Are you sitting comfortably?

Good, then I'd like to tell you a story, or rather I'd like to talk about story telling and the impact it can have on performance. In our last article about fear (which you can read here) we touched on the thoughts-feelings-actions model.

The thoughts-feelings-actions model tells us that our behaviours are shaped by the feelings we have which are in turn shaped by the thoughts in our heads – whether we have put them there or someone else has put them there for us.

Psychologist and author Carol Dweck, one of the leading researchers into the motivation behind success and mastery, undertook an experiment to test the power of thoughts. She took 400 students and gave them a simple puzzle. Afterwards, each of the students were given six words of praise.

Half were praised for their intelligence: "Wow, you must be really smart!" The other half were praised for effort: "You must have worked really hard!"

Dweck was seeking to test whether these simple words, with their subtly different emphases, could make a difference to the student's mindsets. The results were remarkable. After the first test, the students were given a choice of whether to take a hard or an easy test. 67% of the students praised for intelligence chose the easy task - they did not want to risk losing their "smart" label. But 92% of the effort-praised group chose the tough test - they wanted to prove just how hard working they were.

Then, the experiment came full circle, giving the students a chance to take a test of equal difficulty to the first test. The group praised for intelligence showed a 20% decline in performance compared with the first test, even though it was no harder. But the effort-praised group increased their score by 30%.

The results of this simple experiment show us the power of story telling, each group believing the story it was told, which led to very different thoughts and consequently very different behaviours.


Negative Thinking

It must be noted at this point that having negative thoughts is entirely normal, there isn't an athlete or performer in the world who hasn't had a negative thought at some point in their careers: “What if I miss this putt?”, “If I don't score this penalty I'll let the team down?”, “What if I forget my lines?” “If only I'd done...”

But negative thoughts need not have a negative impact on performance.

“Elite psychology is simply being able to accept your current thoughts/emotions and maintain focus on the task at hand.”

The first step towards acceptance is to help the performer become aware of their thoughts – where does their attention go at key times? Once a performer starts to become aware of where and when their focus shifts, it is possible to create some interventions to help them bring their focus back to “the now”.

The most simple of these is to have the athlete tell themselves a different story when they recognise a negative thought pop into their heads. So “What if I miss this penalty?” becomes reframed as “When I score this penalty”, “Did you see how well she is playing” could be reframed as “Nobody has put more effort into training than me”. Combining this technique with visualisation of success in the task is an incredibly powerful tool to aid a performer in shifting their thinking. This does require practice, as it may not come naturally for many people, they may need prompting by a coach or colleague to recognise their thought patterns and tell themselves a different story – the more this is practiced, the more natural it becomes.

It is also vital that the performer doesn't rush into the task. In our article Under Pressure (which you can read here) we looked into the effects of pressure on performance and the effects of adrenaline. Negative thoughts can quickly lead to feelings of anxiety and stress and so can trigger the adrenaline response, by taking time out and shifting focus we can help counter these effects.

Commander Mark Devine (US Navy Seal) uses a technique he calls “the fish tank” to help clear his mind of negative thoughts and refocus. Close your eyes and picture a fish tank with a little goldfish swimming around, except you cannot see the goldfish because the water is dark and cloudy. Now, take a slow, deep breath in, hold and then slowly exhale. With each breath you take the fish tank gradually becomes clearer, until after 5 or so breaths the water is crystal clear and you can see Seb swimming around (my first pet goldfish was called Seb, feel free to name yours whatever you like).


Write your own headlines

The same techniques can be used post event also. To take an example from my own sport of tennis. I frequently debrief athletes at tournaments after matches, helping them reflect and tease out the learning for future training. After a tough loss it is common for the athlete to lose objectivity and condemn themselves based on the result alone – essentially saying “I lost so I must be rubbish”.

Through the course of our conversations I will often try to steer the athlete to telling themselves a different story of events. Initially their version of the story might go “I should have won because I made chances and didn't take them because I got nervous, my first serve was off so I could only hit with more spin and he kept hitting the corners so I could only just scramble balls back in play”.

On the face of it and to the athlete that's a pretty negative version of events, so we work to tell an alternative version of reality. With some questioning and further reflection we might get to: “I'm pleased with the number of chances I created, but I need to work on controlling my nerves so that I make sure I can take them, I didn't miss a second serve so no double faults and I worked really hard to cover the court and get balls back in play so that I didn't give away free points with errors”.

We now have a more positive, development focussed version of reality. Nothing about what happened, the actual event, has changed, only the story the athlete is telling themselves.

In some cases I have had great success asking an athlete to write me a newspaper headline for the story of their match. If the headline is outcome focussed or particularly negative, I will simply respond with “Nope, nobody will want to read that story, write me a headline that will make me want to know more”. It doesn't take long before the athlete has written 3, 4 even 5 different headlines for several different versions of the story – all from the same event. It's amazing how a simple technique like this can totally shift an athlete's ability to tell themselves a different story.


So what?

Accept that negative thoughts are a perfectly normal occurrence in all walks of life, but they needn't affect your performance. Accept that your negative thought is just one version of reality and then tell yourself a different story – a story focussed on the effort you are making and the success you are about to make of the task at hand. Take a step back, clear your mind by focusing on your breathing (or your pet fish) and see yourself achieving your task. When writing your headlines, make sure it's you holding the pen.

If you would like help with managing your thoughts for optimal performance please contact us here or leave a comment below.