When a player is struggling majorly, with her back against the wall and it seeming impossible to play well, that player is deemed TOUGH if she continues to fight and uses her tools to get out of the hole. We’ve all got tools – some of us more than others – but the mentally untrained athlete seems to constantly forget to use them in times of need.
Two of the basic tools we’ve all got at our disposal are self-talk and body language. The training research is clear: “powerful” self-talk improves strength on such measures as the hand grip test, while “weak” self-talk diminishes strength. “Dominant” body posture tends to enhance strength, while “submissive” posture weakens it.
The words we choose to use, and the manner in which we choose to physically carry ourselves both have remarkably influential effects on performance.
Let’s run an experiment, together, focusing on using key words to enhance throwing (or hitting, or shooting, depending on your sport) accuracy. Choose a basic movement found in your sport – a golf put, a basketball free throw, a baseball throw from a distance of 15 feet, a tennis volley. The task is to throw (or hit, etc.) the ball into a small target about 15 feet away. The closer to the bullseye you get, the more points you rack up. Read the following sets of instructions:
1) for the first 10 attempts, have a key word or phrase in your mind that you believe promotes accuracy (i.e., target, control, in the middle, bullseye, nice and easy)
2) for the next 10 attempts, don’t think at all, but rather put your attention on something outside of your thoughts. Because we’re usually focused on what’s going on in our minds, it’s easy to forget we have the ability to concentrate on external things, too. (i.e. the ball itself, specific targets, our bodies, the feel of the throw as it’s leaving our hand). Paying attention to these external things is not thinking; rather, it’s noticing, or observing, or feeling. Not thinking. Big difference.
As is always the case, some of the players responded much better to the thought group, while others responded better to the no-thought group. You might find that you prefer the no-thought group, as do the majority of athletes who experience this activity. After all, when you ask a golfer what she was thinking after having played remarkably, the answer is typically, “uhh, I dunno, I was just doing it!” Occasionally thinking, and especially overthinking, can get in the way of smooth and fluid movement (hence “paralysis by analysis”). Players can work on this by actively shifting their attention onto external things / sensations and away from their thoughts.