You’d be forgiven for wondering how on earth polar bears are relevant to mindfulness in sport psychology.
Let me explain.
Why thought stopping doesn't work
Every coach knows that for top performance, athletes need to concentrate and focus, to pay attention to the task at hand. Paying attention is a complex process involving memory, attentional flexibility, flow, managing arousal and focus.
To help athletes focus their attention (and also manage anxiety or maintain confidence) the technique of thought stopping has been taught over many years. The idea behind thought stopping was, when negative thoughts came into our heads, they must be removed or replaced with positive thoughts. We were told to “Leave the thought at the side of the court” or “Don’t think about x, y or z” so we could get on with the game in hand.
But, if when it mattered, you have always never really managed to stop those pesky unhelpful thoughts, you are in good company.
To understand why, try the white bear experiment:
Verbalise your stream of thoughts for five minutes, while trying not to think of a white bear. If a white bear comes to mind, put a cross on a notepad. Then go back to your thoughts whilst avoiding thinking of a white bear.
This simple experiment was run by psychologist Dr Daniel Wegner at Harvard University. And despite the explicit instruction to avoid it, Wegner found that participants thoughts of a white bear more than once a minute, on average. They couldn’t not think of that big furry polar bear!
And worse still, trying to supress our thoughts makes them more pronounced. In a second experiment, Wegner found that by supressing thoughts for the initial five minutes caused them to rebound even more prominently in participants minds later on.
So if thought stopping doesn’t stop unwanted thoughts, what can you do to focus, concentrate and build attention?
Develop the skill of mindfulness
One very effective way is to develop the skill of mindfulness – the mental state of awareness, focus and openness. Being mindful allows you to fully engage in what you are doing moment by moment, so that your thoughts and feelings have much less of a hold over you. In fact, mindfulness might seem counter-intuitive – it requires us to focus on, pay attention to or bring our awareness to our unwanted thoughts, feelings and sensations – to literally notice them, rather than try to stop them.
The basic tenet of mindfulness is very simple.
· Notice your thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories
· Let your thoughts come and go
· Let your feelings be.
When you practice mindfulness, when challenging thoughts arise, you simply acknowledge them, and let them come and go like passing cars. Again and again you’ll get caught up in them. And as soon as you notice them, gently acknowledge, note the thought that has distracted you and bring your attention back to your current activity.
In sport, the critical thoughts are just like the white polar bear. They can appear, whoever we are and whatever our level of achievement. The good news is, by learning the skill of mindfulness, the white bear can be given some space, so we can notice and name when that great hulking white beast comes into our head. And then go back to re-engage with what we are doing and our performance in our sport.