Your Mind Isn’t Always Your Friend

Consider how different animal species react to threats: A turtle goes into its shell. A cheetah runs.  A skunk sprays.  A porcupine exposes its quills.  A chameleon changes color.  They do this instinctively, as a survival mechanism.  Every animal has its “thing.”

When we humans feel threatened, we worry.  The difference is, while a turtle can’t choose to go against its instinct, we can.  We can decide when the worry our mind creates is helpful or hurtful.  The question we must ask ourselves as athletes, then, is “Is what my mind telling me helping me move in the right direction or the wrong direction?”

Take this example, one that comes from the modality of therapy based partly in mindfulness called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): tap your head for 45 seconds while saying out loud, “I can’t tap my head.” Then, think to yourself, with as much belief as you can muster, “I can’t tap my head”, while continuing to tap your head.  For many of us, it’s enlightening to say one thing and be able to do another.  Ultimately, who do you trust, your thoughts or your experience?  Well, our experience is always accurate, while our thoughts can distort, or simply not reflect, reality.  Saying “my forehand is terrible today” or “I just don’t have it today” is likely an inaccurate and distorting statement that, if we believe it & become attached to it, will continue to affect our performance for the rest of the day.

Curiously, there are some of us whose head-tapping became “worse” with enough repetitions of “I can’t tap my head.”  (Many of us are naturally influenced by our thoughts. After all, Horace Mann once said “If an idiot were to tell you the same story every day for a year, you would end by believing it”.) It’s these people who must work even harder to disconnect from our thoughts.

Here’s another activity from ACT: we called it “Take Your Mind For a Walk.” Try this with a friend.  Partner up, and follow these  instructions:

Before we start today, it is important for us to identify everyone who is in the room. By my count, there are four of you in every group: Person 1, Person 2, Person 1’s Mind, and Person 2’s Mind. Let’s see how much time we spend fending off our minds. To do this, I want us to do a little exercise. One of us will be The Person; the other will be that person’s Mind. We are going to go outside for a walk, using a special set of rules:

  • The Person may go where he or she chooses; the Mind must follow.
  • The mind must communicate nearly constantly about anything and everything: describe, analyze, encourage, evaluate, compare, predict, summarize, warn, cajole, criticize, and so on.
  • The Person cannot communicate with the Mind
  • If the Person tries to talk to the Mind, the Mind should intervene and say, “Don’t mind your mind!”
  • The Person should listen to the mind without minding back and go wherever the Person chooses to go.

After at least 5 minutes – and the Mind will monitor this – switch roles. The Person becomes the Mind, and the Mind becomes the Person. The same rules will apply for another 5 minutes.

Most people are unable to ignore their “minds”.  And most importantly, ask yourself how much useful stuff their “mind” said; the answer is almost always, “nothing.”  The mind typically doesn’t have much useful stuff to say during the course of a day. Consider some ideas as to how this idea can help them in your own sport: would you benefit from detaching from certain thoughts? From trusting (and focusing more on) your body & movement while engaged in your sport?,  From connecting more with the ball / targets than with your internal dialogue?  There are other, potentially more helpful, place to put your attention than on your own thoughts.

Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP

Greg Chertok
About the Author:

Greg Chertok. Greg Chertok, M.Ed, is the founder of New York based Chertok Performance Consulting. Greg specializes in sport and exercise psychology with experience working with athletes and coaches ranging from youth to professionals. Greg’s list of clients includes high performance athletes, high school & NCAA champions, Super Bowl champions, Stanley Cup participants, and Olympic athletes. His expertise and knowledge is evident through his contributions to various publications including the Wall Street Journal, CBS News, Runner’s World Magazine, Women’s health magazine, and the Chicago Tribune, among many others. Greg has also been featured as a sports psychology expert on multiple radio shows, including National Public Radio (NPR), SiriusXM’s “Doctor Radio”, Healthradio’s “Sports Medicine & Fitness Show”, CaptainU radio, and Voice America’s “Enter the League”. ”. Greg is a Certified Consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) as well as a Personal Fitness Trainer.