|Athletes differ dramatically
in terms of the amount of time spent thinking about and analyzing their
sport. Some of the greatest individual performers actually spend little
time analyzing things. They simply have a great deal of talent, and they
have learned that thinking too much about their performance just gets in
the way. Over-analyzing causes what we call "paralysis by analysis."
Coaches know all too well about paralysis by analysis. It's one of the reasons many great coaches weren't great athletes. Their ability to strategize and conceptualize sometimes got the better of them. For many people, the need to analyze is so strong that they have a great deal of difficulty shutting their mind off when they need to. Here's an example...
Obviously, our shooter wasn't as focused on his actual shooting as he needed to be. With his attention divided between being a critic, coach and athlete, it is not surprising that his scores didn't improve much. Rapid fire pistol shooting isn't "rocket science." The challenge is to raise the pistol, aim at the target, and pull the trigger. This particular shooter had considerable talent as a shooter but he had more talent as a coach. Trying to stop thinking long enough to practice the exact same movement over, and over, and over, was just too much. Once he finally did settle on and stick with a method for raising the pistol, he started thinking about his grip and then spent months making small changes in his grip. Each change further disrupted his rhythm, and prevented him from developing the consistency he needed to be a world class pistol shooter.
One of the reasons it's difficult for athletes to stop thinking so much is that the process of analyzing can be a powerful stress reducer. When that little voice inside your head starts mouthing off, you get so caught up in the process of evaluating what's going on that you forget about the emotional importance of the situation. This is precisely how medical personnel control the anxiety that most of us would have if we were dealing with a very sick patient. The doctor or nurse focuses attention on trying to understand and explain the symptoms and in the process is distracted from some of the stress associated with caring for a sick or injured person. This analytical thinking makes for an objective observer and keeps emotions under control.
In sport, if you have the time that a doctor has to make a decision, and if you can be as methodical as a doctor (not an ER doctor) then your analytical tendencies will likely be to your advantage. The coach on the bench has a lot more time to think and make up his mind, than the athlete who is in the middle of the action. Unfortunately, there are very few performance situations in sport that give you a lot of time to make decisions. How many sport situations give you enough control so that you can perform at your own pace?
Many athletic environments do not reward analytical thought at all. The challenge in these settings is to let go of the thought processes that interfere with instinctual reactions and take advantage of over-learned skills. This Zen-like approach is where sayings like "Be the Ball" come from. Physicians are rewarded by using their conceptual powers in two ways. They distract themselves from the stress associated with caring for a suffering patient and they are "operating" in an environment that calls for problem-solving (i.e., the performance setting matches the type of concentration they are using).
In sport, the process of analyzing may distract you from the emotional realities of the situation but the product of your thought processes might actually make your perception of the situation worse. In other words, while you are busy thinking about what is going on, you momentarily distract yourself from what is going on. The problem is that eventually your mind will tell you where you are and what is going on. When you reach this point, you may actually find that you have made things worse by figuring out how important things really are. Or worse yet, over-analyze to the point that you over-estimate how critical your situation is! . What you come up with by analyzing can sometimes be worse than the actual situation you are confronting. The product of analysis can produce more stress. This change in arousal interferes with performance.
The major league slugger who analyzes as the ball comes at him forgets how fast the ball is flying. Furthermore, he'll soon realize that a ninety mile per hour fastball just whizzed past his head. This causes arousal to go up and performance to spiral downward.
To let go of your need to analyze situations you must develop trust in two things. You must trust your technical-tactical skills and instincts, and you must trust your ability to control emotional arousal. Be careful though, analytical athletes who learn to let go in this way can go from being under-aroused (but not focused on the right things), to being over-aroused (and unable to focus at all) in a fraction of a second.
An analytical wrestler has thought about this particular match for weeks. He's convinced there is no way he can lose. He goes into the competition confident and relaxed enough to analyze his opponent's moves as the match begins. In his mind, he predicts that his opponent will respond to a move by placing his left hand around his waist. He begins his move and is so confident that he fails to react to the fact that his opponent has used his right (not his left) hand to counter. Before he knows it, our wrestler is flat on his back.
The increasing arousal associated with the sudden realization that he is in a tough match will be good, provided the wrestler can keep arousal from going too high. A moderate increase in arousal will help him focus and decrease his tendency to over-analyze. If his confidence in his ability is shaken, however, arousal will go too high, and performance will spiral down.
