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Say “Do” instead of “Don’t”

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Our minds are busy places. They are constantly on overload with all the sights and sounds that are consistently in our presence. In order for our minds to process the overwhelming number of stimulants that are present at any given moment, they must employ a simple trick. Our brains make sense of this chaotic world by picking out the most prominent For instance, in the sentence, “Don’t think about a pink elephant”, Our brains immediately pick out the image of a pink elephant and begin to picture it. Even though the statement was asking us NOT to think of the pink elephant, our brains picked out the biggest subject and ran with it. The word “don’t” didn’t make it into our conscious thoughts.

This is a perplexing concept to ponder when observing a youth sport competition. It seems the coaches and parents are frequently instructing the athletes by informing them of what NOT to do. “Don’t pull your head”, “Don’t drop your hands”, or “Don’t give up”. All these statements have the athletes focusing on the undesired action; pulling their head, dropping their hands, and giving up. download (1)These kids now have a prominent picture of what the coach doesn’t want them to do playing through their head.

It’s more beneficial to athletes if you explicitly tell them what you want to see. “Don’t pull your head” is better said as, “Keep your eye on the ball”. This reconstructed statement forces the athletes mind to focus on seeing the ball rather than pulling their head.
It’s a little tricky at first to reconstruct all statements from a negative focus to a positive focus, but with a little practice it can be done!

It’s common for sport coaches to ask players to eliminate “can’t” from their vocabulary and self-talk. These coaches are trying to keep athletes from engaging in negative self-talk, and hindering their performances with a negative attitude. I’m suggesting that parents, coaches, and athletes alike eliminate “don’t” from their vocabulary. Keep the instructions athletes are receiving focused on the desired action. Make sure that team goals are written out in a positive form and lack the word “Don’t”. Encourage athletes to engage in positive self-talk by keeping their minds focused on where they want to go.

Imagery is one of the most researched strategies in sport psychology. Research suggests that envisioning success leads to success. Eliminating the word “don’t” from parents’, coaches’, and athletes’ vocabularies will assist athletes in envisioning success, and will lead to more successful performances. Say “Do” instead of “Don’t”.


About smarcia12

I am a special education teacher who also holds a MA in Sport Psychology.

3 responses »

  1. I once coached a player who constantly said negative things about her own play – “I DON’T think I can do it”, or even worse, “I CAN’T do it”. I asked her if she would try to refrain from ever saying those words again, and her response was “Sure coach, I DON’T see why I CAN’T!” Sorry, old joke, but I just couldn’t resist.

    Sarah, you are absolutely 100% correct in your assessment. Positive feedback is extremely invaluable – and severely underused – in coaching, in business, in human interactions in general. Well played, Sarah.

  2. Steve Sidoti

    Hi all,
    I’d like to add a critical component to the “do” or “don’t do” discussion….it is extremely important to not just use do or don’t, but to also detail the “why”. When students understand the why, they can better understand the consequences of any action.
    Also, just a fun tidbit on coaching teams – after each game, we ask each player two things……what did a teammate do in the game that was really impressive or cool, and what could the player who is speaking have done better. The girls love to compliment each other, and they also quickly lose their shyness on criticizing their own “growth areas”. This is a wonderful team building exercize!


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