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 things. 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. 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”.