What can you do to keep your analytical thinking from interfering with your performance?
As with any mistake you make, the first thing to do is to be honest with yourself. You can do this by taking advantage of the same analytical skills that have gotten you into trouble! The time to analyze is now, when you are trouble-shooting performance, not when you are in the heat of battle. Honesty is crucial.
You have to honest about your level of talent and you have to be honest about the level of confidence you have in your ability to control emotions without over-analyzing. If you're like most analytical athletes, you probably are pretty honest about evaluating your level of physical skill. On the other hand, like most analytical athletes, you probably don't have a clue about your ability to control emotions when you don't analyze. This is because most analytical athletes have never shut off the analytical process long enough to find out what happens when they stop analyzing. If this applies to you, don't worry. You'll find out how capable you are of controlling your emotions and keeping them from interfering with your performance, as soon as you begin this program.
Here are the steps you are going to need to take to keep your analytical skills from becoming your Achilles heel:
Let's face it, your analytical talents have contributed a great deal to your success, not just in sport, but in life in general. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time and you're no different. One of the positive things about analytical individuals is that they learn from their mistakes. Keep this in mind as you work to improve. Your goal is to reduce the frequency with which you get into trouble because you are analyzing when you shouldn't be.
Don't worry about the little mistakes, mistakes that have no impact on the final outcome. Instead, focus on the big mistakes, the mistakes that really count. It really counts when there is no time to recover. It really counts when you only have one chance, when one mistake means you lose.
Because analyzing is a very powerful way of controlling anxiety and emotions, you are more likely to make the mistake of over-analyzing in high pressure situations. By now, you have probably developed a habit of coping with pressure by becoming even more analytical. Take some time to identify specific situations in your sport where the emphasis needs to be on reacting instinctively, on being totally focused on your environment or your opponent. In a penalty shot situation in soccer, neither the keeper nor the shooter should be in their head analyzing. Greg Louganis spoke about where his head should be in critical situations when in an interview during the Olympics he said, "If I have to think about what I'm doing on a dive, it's over, I'm already in the water."
Pick situations where even the thought of failure is upsetting. These are the situations where you are most likely to over-analyze. Select one of these scenarios to work on. One is all you need to find out how anxious you will get when you take away your analytical defense. One is all you need to discover how capable you are of controlling emotions when you allow yourself to become totally immersed in the situation.
Step 2- Learn simple breathing techniques for controlling arousal and refocusing attention.
Because there is a direct link between emotional arousal, changes in physiology, and your focus of attention, you can control emotional arousal by controlling focus of attention, breathing, heart rate, and level of muscle tension. As we mentioned, your conceptual powers are useful in situations where you don't need to react instinctively. These conceptual talents are not all that helpful when you have to trust your physical skills and talents. You need to learn some additional techniques for controlling emotions. We would like to introduce you to the concept of centering. The centering process can provide the structure you need to control emotions and to keep you from over-analyzing.
The link between breathing and emotions has been recognized for thousands of years but only recently have athletes realized how helpful they can be. It has led to the development of a variety of meditative techniques, and it is this physical and mental bridge that has given us the Eastern concept of centering; the process an athlete goes through in order to feel "centered."
You are centered, when you are in a mentally and physically optimal state to perform. When you are centered there are no distractions that interfere with your ability to focus concentration. This means that your physiological feelings, the speed with which your heart beats, the rate at which you are breathing, the level of muscle tension you are experiencing, are all consistent with your expectations for the situation. Since you are feeling the things you expect to feel when you perform well, your feelings don't distract you. In fact, they do just the opposite. They provide you with the reassurance you need to focus on the challenge ahead.
Please keep in mind that the description we've just provided of the feeling of being centered doesn't mean your level of arousal will be the same in every performance situation. It won't. What it means is that your own performance history will teach you how you feel when you perform best. Using a ten-point scale may help you start to get a handle on where your optimal arousal level is for different activities. You may like to be at a seven in one situation and a 3 in another. You use the process of centering, to adjust your arousal level so that it matches what you require for that situation.
The process of centering is easy to learn, but it takes self-discipline and daily practice to get good at it. This shouldn't be surprising, the same holds true for just about any motor skill. It's easy to learn the basics of swimming or of hitting a baseball. It takes a great deal of practice to get good enough to perform consistently under challenging conditions.
