You Are What You Think About
It’s amazing how much self-doubt and negative thinking affect our performance and how most of our limits are self-imposed.
Teaching young dancers reveals this. Ask a group of teenagers to learn a skill for the first time and some of the responses are gasps of disbelief. “There’s no way I can do that!”
I’m often surprised by this response because young people should know everything!
But seriously, I think it’s funny that people think they are going to master a skill the first time they try it. Isn’t that why you signed up for a fitness class or hired a coach?
I am willing to bet that most people know that hard work is the key to success, but not everyone believes that principle applies to learning a new skill.
Nobody is born already good at everything.
Even “geniuses” or “prodigies” have to work hard and practice consistently.
I think the only thing that separates the “gifted” from the “ordinary” is the motivation to work at it.
If you love dancing, you will go to extra rehearsals and find ways to improve yourself. If you love running, you are out there doing it.
Bring on the Failure!
But what happens when you experience setbacks? Learning any skill requires failure, so get ready to fail just as hard as you win!
Winning and losing are both useful experiences, so stop labeling one good and the other bad. If we didn’t fail, we would have no feedback about how to improve. As adults we sometimes sell ourselves short of our potential just like kids do.
Just so you don’t think I’m picking on you, I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve wanted to do pull-ups ever since I saw this girl in my 3rd grade class get up to 20 and beat even the boys! But I went over to the monkey bars and tried to swing across, thinking I would just be able to do it. I got to 4 rungs and dropped with sore palms. Right there I decided that I was just not athletic and this girl was born that way. It never occurred to me that she practiced all the time and used her recess to get good at it. As an adult I started doing cross-fit workouts and my coach prescribed pull-ups and suddenly that hidden desire to pump those out resurfaced! But by now I had years of practice in making excuses for why I couldn’t do pull-ups. “I have skinny arms that don’t get strong.” Not surprisingly, with this kind of expectation I still have not mastered more than 3 pull-ups at once.
YES & NO BRAIN PATTERNS
So this brings us to the burning topic of the day: how do your thoughts directly affect your physical abilities? I took anatomy and physiology a few times in my life as I majored in dance and then refreshed my knowledge for personal interest. Every time we talk about nerve impulse conduction I become more fascinated with the body’s complex neuro-chemistry. I won’t go into detail about every electrolyte and neurotransmitter that goes into producing muscle movement. But I want you to know this basic fact: your brain and body are connected by lines of communication that work similar to computer code.
You have “YES” and “NO.” In order to produce subtle movements like lifting a pen, you have to have the right balance of yes/no neurotransmitters in order to recruit a small amount of motor units to accomplish the task without overdoing it. You don’t need to lift a pen with the same force that you would lift a dumbbell. So your muscles receive yes & no messages to accomplish a task. This is something you can use to your advantage in your sport with practice.
Let’s return to my still unaccomplished goal of pull-ups. I have to admit to you that I don’t follow my own advice all the time. I’m only human and I’m learning from my mistakes. I share this particular failure with you because I am still working on it. But I’ll let you in on what I say in my mind every time I want to try pull-ups. You will be shocked because I learned that I tend to blame my lack of strength in this skill on being a girl. Yup. Ask my coach and he’ll tell you that I sabotage this skill by not believing I can do it. Never mind that most of the other women in my cross-fit class can crank out pull-ups! Never mind that women get through American Ninja Warrior and impress everyone by defying the odds! “I am not talented, strong, or coordinated enough to do a pull-up.” But ask me to dance and lift people on my shoulders and I will do this without hesitating because “I am a strong dancer.” Funny how the brain compartmentalizes and contradicts. This is an embarrassing thing to admit, but I want you to see what ridiculous negative beliefs do to your goals.
So how does that negative thought influence your muscles directly? I’ll tell you that when I approach the pull-up bar I feel a sense of defeat, self-consciousness, and a physical sensation of deflating. I really feel my arms lose coordination, my head droops, the core deactivates, and I can barely jump to grab the bar. It’s like someone has shoved me down. What happened on the neuro-muscular level? My brain told my nerves and muscles to stop. So they did. Simple as that.
Now that I am working on the pull-up goal again I catch the negative response right as it starts. If I start feeling deflated as I approach the bar I pick a strong phrase that tells the truth. I know I need to practice so I picked the phrase: “Time to work, girl! Jump up! Pull up!” Tell your muscles what you want to do right before you do it. Don’t second-guess yourself. Just throw yourself into the practice and let the body learn from it. Yes, you will fail, but not as badly as you think. And then you can use that failure as feedback to improve the next attempt. I can promise you that you will do a decent job your first try if you use the positive thought process!
Talent vs Hard Work
Muscles are smart. If you practice a skill with consistency and accuracy, your muscles will commit a lot of the movements to memory so they become automatic with very little conscious effort. Think about tying shoelaces: it’s actually a complex series of movements but we can accomplish the task without really paying attention. The same muscle memory can be taught for any physical skill. Everyone has to go through the same process whether you are ordinary or a genius.
Mozart was not born a prodigy. His dad was a musician, and Mozart simply LIKED playing piano all day. He wanted it so he did it and was recognized as a genius. But really, we are no different. If you want it, do it, practice, fail, try again, get better.
Humble or Humiliated?
Culturally we may admire people who are self-effacing and humble, so we make the mistake of apologizing for everything we say or do. I saw this in my college dance classes enough that I had to make a speech about it! The students would come into class and try the first hip hop routine and before they even took one step I heard several whining protests: “I SUCK! I can’t dance. I’m not coordinated. I’m not flexible. I don’t have any rhythm.” After a few semesters of this I stopped trying to reassure them in kind ways because it’s a habit that should not be rewarded. So I would tell them that they were being unrealistic to assume they would pick up the dance on their first day. The people on YouTube practice a long time before they film themselves. So we are seeing the end result of many hours and possibly years of practice.
Humble people are confident in their ability to learn so they have no need to brag or seek attention. Humble people take action. They practice regularly and take feedback from others and their own observations with the intent to improve. They don’t get bothered too much by failure. It’s just information for them to use. On the other hand, humiliated people think their value is tied up in what they do, so any failure or long process devastates them. Humiliated people react in many different ways. Some of them vent frustration at every failure. Some silently give up. Some of them brag or compare their results with others to make themselves look good. Some of them apologize for every little mistake and never accept compliments. Humiliation is no fun and it doesn’t help you achieve your goals, so just get over yourself! Failure is part of the process of learning. Be neutral about failure. Use it as feedback, and get back to work! You’ll feel happier and more successful and you’ll inspire other people with your positive energy and hard-earned skills!
Now that we have become more aware of the “YES” and “NO” pathways our minds create through our nerves and muscles, we can start to practice meditation or visualization techniques to help improve our athletic performance.