This is the one step you can't avoid in order to go from frustration to mastery, and it's very often neglected.
You’re on the court. The ball approaches rapidly and, after getting into position, you hit it. It’s a miss. A fault. A loss. Then the self-criticism begins. “That was a terrible shot!” you tell yourself. “How could you be so careless!” Soon the ball returns and this time you want to hit it just right. “Stand at an angle just shy of facing it, and lead your stroke all the way through,” you remind yourself as your mind fills with a plethora of other instructions about the proper technique and form. It’s overwhelming, so your muscles become tense and your position awkward. As a result, you miss again. Now your self-criticism is even worse, so you repeat the process with increasingly bad results and frustration. "You're the worst player ever..."
Does this sound familiar? Well, we’ve all been there. Virtually everyone who has ever tried to play a sport has find themselves in a similar situation. Yet many get stuck in it, ignoring that they can break this vicious cycle. People generally either dismiss the experience as “having a bad day” and move on (though the situation returns before long), or they become pessimists and quit, as they assume they’re simply not good enough.
Some attempt to overcome the issue by trying very hard to learn the proper technique: they pay trainers and practice mechanically. But according to Tim Gallwey, best-selling author and professional coach, the main issue for any player is not a lack of proper technique. Rather, the problem is focusing too much on instruction and criticism instead of being aware of what is happening on the court. Technique is important, but in order to excel at any sport we need to have a clear head during a game or activity; and for that we must learn, first and foremost, to let go of our tendency to judge ourselves (and our actions) as either good or bad.
Gallwey puts it this way. Whenever we engage in self-criticism, it’s as if there were two people there: one, Self A, who does the criticizing; and the other, Self B, who receives it. Imagine someone spouting instructions and insults at a player. “How could you miss such an easy shot!”, “step back and hit the ball right!”, “you’re a terrible player!”. We would find that scene unpleasant, unfair and unhelpful. Yet it’s not uncommon for us to do just that against ourselves. If it’s unfair for someone else to do it, it should be unfair for Self A to do it to Self B.
In his seminal book, The Inner Game of Tennis, Gallwey points out that engaging in this kind of behavior is nothing but counterproductive. By thinking in terms of good and bad, we produce a situation where too much pressure distracts us from the one thing we must be doing: playing well. Players often lose a match because they were psychologically exhausted; they get too much in their heads and lose motivation. And how could they not if there’s someone, Self A, constantly shouting at them how worthless they are?
The most important thing to do to excel at any activity is to break this habit. In order to do this, Gallwey suggests taking three basic steps: 1) get the clearest possible picture of our goals, 2) trust our bodies (Self B) as much as possible to learn from both success and failure, and 3) look at our actions objectively, limiting our attention to descriptions of what’s happening rather than judging the situation in terms of how well or how badly it happened.
So next time you miss a hit, instead of going straight into judge mode, try to simply describe what happened by using purely neutral terms. For example, if the ball went wide, just describe by about how much it was off, focus on what your body is doing, and then visualize the ball going in before attempting the next hit. Don’t give yourself instructions or advice or criticism. In short, we must quiet Self A and let Self B do the work.
This also means stopping “positive thinking”: you must stop judgment altogether, even if it's positive, so you can focus entirely on the action. According to Gallwey, whenever we start thinking in terms of good and bad in any activity we're at risk of getting sucked into a whirl of emotions that'll make us lose awareness. When we hit the ball right and pat ourselves in the back, we've set the stage for the possibility of disappointment. The pressure will be on; we'll want the self-compliment again and we'll feel bad if we don't get it. It's best to remain neutral as much as possible.
And sure, it's easier said than done, but an important first step in order to achieve this is to become aware of the value of neutrality and the dangers of self-judgement. Keep this in mind the next time you're on the court. Practice neutrality and you'll become better at it. That way, you'll see your performance improve and the path will be clear for achieving excellence. Even if you can't be entirely neutral straight away, whenever you catch yourself engaging in self-criticism you can simply stop and actively think of a description instead of an evaluation. That'll get you started.
Gallwey’s ground-breaking approach to coaching opened the doors to the increasingly popular profession of corporate coaching, which takes the basic insights from The Inner Game and applies them to the world of business. Today, coaches from all over the world follow Gallwey’s principles. It's been a few years since Gallwey's book was first published, but it's as useful now as it was back then. And it’s certainly worth keeping its seemingly obvious (yet often neglected) advice in mind. Simply put, excellence is best (and most easily) achieved by taking this step in whatever activity you perform.
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