We can't tell you how many athletes begin the process of learning to center and then give-up or stop after a few tries. They either think that they have learned it or they figure that it is just too much work. Our guess is that the same thing will happen to you. We dare you to prove us wrong.
The golfer raises and lowers his or her center of mass by relaxing muscles and bending knees. The football player in the three point stance raises and lowers his center of mass by adjusting the distance between his feet and hand (the closer they are together, the higher the center of mass), and by bending his knees and/or elbow.
It's sometimes useful for analytical athletes to use the centering process to increase arousal just prior to performing. Do this by breathing from up high in your chest, by tensing muscles slightly to elevate your center of mass, and by then focusing attention externally.
If focusing on the situation causes your emotions to elevate to the point where you feel uncomfortable and your feelings become a distraction, centering will help you feel more grounded and relaxed.
At the same time, you don't want to center yourself too early. It only takes about 1/10th of a second for the physiology of your body to change in response to a thought. If you center too early and have to wait before performing, there will be a lot of time for irrelevant thoughts, doubts, worries, and frustrations to develop. These irrelevant thoughts will cause bodily changes and you would no longer be centered. The challenge is to time the centering process so that you finish your breath and finish making any adjustments the instant you need to redirect your focus of concentration to perform.
This is simpler when you are able to control the pace with which things happen. A pitcher can time his centering so that immediately upon taking his breath and making his adjustments, he goes into his windup. The hitter must try and adjust his timing to the rhythm established by the pitcher. The hitter does this by watching the pitcher and learning his rhythm. That allows him to time his breathing so he finishes as the pitcher starts his windup.
The second critical element associated with the centering process has to do with what you should direct your focus of concentration to, once you've made the adjustments in your weight distribution and center of mass. What is the most important tactical cue, and what is the most important technical cue? Your tactical cue is a personal reminder that puts the situation in a context that helps you maintain an appropriate level of arousal. The technical cue is a performance-relevant cue.
For example, a golfer knows that a match will be won or lost on a particular shot at a particular hole. If the golfer in the past has had a tendency to become tentative in situations where he needs to be aggressive, then one of the cues he would focus on as he centers would be designed to increase his aggressiveness without causing him to tighten up. For example he might remind himself to "go for it" and "accelerate the club head through the ball."
These two simple cues set everything else in motion. It becomes even simpler, if the technical cue forces the individual to behave in the desired tactical way. In the golfing example, accelerating the club head may lead to a more aggressive approach to the hole, reducing the need for a reminder to "go for it." Your goal is to set things into motion¾ to use a simple, structured, centering process to get you involved in the activity before you have a chance to start thinking too much. If you can do that, most of the time the demands of the performance situation will keep you so busy that you won't have time to over-analyze.
How do you identify the most task-relevant cues? That's where your own analytical skills come in and where your coach can help out. A good coach should be able to tell you what is most important to concentrate on. What "swing key" in golf will achieve the desired result. What simple reminder in swimming will get an athlete to increase the speed and efficiency of the turn.
Choose your cues carefully. Different words mean different things to different athletes. In the golf example we've been using, a tactical cue might be for the golfer to remind himself to "go for it." While this may work for some golfers, it might cause others to push. When this is the case, the tactical cue makes it impossible to execute technically (e.g., to accelerate the club head). For many golfers, the key to "going for it" is to relax so they can accelerate the club head. As they center, they might remind themselves to "relax and accelerate."
Over the years you have conditioned your body to respond differently to different thoughts. As you search for cues, you are searching for those thoughts that will allow you to adjust your tension levels and center of mass so they meet the technical demands of the performance situation. For additional help on selecting tactical and technical cues you might want to check out the Attention Control Training workbook for athletes.
Step 3- Identify outside resources that can support your attempts to gain greater self-control.
The higher your performance goal, and the more intense your drive and motivation, the more you're going to need the support of others to accomplish your objectives. World champions in sport don't become world champions without a lot of support. Support can come from a variety of sources:
You also need tactical support. Don't rely on yourself to automatically recognize when it's time for you to center in order to control your emotions and concentration. Until your skills at centering become highly developed, a process that takes months, you won't recognize when you are about to lose control until it's too late to do anything about it. Once you know the kind of situations you lose control in, you'll want to share that information with people who can support you by signaling you that it's time to center. A coach may be able to do this. If not, recruit a teammate, friend, or family member who can give you signals from the side lines.
