I was working with an athlete last week, let’s call her “Elizabeth”. Liz, for short.
Liz, she is awesome, and always driven to do things better. Most people try and want to do things better, but she’s got some fire in her belly that will keep her lifting past the end of a session to just do things a little more right.
This blessing is also a curse. My goodness, once she gets in her head there is no getting her out. She will walk up to a weight and think about everything except actually lifting it twice before she puts her hands on the barbell.
Usually this is where coaches say something like “Calm down” or “relax” or “clear your head”. If you are someone like Liz or if you have worked with someone like her, you know that saying these things do NOTHING. It’s like trying to tell someone in the middle of giving birth to “chill out”.
Ok, I have to be calm. Relax. RELAX. RELAAXXXXXXX. WHY AM I NOT RELAXING? WTF WHY AM I NOT RELAXED?!?!?! THERE’S NO WAY I CAN LIFT WITH MY MIND ACTING THIS AND I’M FAILING AND I SHOULD JUST QUIT AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH
I’m guilty of thoughtlessly throwing out cues like “relax”. Which, depending on the coach and the athlete, may not be a bad thing to say. However, I think in situation like this, especially with someone as hyper-mental as Liz, a redirection of focus is more effective.
If you haven’t read Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis”. Coach, athlete, tennis, CrossFit, whatever. The principles he talks about in the book are exactly what every person trying to do something better is going through.
One of the foundational strategies he talks about is getting rid of external verbal cues and judgement and instead cultivating physical awareness.
In other words, shut up and let the body do what it does best – move.
For instance, in the case of tennis, instead of thinking about all the “correct” ways to perform a backhand in order to get a ball where you want it to go and evaluating every stroke, focus only on where you want the ball to go. The thinking here is that when we spend too much time instructing ourselves and judging what we do, we lose what we’re after – a better, more enjoyable performance.
In Liz’s case, I directed her to stop thinking about what she should be doing or not doing, and instead think about how her hands felt on the bar while she lifted.
We ended up, with MUCH better, more consistent lifts. And she was happier, too.
No cues, no judgement. Less talking. I actually walked away from her to take even more of the pressure off and talked to a guy playing basketball.
She did better without me. Imagine that.
By focusing on what the body is telling us, we can unclutter the mind and pickup on the feedback that is the most meaningful – the physical feedback. Verbal cues are like a foreign language to the body – sometimes it’s able to pick up on words and make meaning from them, but in the end the body is the best teacher of the body because it understands it’s own language. Body Language. Dim the lights and pull up some Usher.
When an athlete completes a skill successfully, we can react in two different ways:
1) Talk about and dissect why it was successful and how it was different from previously unsuccessful attempts, and how to keep doing it successfully instead of doing it worse
2) Repeat the skill, recreating the “right” feeling
Coaches love option 1 (I’m guilty of this) because it gives us an opportunity to talk about something we love, and shows people that we are coaches. Athletes also love option 1 because they can give up trusting themselves and hope someone else will get them the progress they want.
Option 2 is the best option – when the body understands, let it understand.
If you are a coach – talk when needed, but try to cultivate physical awareness in your athletes instead of just trying to get them to listen to you.
If you are an athlete – If your hips are out of position, your body will let you know. If the bar is too far away from you, you will feel it. Eliminate the mental chatter of cues, instructions, and judgement and instead allow an awareness of movement and be open to the feedback the body is trying to you.