Coach’s Log, Entry 5: Ironic Process of Mental Control
March 30, 2022
Don’t think of a black cat. Really, don’t think of it; I dare you to try.
Your failure to comply with my negative suggestion is not a reflection of your mental powers, only of your reality as a human being.
Researched by American social psychologist Daniel Merton Wegner in 1987, the ironic process theory, or the white bear problem as some call it, explains that humans cannot suppress their thoughts by will alone.
Wegner showed, experimentally, that the action of trying to repress thoughts and ideas caused them to resurface with more frequency and potency. He also demonstrated that stress or other environmental factors exacerbated the ironic effect. Wegner specifically explained that this (ironic) cognitive control process could be responsible for intrusive thoughts that worsened anxiety and other mental health conditions.
But the notion that humans cannot control their own thoughts isn’t new; Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, 1863, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
There is even a popular game, aptly named The Game, whose objective is to avoid thinking about the game. While its origins are unknown or speculative, it makes for an interesting read.
What Does This Have to Do with Coaching?
A lot, if we’re honest.
How often have you told an athlete not to think about something that scares them? Or, in the worst of cases, to just stop thinking and do what you told them to do.
Understand that when you did this, and I know you can remember at least several times when you did, you caused more significant cognitive stress on that athlete and made their task more difficult to perform.
And this should alert you to the importance of posing your corrections and suggestions differently. Surely, you can also remember the numerous times you said, “don’t bend your knees,” when attempting to correct an athlete’s technique.
Do you see what I’m getting at?
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There are ways to suppress thoughts that involve focusing on specific distractions, and while that investigation is worth pursuing for anyone wanting to be a better communicator, it is beyond the scope of this log entry.
My reason for writing this is to point to a flaw in our communicative style, and one that I have seen cause severe anxiety in many athletes. I have also seen this process cause debilitating pressure in people outside of the gym.
I’ll reiterate that improving your communication can positively affect your general life satisfaction.
Instead of asking your athletes not to be afraid of a particular idea, redirect them to focus on something different. You might set up drills or other exercises preemptively if you know intrusive thoughts may be causing problems in your classes.
Always phrase your corrections or suggestions positively. Instead of saying “don’t bend your knees”, remind your athletes to keep their legs straight.
I’d be remiss in claiming that this change in how you structure your language is easy, but the mere act of thinking about this problem will help you notice how your words affect the people you want to help.
Thank you for reading.
— Coach José