The Power of Words

The Power of Words – Dr. Doug Gardner

Have you ever caught yourself wondering about the meaning of innocuous words and phrases of encouragement given by fans, teammates and coaches? 

Watch Bull Durham again or simply listen closely to the types of encouragement and instruction offered to athletes the next time you are at games.  After attending too many sporting events in my career, I am not surprised why young athletes tune out and ignore adults. 

What does it mean to get a good pitch, or your pitch to hit?  How can you just trust yourself and allow your talent to take over?  Is someone really capable of forgetting a bad play, an error or a strikeout?  What about my personal favorite:  Stop thinking and just play…. Just have fun.

Have fun?  You try it sometimes. 

Try forgetting about the run-scoring double the centerfielder took away your last at-bat.  What about the borderline strike-three call you didn’t get, only to give up a big hit on the next pitch?

Is it really that easy to stay positive and stop thinking at the same time?  Especially when you are mired in a 0-10 slump? 

Despite the positive intentions, athletes often become more distracted and frustrated by words of encouragement and instruction in pressure situations, after mistakes or when negative outcomes occur. 

The hitter knows she needs to get a hit before she steps into the batters box, the pitcher wants to get you out and the fielder wants to make sure he does not make an error.

When mistakes are made, athletes are usually harder on themselves than anyone else could be.  Athletes take it personally when mistakes are made and do not like to hear someone re-stating the obvious, telling them what they should have done and that they will be ok. 

Fans, parents and coaches often forget or have not experienced the empty and hollow feeling of making a mistake in front of teammates, coaches and those who want to see you succeed?  Now add in the aspect that half the fans at a game want to see you fail, and it makes for a very difficult mental balance for the average athlete. 

Athletes are the first to understand the magnitude of their mistake and want to do something to shift negative attention away from their gaffe. 

In these circumstances, athletes tend to “try” harder, so they can make up for poor performances or mistakes.  The pitcher tries to blow a fastball by the hitter, only to get hit harder.  The hitter tries to make up for three bad at-bats by placing more pressure on themselves to get a hit in their last.  The fielder worries more about trying not to make a mistake on the next ball hit to them. 

The unfortunate side of trying harder is often met by continued poor performance, as there is no correlation between trying harder and performing better. 

Usually, when athletes try, they tense.  They tense mentally, in that they cannot input, process and analyze strategic information into action.  They tense physically, as their indecision prohibits their body from acting on decisions that were not made in an athletic and instinctive manner.

The most classic response to tension is to tell someone to relax.  Once again, word choice becomes critical.  What does relax really mean?  How does one really relax in pressure situations?  Is relaxation really the correct goal?

While I cannot discount the importance of utilizing and practicing self-regulation skills, I believe it is incorrect to solely limit mental training to (1) relaxation and (2) not thinking as goals for achieving success. 

The tension/relaxation debate illustrates the larger issues this type of thinking creates: 

The Either/Or Syndrome. 

If I am tense, I should relax.  If I think too much, I should not think.  If I care too much, I should not care.  If I do not work hard enough, I need to work harder.  If I am not relaxed, I am tense. 

My concern is when athletes need everything to be perfect for them to perform well.  Once adversity strikes, many athletes do not possess the mental fortitude to make sense of their situation, define their reality, and make decisions and take actions, win or lose.

Once consequences enter into the equation, athlete decision-making strategies change in predictable and avoidable ways.  This mostly occurs because something was not “perfect” or did not go one’s way and now they are thinking out of emotion, not out of logic and rationality.

All of the positive thinking in the world will not guarantee athletic success.   More importantly, spending time trying to be positive takes away the mental energy needed to be strategic and problem solve. 

Problem solving is a strength that most student-athletes possess in the classroom and it is important to bring this attribute onto the athletic field.

At some point, we can either try to think about something positive, breathe out of our eyelids, or take a few moments to define the reality in front of us.  The choice is yours.

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