Don’t think of a WHITE ELEPHANT

One of the most common red flags that I see as a mental skills consultant is when I ask an athlete “what do you truly want” and they respond with “I don’t want…”
When I hear this response – and it happens often – I stop the athlete mid-sentence, ask them to close their eyes, and say, “whatever you do, don’t think of a white elephant.”  Most will laugh, open their eyes, and report that they immediately saw a white elephant.
So what’s the point?  Many athletes are more aware of negative outcomes in their sport, like losing, getting injured, or making a mistake, etc.  Instead of focusing on positive outcomes, the tendency is to highlight what they would like to avoid.  However – as in the example of a white elephant – we see that by placing the word ‘don’t’ in front of a command, there is little-to-no change in the attentional focus of our minds.  In fact, we are just drawing more attention to a behavior that is undesirable.
When I am faced with an athlete who has an avoidance style of thinking, I know that we must get to the root – a strong and deep fear (i.e. failure, injury, letting people down, etc.).  I first teach build awareness of thoughts and emotions surrounding the undesirable outcome.  For example I would ask, “What’s the worst that could happen if you made a mistake?” and “What does it feel like to make a mistake?”
By exploring the topic, the conversation inevitably reveals that the athlete has a strong fear that is associated with strong undesirable emotions – emotions that feel so uncomfortable that the athlete would rather avoid them than accept that they are a part of their sport and performance success.
Take for example a young athlete competing at a very high level who has utilized the skills of avoidance in nearly most aspects of her sport.  From attacking to defending to receiving a pass, she is motivated to succeed out of an absolute fear that she will not amount to her dreams and goals.  And if she doesn’t amount to her dreams and goals, she cannot face the level of guilt and disappointment that will ensue.  Ultimately – and unfortunately – this style of focus causes the athlete extra stress and distracts her from attending to what she truly wants to achieve.
Identifying what you want takes guts.  You need to believe that you deserve what you want and that you are capable of achieving what you want.  And you must allow yourself to feel the gamut of emotions, including the ones associated with fears – like disappointment, guilt, and humiliation.   It is not until you accept that anything can happen – good or bad – that you are free to focus on what you want.

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