Some athletes create external reminders for themselves by writing things down and taping them someplace where they will be forced to see them. A tennis player may tape something like "center — ball toss" to a part of his tennis racquet that he will look at just before he gets ready to serve.
Finally, you'll need encouragement and emotional support. Any skill you develop, whether it's physical or mental develops in a cyclical fashion. Performance goes up and down. If you continue to work hard, over time the setbacks become fewer and there is more time between them. But no one is perfect. Play the game of your life today, whatever your sport, and tomorrow is going to be a bit of a disappointment. It helps to have people who understand that and who can provide you with words of encouragement to help you keep your expectations realistic and to help you put them into perspective.
As an analytical athlete, finding and developing sources of support can be extremely difficult. One of the reasons is that most analytical athletes have trouble trusting the advice of others for any length of time. Because their own analytical skills are so highly developed, they have a built-in tendency to second guess the advice they get. Sound familiar? When you look for flaws in what others are doing or saying, you find them. As an analytical athlete, it's just too easy to be a critic. Unfortunately, being a great critic doesn't help you build the kind of confidence it takes to win.
If you can find someone you trust to help you, use your own good logic and reason to determine where and how they can be supportive. Define for yourself and for them, the limits of your willingness to follow their advice and direction. Set realistic goals for everyone. Realize that to achieve, you are going to have to give up some logic and reason and learn to have more trust and have faith in something or someone than you do right now.
Step 4- Use mental rehearsal to help focus and provide structure and to ensure that you bring in the emotion.
One of the reasons it takes so long to develop mental skills, and to develop the ability to perform at consistently high levels when the pressure is on, is because you don't have that much "real practice time." The truly great athletes don't limit their practice time to the playing field. When they aren't actually on the field, they are practicing in their mind. This mental practice can go on for hours. In fact, great athletes are working on their skills when others are doing something else (e.g., socializing).
Learning how to practice mentally is as important as learning how to practice physically. Like physical practice, you want your mental training to be of high quality. This means it must be highly focused and designed to help you accomplish a particular objective It must also be complete. To make it complete, you must try to involve all of your senses and you must make it as realistic as possible.
The actual number of times you lose control over your emotions may be relatively few. This fact alone means you won't get many real opportunities to practice. At the same time, the consequences of losing control even once can be so great that it's well worth your time to develop the skills required to keep it from happening.
The speed with which you develop that control will depend on the following:
Some athletes employ relaxation procedures to help them mentally rehearse. It's been our experience that the use of relaxation procedures isn't usually necessary. If however, you are so anxious that you can't focus, then before you can mentally rehearse you will need to learn to relax. We would recommend that you use a relaxation procedure to do this. If your level of anxiety is not that high, then all you need to do is find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed. Pick a place away from people, telephones, TVs, and other things that might interfere.
Some athletes close their eyes to rehearse because it removes possible distractions and helps them re-create a past performance situation. Others leave their eyes open and pretend that the objects around them are a part of the competitive situation. Choose whichever is best for you.
High quality practice requires you to feel and see yourself in the situation. Again, different athletes do this in different ways. For example, a basketball player might mentally and physically rehearse driving to the basket while walking down the street or through the halls on the way to class in school. Eyes are open, people and objects become opponents. The athlete actually moves her hand to dribble the ball and moves her feet and body around the imagined opponents as she drives to the basket.
That same athlete might be forced to modify her rehearsal process if she were sitting in a class room and was supposed to be listening to the professor lecture. In that situation she might have her eyes open. Mentally she might be using chairs and people as opponents. She might be moving her hands and feet ever so slightly and leaning with her body as she practiced her moves.
Later that night, in bed, the athlete may be rehearsing as she falls asleep. Here she has his eyes closed. She's visualizing the competitive scene. The muscle movements she makes will be so slight that an outside observer might not see them at all.
High quality mental practice requires
a very explicit and focused approach. This is one that involves your emotions
as well as your ability to visualize. Many athletes use scripts (written
instructions) to guide them through the mental rehearsal process. The script
should lead up to the problem, employ the intervention technique(s), and
have you rehearse a successful outcome. You can write up or record your
own script or you can enlist the help of a sport psychologist or experienced
coach. Remember, visualizing is helpful but there is no substitute
for real practice.