Your Brain: A Source of Wonder in the Game of Life

The brain is amazing when you think about how much information it processes and how that influences our emotional and bodily response.  We have deeply embedded neural pathways that serve as short-cuts for determining an appropriate response.  However, our self-stories shaped by early childhood experiences can distort our perception and lead to inappropriate responses to situations that serve as triggers.

I am always amazed at the functioning of the brain when I play tennis.  When you think about it, the brain is taking in so many variables when a person serves or hits to you (all absorbed at an exceptional speed):

  • wind speed and direction
  • level of lighting
  • ambient sounds
  • sound of the ball on the racquet of the server
  • speed of the ball
  • nature of the spin on the ball (e.g. top-spin, slice, backspin)
  • relational information (where you are in the court and where your opponents are positioned)
  • attention level and readiness of your opponents
  • elevation of the ball (impacting the landing and bounce)
  • expected landing point of the ball
  • the nature and height of the bounce of the ball.

When you are receiving the tennis ball and returning your shot, your brain is determining how to respond to the information absorbed when the ball is hit by your opponent.  Again, your self-stories come into play here.  The inner game of tennis is critical as your self-belief impacts the choices you make re shot selection. 

When you think about it, you must make an instant decision about how you are going to respond to the serve/shot by your opponent:

  • the nature of your shot (e.g. forehand or backhand)
  • direction of your shot
  • speed and spin of your shot
  • positioning of your body for your returning shot.

How is it that your body responds unconsciously in some situations and does the perfect shot?  For example, when the ball is hit deep to your backhand side and your opponents are at the net, you automatically do a backhand, half-volley lob into the open court.  Some key influences here are your level of tennis competence (e.g. unconsciously competent as in the example situation) and memory embedded in your body.  Body memory is itself a complex process involving different elements such as proprioception (e.g. the capacity to know where a part of the body is such as the hand when you cannot see it).

Body memory is reinforced when you go to sit in the driver’s seat of your car and land with a thud (after your 6 feet 3 inches son has lowered the seat to suit his driving position).  Another example is when you are trying to put the forks away after dishwashing and someone has changed the positioning of the forks in the cutlery drawer (the other forks are not where you unconsciously attempt to place the clean ones).  The role of body memory in relation to trauma is well researched and documented which is why somatic meditation often plays a key role in recovery from trauma.

 Reflection

The brain is a source of wonder and yet we take it for granted so much of the time.  As we grow in mindfulness and awareness through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection, we can better appreciate the complexity and ingenuity of our brain, its role in our daily living and sporting activities and express gratitude for the wonder of it.  We are also better able to manage mistakes we make when playing tennis or undertaking other activities requiring complex information processing.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Self-Compassion for Healthy Eating

Marsha Hudnall, President and Co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run (a whole-body wellness retreat), offers an interesting perspective on how to develop healthy eating – whether that involves avoiding overeating, under-eating or eating foods that we know cause inflammation through allergy or intolerance.  Marsha in her article on this topic suggests that self-compassion is the missing factor in enabling us to persist with healthy eating

Often when we stray from the ideal approach to healthy eating that meets our specific needs, we berate ourselves for our failure to stick to the right path.  Marsha has been a pioneer in the field of non-diet and alternative approaches to healthy eating through her writing, teaching and her work as a board member of the Center for Mindful Eating.   She explains her personal experience and perspective on mindful eating in a Mindful Dietician podcast.  Marsha offers advice too for people who are on dietary restrictions as a result of a health condition – available in a paid webinar titled, When the Doctor Says No.

Self-Compassion for healthy eating

Self-compassion has been the life pursuit of Kristin Neff who stresses the importance of self-kindness to overcome negative thinking in the face of set-backs or temporary defeats.  Kristin reinforces the need to recognise that we share a common humanity and part of our life experience is larger than ourselves (we are not the only one encountering life challenges).  She stresses the role of mindfulness in dealing with thoughts and feelings that damage our self-image and using mindful approaches to grow self-awareness and self-regulation.

