Giving up the struggle – why letting go of control gives you more control
There is no doubt that the human race is phenomenal. The things we have invented, built and achieved over the years are amazing. However, I think there are a few areas where we have got it wrong.
One of these areas is, as a culture, a society, we believe that to create a better life, you need to get rid of negative feelings. We do our upmost to be happy and successful. We also do our upmost to avoid feeling sad, bored, lonely or frustrated. We keep ourselves busy, seek out weekend experiences that will distract us from how we are feeling, or buy new things for ourselves to give us a temporary sense of feeling good. Now, please don’t think I’m judging – I’m as guilty as the next person in doing that, but I also know that this is not the route to happiness or success.
The exact same can be said in sport. We do our best to not feel nervous before a big event, try to get rid of feeling unconfident or attempt to stop worrying about an important result. Sportspeople have developed some brilliant distraction tactics over the years to try and calm themselves down or shift their focus away from negativity. I’m not going to name any here, because if you use one and it works for you then I wouldn’t want you to stop using it. I just think that these distraction tactics, if built upon a desire to get rid of a feeling, are more often than not, very short lived and mostly ineffective.
Overall, this continued belief that we should get rid of negative feelings leads to a second false belief – that we can control what we think and feel. I said we are a phenomenal species, but we are not that phenomenal!
The truth is, whilst we may have quite a bit control over our external world, we have much less control over our internal world than we might think. We have upwards of 50,000 thoughts per day. That’s more than one every 2 seconds. So how can we possibly expect to control them all? The fact is, we don’t choose most of the thoughts in our head. We do choose a small number of them, when we are actively problem solving, planning for the future or mentally rehearsing, but most of the thoughts in our head just show up of their own accord. We have very little say in the matter and we can’t prevent them from popping up. Well, we might be able to if we put all our energy and attention into focusing on something else, but that is not a long term, sustainable solution and makes us feel weak and useless when the thoughts inevitably come back and take over our minds. If we try to control our thoughts and feelings too much, it can lead to a vicious cycle and actually make it worse.
So now you’re wondering what you should do with all these negative, horrible thoughts that show up, just at the wrong moment and threaten to make you miserable or ruin your performance...?
Well don’t worry. There’s an even better way which requires SO much less energy, is 100000x easier AND is a lot lot more effective than trying to fight a losing battle.
The key, the answer, the solution is acceptance. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.
Acceptance literally means ‘taking what is offered’. I like to think of it like receiving an ugly knitted jumper as a child at Christmas time in front of your Granny. You open it with a smile on your face and say ‘thank you Granny’ and then you proceed to play with the other presents you got that you much prefer. You don’t make a scene, and reveal how disgusting it is, or throw it back in your Granny’s face and cause a family argument. You simply accept it and then move onto something else that you prefer.
So it sounds pretty easy doesn’t it, but acceptance is a difficult skill to master. This is because acceptance isn’t distraction, it’s not ignoring and it’s not repressing – all things we are pretty good at. Acceptance is being willing to receive the jumper, open it up and put it on with a smile on your face, even though you don’t like it. In the sports arena, it’s being willing to be nervous, to feel anxious and to fear what will happen if you lose but to go for it anyway because it’s something that is important to you and something you want to do in your life. Accepting doesn’t mean giving up or admitting defeat, neither does it mean just gritting your teeth and bearing it – again something sports people are typically good at. It also doesn’t mean that you necessarily want those feelings. It just means fully opening yourself to what is happening in your mind right now – whether that is good or bad – and continuing to do your sport in the way that you have trained and you know you can.
The reason acceptance is so important in life and in sport, is because the things we value most bring with them a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant. Actively choosing to enter a competition will probably bring about nerves; competing against someone better than us will most likely cause self-doubt to creep in; and going to a trial, by nature, means you might not get selected and thus sadness, disappointment or frustration may arise. We do all these things with full awareness of the impact it might have on us, but then when those thoughts or feelings do arise, we do our best to get rid of them.
What if we just accepted them. If we said ‘ok they’ve arrived’ - Nervous Nelly and her friend Alfie Anxiety. They’ve come to join the occasion alongside Excited Eric and Raring-to-go Rebecca. Nelly and Alfie don’t need to dominate over Eric and Rebecca, but they will if we try to get rid of them. If we try to stop them coming in, try to send them home.
Because really, Nelly and Alfie aren’t any more true, or any more powerful than Eric and Rebecca. It’s us trying to get rid of them that gives them the power. In fact, Nelly and Alfie are kind of liars anyway, because they make up stories about the future that aren’t even true. They tell us we will fail, or lose, or perform badly. But they have no idea! They are just speculating. And the more we try to get rid of them, the louder they shout and the more we end up listening to them.
But if we just accept those negative thoughts and feelings, let them in but choose to spend more time focusing on the helpful one’s, they will soon quieten down anyway.
Eventually you may learn to actually welcome uncomfortable or difficult thoughts. Just like when you get older, and you realise your Granny doesn’t have that much longer left to live, you suddenly become fond of her terrible jumpers. So too you can learn to welcome fear or anxiety, because you know that when handled well, they can lead you to the highest heights of your performance.
So that is my advice, for what it’s worth. Now is as good a time as any to start practicing the art of acceptance. Practice it at home, when negative feelings arise, just notice that they are there, accept them and carry on with whatever you were doing. I know it seems silly to name them, but I find this helps. This isn’t to trivialise them, because these thoughts and feelings are real. But it does help to step back and get a bit of distance from them, to see them as just thoughts or feelings that will come and go just like any others, and that they don’t have to dominate you. Practicing it away from sport can then help you to take this mentality back to the pitch, or boat, or court or whatever your arena. When you miss that goal, or make a bad mistake, or feel crippling nerves before an event, just acknowledge them, allow them to be there, but continue to behave in a way that you know will help you perform the way you can perform. As poet Henry Longfellow once said: