There is usually one negative thought that precedes most of our poor play. It is the one word that we cannot afford to say because it hurts our focus. It is the evil word "don't."
Our minds are just like our coach. We only remember the last thing the coach said. So, if the coach mistakenly walks away saying, "Don't double fault," "don't walk him" or "don't strike out," it will stick in our head. Unless we can replace our focus, we will play just to not mess up and won't compete at our best.
In 1987, American social pyschologist Daniel Wegner conducted a study to find how people surpressed their own thoughts. Participants were asked to verbalize their thoughts continuously for five straight minutes and to ring a bell if they thought or verbalized a white bear. However, before the five-minute session began, the researcher gave specific instructions: try not to think of a white bear.
Wegner's research revealed that most individuals became preoccupied with trying not to think about a certain object. A meaningless object, such as a white bear, became lodged in their minds and surfaced during moments of weakness. The real world application from this experiment is more pronounced, because we as individuals can become preoccupied with more significant thoughts of don't. Worse is that, the more we try to suppress it, the more it can create a rebound effect of preoccupation.
Our focus is directly connected with our thoughts. We can't say what we don't want to happen. Instead, we must tell ourselves what we are going to do. The key is to replace the negative thoughts of don't with an instructional cue or focus on what we want to do. This keeps our focus on the future rather than past failures or things we need to avoid doing in the future.
Avoid focusing on something like, "Don't miss that shot again." If you do miss that shot, it will be much more frustrating. Do you want to score a goal? Focus on that. That's mental toughness.
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