Intent Trumps Content: Learning the “True” Positive

Vic Braden legendary tennis teacher to the masses heralded in “laugh and win” tennis.  Personally, I’m not much for hit and giggle tennis nor am I a preacher of unreserved, unrelenting, and unreal positivity, but there is something to be said about a good chuckle every now and again.

At this time, rather than focusing on a “positive attitude,” I would like to focus on the idea of laughing at ourselves.  A good laugh at one’s self is often a nice sign of self-awareness and a nice first step towards behavior change.  I will suggest this idea might even shed some light on the quality and impact of self-talk (a.k.a. our internal dialogue).

The coach or sport psych professional that pleads with a player to “be positive” is not terribly wrong, but certainly is not particularly helpful (it’s like a parent asking a teenager to clean his/her room).  To often “true” positivity is misunderstood and the player habituates to the teacher’s pleading, tuning out the message.  Contrary to pop psychology wisdom, there is evidence showing that a bit of pessimism can be beneficial to one’s well-being and blind positivity actually being detrimental.

In competition, I wonder, what’s wrong with a little negative as long as it is followed by a laugh and lightbulb moment.  Surely this could be a slippery slope, as verbal self-abuse is easy to conjure up, seems somewhat cathartic, and too often just leaves one bitter.  However, a mature chuckle to let go of a bad play or bad idea can be of great benefit.  Especially when followed by a bit of learning, refocused attention, and re-harnessed energy this is a true “positive.”

So it is time to consider the positive versus negative nature of self talk.  Just like when engaging in active listening, the focus ought not to be simply on the the content of the language, but rather is intent (and ultimately if its emotion is facilitative or debilitative).

Consider examples of two fictitious golfers:

Golfer A follows making a shot at a “sucker pin” that leaves the ball having rolled down a hill behind the green and into a pond with, “You idiot,” followed by a scowl, a death-grip on the club for the next shot, and is stubbornly aggressive for the next few swings.

Golfer B follows a shot at a “sucker pin” that leaves the ball in a green side bunker with, “You idiot,” followed by a self-effacing smirk and a decision to aim for the center of the green in the future.

Golfer B might have just shaved a stroke or two from the round while golfer A certainly added at least couple.

Many years back, I watched a champions tour tennis player miss a passing shot by a few inches, then heard him shout, “That’s ?+@!#*$ risable!”  The content of the language on this one was close to right (grab a dictionary and track down “risable” if necessary), you can imagine the intent and consequence were a bit off.  It was just frustration, with little learning from the missed shot or mental/emotional preparation for the upcoming point.

Perhaps the real question is, “Can you laugh for real when the pressure is on?”  A smile and light laugh is certainly a good tension breaker and if done with humility will lead to a lot of insight.

In A Quick 9 for the Mind I suggest:

The laughs should be laughs of learning – appreciating the “ah ha” moments and the, “I guess I won’t try that again,” wisdom.

Vic Braden is a smart guy and is likely onto something with his commitment to laughing.  I’ll add that laughing at one’s self with humbleness and a learning attitude is a great performance enhancer.


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