By: Mitch Greene, Ph.D.
More than ever, student-athletes find themselves stressed by commitments both off and on the court. Weekend practices, holiday tournaments and hours of homework can leave an individual feeling overwhelmed. As a sport psychologist I help teams find balance and teach young athletes why their minds, under stress, often look for the worst in situations (e.g., mind chatter) rather than what’s possible. This blog explains mind chatter and shares ways to navigate negative thinking and persistent doubting.
Understanding mind chatter
Coaches must first understand that young competitors are not miniature adults; they approach things based largely on the responses of peers, coaches and opponents. Some players become so worried about the opinions of others that they underperform in games because of mind chatter, which is the negative, doubting voice that younger athletes and coaches mistakenly think is a sign of mental weakness or lack of competition readiness. It is nothing of the sort. Mind chatter causes our minds to start looking for trouble anytime:
- There is a good deal of uncertainty.
- We feel there is something big at stake.
Basketball is a game full of uncertain outcomes. Unfortunately, too many young players (because of mind chatter) play the game as if their lives are on the line. The negative messages created by mind chatter are predictable, exaggerated self-talk that needs to be acknowledged but not fully believed.
Mastering mind chatter
Before games, a master of mind chatter expects the second-guessing to come and prepares for it. The player gains mental strength by seeing mind chatter for what it is — an inner voice whose goal is to get student-athletes to doubt their preparation.
The key to mastering mind chatter is understanding that players become worried most about one or more of the following fears:
- Not meeting expectations.
- Not “looking good.”
Young athletes can accept that they can’t completely stop mind chatter and learn how to successfully respond to it once they understand the following:
- Chatter will come more during games rather than practices because there’s something at stake/more pressure during games.
- Chatter will exaggerate worries.
- Their minds try to protect them by creating uncertainty.
It’s a powerful awakening for young athletes when they learn that having doubts and second guessing themselves before games is not a fault, but the result of mind chatter.
Your move, coach
Here are the best ways coaches can help players with mind chatter:
- Help student-athletes refrain from worry and guide them to let mind chatter’s messages come and go. Try this waterfall metaphor: If a player stands under a waterfall (the waterfall being negative messages of mind chatter) they will get soaked. Once the player take a step out of the waterfall, they will see they no longer get wet. Let student-athletes know they can’t stop waterfalls, but they can choose not to get soaked.
- Teach players to focus their energy on something game-specific (i.e., their effort, being a great teammate, trying an offensive move they learned in practice). Student-athletes tend to realize their fears are less about basketball and more about their ego. Setting smaller sub-goals rather than worrying about big outcome goals helps players shift their focus to something basketball related and under their direct control.
- Understand that student-athletes can perform well despite mind chatter. The goal isn’t to get rid of the chatter, but to see it for what it is — something triggered when competition begins and signals the mind to exaggerate the possibility of things going wrong. With a proper move to counter mind chatter’s attack, a player can feel more in control.
Mitchell Greene, Ph.D., is a sport and clinical psychologist in the suburbs of Philadelphia. For more information on Dr. Greene and his practice, visit www.greenepsych.com.