distracted from the actual goal for longer periods of time.
I thought my mental strength as an athlete would result from positive thinking. I was wrong. I thought that if I drowned out my fear and frustration with louder positive thoughts, I could trick myself. Again, I was wrong. I can, however, bring mindfulness onto the field! Repression is not the answer. Acceptance is. My power as an athlete grows from maximizing my refocusing speed, the same way my power as a person grows. Just as in meditation practice: a negative distraction? Deep breath, get back to my mantra... negative thought in my game? Deep breath, get back in the game!
Mindful Lesson #1 Let’s take it outside!
One of the hardest aspects of the mental game is fear. I once described fear as a twisted torch, simultaneously igniting the heart and scorching the soul as it leads the way. Sometimes taking control means letting go. Like flickering flames, soccer’s precarious nature can be unnerving. There have been plenty of times in my career that I’ve felt that I have played a good game, but was unable to ignite my team and we lost. On the other hand, there have been times that I was not exactly smokin’ yet the ball "bounced off my shin guard" and into the back of the net, yielding a win, and setting the crowd on fire. I am trying to embrace the unpredictable properties of this sport. They are, after all, what make it so hot! It does, however, take more than time to tame a fire. It takes patience, persistence, and, yes, power to tame my fears. A certain level of insecurity is good. I know that to play football the way I want, I have to use this fire for fuel. A mindful athlete does not battle fear – fighting fire with fire—but rather faces and voices it. As a forward, I fear missing the game winning shot… rationally, I know that I will survive the disappointment. How many times have I already done this? And yet, this thought can still emotionally cripple me. Sports psychologists say that my overreaction to this fear is due to compressed time. My real fear is actually a string of insurmountable fears: What if I never score again? I’ll probably be released from my team in six months time. I’ll move team to team… I’ll have to move back in with my parents and start searching for a new career. I’ll have to go back to school, but grad school is so expensive, so I’ll take out student loans and go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt…
To apply mindfulness to this situation before it and I spiral out of control, I go to my room and light a candle. I close my eyes and I tell myself the words I’ve run from for most of my life. I will choke. I will fail. I will let the team down and we will lose. And… I WILL NEVER, EVER SCORE ANOTHER GOAL. In my head, I make those thoughts as close to experiencing their reality. I imagine the faces of my teammates, the smell of the pitch’s wet, rainy grass, the sound of the disappointed crowd.
Now… perhaps you’re thinking that this is the big, climactic moment where I turn it all around in my head. But no, there is nothing more to it. With a mindful approach, I simply open my eyes, blow out my candle, and return to my usual activity: these days probably making hummus or watching Scandal. In doing so, I’m teaching my body that my fears have no power over my life. I acknowledge my angst, of course I’m scared, the stakes are high, I accept my reservations, but by simply moving on, I’m taking away their supremacy. Going back to normal life just after imagining the fruition of my biggest fears teaches me that winning or losing… choking or zoning… scoring or not scoring… life will go on.
Mindful Lesson #2 Get A Room!
The more I learn about life and football and psychology, the more I realize so much of humanity operates out of consciousness. When I’m nervous for a big date, my automatic (yet archaic) response system prepares me to face a lion. My body receives a trigger—apprehension—and then reflexively begins preparing for potential combat. Well, hopefully I’m not actually going to run into any lions, so this prewired fight or flight condition is way over the top.
A mindful athlete retrains the brain to respond appropriately during sport. Using the ABCs of mindful psychology, we can see how an “untrained” brain works:
A) My Automatic initial response to a mistake on the field: You’re the worst Christen!
B) My reactionary Behavior in an attempt to make myself feel better: the thought, No!! Christen, be positive! You’ll get it next time.
C) My Consequence: Temporarily relief.
Earlier I discussed how this inner monologue could distract me from the game. But perhaps what causes more harm is that throughout this process of: errorànegative thoughtà positive combative thoughtà relief, my brain is learning. It learns that to achieve my temporary relief, I need positive self-talk. It also learns that to achieve this relief, I need the combination of negative thinking followed by positive thinking. It always goes back to Pavlov’s dogs! (And by that I mean the discovery of classical conditioning in which Pavlov observed that by ringing a bell and then presenting food, the dogs began to salivate at the sound of the bell.) Just as the dogs began to salivate before the actual presence of meat, a footballer begins to enter this negative thoughtà positive thought cycle even before something has gone wrong on the field.
While we cannot control the automatic initial response (this we just accept), the mindful athlete steps out of the cycle by removing the reinforcement. Instead of the reactive positive thought, which puts all attention on feeling better, we simply let go and put attention back on the game.
Mindful Lesson #3 Let the dogs out already!
You don’t need to be spiritual be mindful. Mindfulness is an innate, though often dormant, capacity we all possess. I know first hand the positive impact it can have on playing football but more importantly I am starting to realize the benefit in my everyday life as well. To cultivate mindfulness is to activate our inner power to be happy…and who couldn’t use a little more of that?