The inner mind of the athlete

I think, therefore I can’t. Jose Aljovin via Unsplash

Why can’t I seem to be able to catch the ball when I “think fast”

If you are an athlete or you just happen to enjoy sports and exercise, you may often wonder what is going on in the mind of someone engaging in physical activity. I know as someone who works out, and as someone who performs, I feel this nagging voice in the back of my head at all times while I practice and perform my craft. When watching a sports game, you may also notice athletes showing extreme outbursts of emotion. It is hard to know what they are thinking because we cannot see inside their heads, but this article is here to help you master the inner voice in your head.

Timothy Gallewey has a theory about the inner mind of the performer. In The Inner Game of Tennis, published by Random House Trade Paperbacks in 2008, he explains that there are two opponents; the one you are competing against, and the one in your mind. Here is a scenario: you are a dancer and you have been practicing your solo routine for months. In rehearsals you’re doing great, and you are ready to perform. On the day of, you walk onto the stage and start making mistakes you have never made before. Does this sound familiar? Now, let’s replace the scenario with a basketball game. In warmup you don’t miss any shots, but when it is the last quarter it seems like you have never played basketball in your life. I could say any sport, instrument, presentation, or performance, and everyone reading this could relate, I am sure. If you don’t, I would like to meet you because I know that my mind goes blank at the worst moments. Gallewey explores the inner opponent and the reason we choke during a performance. 

Gallewey explains in chapter one that when a player has too much to think about, they tense up. I am sure you can picture it now. There have been plenty of times I am watching a baseball game and I can see the batter tense up their whole body for an important pitch. At video game competitions, you can see the concentration on the players face as they stress and choke the game. Gallewey observed this in his students and decided to experiment with trying to have the student learn by rote (learn by watching) and muscle memory. With less thoughts in their head, they only had to think about the things they did not pick up on in the first try. Here is an example closest to my heart: if I tell my piano student, “When you play this chord, think about your whole arm moving, have your fingers tense to meet the chord, think of all the right notes, and think about the bump of the piano,” they will tense up. If I have them play by rote (copying me), they can play the chord without thinking. Then, I can modify what they messed up on: “I noticed you didn’t play all the notes at the same time. Listen to the chord while you play.” They only need to think about listening to all the notes connecting at once. 

It is usually when I hear my friends say “I’m nuts” while playing a videogame that I watch them choke immediately. Before this they were playing well, but when they draw attention with statements that say “look how good I am,” they fall apart. How many athletes can relate to this statement? You are in the middle of throwing the ball during a high stress point of the game, and all of a sudden you lose your flow. 

Gallewey tackles this question in chapter two: why do we suddenly become aware and choke? He explains that there are two players in an athlete’s head: player one (the one who talks) and player two (the one who has action). Next time you are working out, playing a sport, in an exam, or performing, pay attention to the thoughts in your head. I know when I was a child in gym class, my thoughts were often: “why can’t you pass the ball!? The person is right there,” or ”keep that up and no one will pass to you again.” It was always a judgment on if a move was good or bad. Gallewey explains that this makes the player flustered, and therefore they lose their flow. 

So, fellow athletes, performers, and people who experience test anxiety, how do we fix this problem? Gallewey says we need to stop seeing an action as good or bad, and just see it as neutral. I will use my third-year recital as an example: I was performing a Beethoven sonata, and all of a sudden it seemed like the left hand was falling away from me. I thought, “I am slipping up. Skip this bar,” and I recovered instantly. I didn’t see it as a mistake, so I stayed in the flow. Later in the recital, I messed up the first bar of my Debussy piece, and my brain thought, “When my friends hear this, they will know I messed up.” When you watch the recital back, you see the disdain on my face.

So, what can us athletes and performers take away from this? If you are an athlete yourself, try practicing what Gallewey has said. During practice when there is less pressure, don’t think “I messed up that shot so bad, I am awful.” Say something like “I missed,” and move on. If you’re going for a run, don’t think “I am so slow, I shouldn’t run ever again.” Think “I am a bit slower today.” When we observe and approach ourselves with less judgment, it is much easier to stay in the flow. I know, and I am sure you know as well, when you choke something that seems easy, it is often the opponent in your head calling the shots. Go forth and explore, and become a better athlete by exercising the mind.


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