DO NOT THINK ABOUT A PINK ELEPHANT.
When reading a command like that, the majority of people invariably think of a pink elephant. It’s pretty unavoidable, the more we try to suppress a particular thought, the more it seems to creep back into our consciousness. Emotions work in a similar way. The ironic process theory suggests that, when cognitive load is high, trying to suppress a particular thought or emotion actually makes the thought/emotion more intense and more likely to occur (Wegner, 1994). Trying to suppress it when it is only getting stronger and stronger takes up a large amount of your cognitive capacity, and messes with your ability to concentrate on the things that matter when performing a particular task. Performance suffers, the undesirable emotions get worse, and you feel relatively helpless.
This process might explain why sport psychology interventions are sometimes unsuccessful. Traditionally, sport psychology has placed a large emphasis on self-control through psychological skills training. Some of the main techniques which are used by practitioners, such as imagery, self-talk, and relaxation, are all centred around trying to place oneself in an ideal emotional state for competition. The goal is to reduce anxiety, to increase self-confidence, to regulate arousal so you’re at that sweet spot where you’re entirely trouble-free and ready to give it 100%. The intuitive appeal of this approach is pretty self-explanatory, who doesn’t want to be able to be the master of their own mind? However, in the natural course of competition, problems inevitably occur. Perhaps your opposition is in the form of their life. Perhaps the referee makes a bad decision which gives a big advantage to your competitors. These are the uncontrollables, and they are likely to happen. When success seems to get further and further away, the majority of athletes will have a natural response of stress, anxiety, self-doubt, and so on. Trying to suppress these thoughts and feelings only makes them pervade your consciousness even more, and the chances of bouncing back and getting the win get even lower.
So what can we do to help athletes keep their control during these stressful moments? A new approach in sport psychology suggests that the answer actually lies in relinquishing control. Mindfulness-and-acceptance approaches (MAC) in sport have been adopted to encourage athletes to accept the contents of their mind as perfectly natural and non-threatening, whatever they may be. Athletes are taught, typically through meditation, to observe their thoughts and feelings without judgement or reaction, and then re-direct their attention to the things that matter, such as the movements of the opposition or their teammates. And, ironically enough, the more the athletes accept their state of mind and stop trying to exert self-control, the less trouble they seem to have with negative thoughts and emotions. When the stressful moments of sport inevitably occur, they don’t feel the need to suppress the stress, anxiety, and self-doubt which inevitably occurs, and this helps them regain their focus. Although research into these approaches is still at a relatively early stage, the findings so far suggest that enhancing mindfulness and acceptance not only increases athlete’s wellbeing, but also improves their performance (Gardner & Moore, 2012). This is not to say that there is anything wrong with psychological skills training per se – in fact, countless athletes have received benefits by applying psychological skills at the right time. However, it is also important to recognise that self-control strategies which encourage suppression are likely to fail in stressful situations, and acceptance is a much better alternative.
What can the non-athlete take from this? The same principles are relevant in everyday life, and if you’re anything like me then you’ve probably experienced some of the harmful effects of suppression. Maybe a university deadline is approaching and you’ve still got lots of writing to do, or you’re at work and being expected to deal with ten things at once. As the pressure to get things done increases you start to feel more stressed. You try to shut out the stress and focus on your work, but before long you find it impossible to concentrate on anything apart from how unbelievably stressed out you feel and how hopeless the task seems. Maybe you give up, or hand in a piece of work which you know is substandard. Again, mindfulness and acceptance can help you to deal with this stress and return your attention to the things that matter. You can learn to observe yourself getting stressed without judging it or reacting to it, and in doing so, reduce the stress. The MAC approaches in sport were actually influenced by a mindfulness stress-reduction programme in the general public, and it’s now a well-accepted finding that meditation helps people to manage their stress levels and improves their quality of life (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009). So try taking ten minutes out of each day to meditate. Nobody’s expecting you to become the Buddha any time soon, but in our fast-paced modern world it can be very useful to take a little bit of time to switch off for a bit and recharge the batteries. You can download a mindfulness app on your phone, or find some guided meditations on YouTube. Give it a go for a while – the benefits extend far beyond simple relaxation, and it might surprise you by helping you to function more effectively and meet more of the goals you set for yourself.
Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: A review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(5), 593-600.
Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2012). Mindfulness and acceptance models in sport psychology: A decade of basic and applied scientific advancements. Canadian Psychology, 53(4), 309-318.
Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, 34-52.
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About Michael Roskams
Sports enthusiast, recreational player, and current MSc student of Sport & Exercise Psychology at Loughborough University.