In her podcast interview mentioned above, Marsha identifies two key barriers to effective self-compassion – the social and personal obsession with body image (and related materialistic values) and the relentless pursuit of perfectionism.  In relation to perfectionism, she argues that we need to acknowledge that we cannot be perfect – we will make mistakes and poor choices.  This acceptance opens the way to new learning, new habits and thoughtful responses to life crises.  This fundamental realisation was a real breakthrough for tennis player Ash Barty who became Number 1 in the world in 2019.

Mindfulness and mindful eating

Marsha stated that her introduction to mindful eating occurred when Jon Kabat-Zinn visited the Green Mountain retreat center.  She came to understand that mindfulness was essentially about awareness and understanding of the influences shaping our responses and the potentiality of making different choices – choosing between a range of options rather than being locked into a single way of doing things, e.g. mindful eating instead of dieting.  Marsha alluded to the perspective of her mother-in-law, Thelma (Founder of Green Mountain), who talked about “the plank of choice” versus the “diet tightrope”. 

Marsha broadens our perspective on mindful eating when she offers suggestions in her article on ways to bring self-compassion to the process of eating:

  • Give up a fixed way of thinking – what Marsha calls “black and white thinking”.  She suggests, for example, that pizza should not always be branded as bad for you – it may be the best choice when celebrating an achievement with friends. You can be mindful of others, the occasion and the flexibility you have on that occasion – rather than adopting a fixed position that leads to subsequent dissatisfaction for not having “participated” fully in the celebration. In her podcast interview, Marsha argues that we need to adopt a “middle-ground” instead of pursuing unattainable perfection.
  • Become aware of your negative self-talk when eating – Marsha suggests that you write down these thoughts, and also have prepared responses that you can adopt when the debilitating self-critique starts up.
  • Practice giving yourself kind responses – do this whenever a negative thought enters your mind during the day.  The more you do it, the easier it gets and it quickly becomes a default way of thinking – just as awareness practice while waiting can replace the default mode of grabbing your mobile phone to fill the gap.

Drawing on her own personal experience and awareness of research findings, Marsha maintains that mindfulness can help us to contribute more positively and successfully to our own family, work and professional arena.  She observed that as you practice mindfulness, you become more aware of the subtleties of being mindful and its impacts in every arena of your life.  Marsha noted, too, that exploring neuroscience and an understanding of the brain, better equips us to deal with our daily challenges.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that drive us to unhealthy eating and related practices and build the resilience to achieve self-regulation in our eating habits.  Mindful eating involves more than just eating slowly, it also extends to identifying and managing our negative self-talk that can occur while we are eating and other times throughout the day.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Overcome Negative Self-Talk through Kindness to Yourself

Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, recently wrote a comprehensive blog post on the importance of self-kindness to achieve your potential.  In his post, How to Be Kind to Yourself & Still Get Stuff Done, emphasised the disabling effects of negative self-talk, the potentiality in releasing yourself from a focus on your deficiencies, defects and mistakes and the power of self-kindness to achieve this release.  Leo is a leading expert on the formation and maintenance of healthy and productive habits, the author of Zen Habits: Handbook for Life and the developer of the Fearless Training Program.

How negative self-talk disables you

Your brain has an inherent negative bias, so it is so easy to constantly focus on what you have not done well, your defects and deficiencies and your mistakes.  This negative self-talk can lead to depression (regret over the past) and anxiety (about possible future mistakes).  It also engenders fear of failure and prevents you from achieving what you can achieve.  It serves as an anchor holding you in place and preventing you from moving forward.  Negative self-stories, if entertained, can lead to a disabling spiral.

You might find yourself saying things like:

  • Why did I do that?
  • What a stupid thing to do!
  • When will I ever learn?
  • Why can’t I be like other people, efficient and competent?
  • If only I could think before I leap!
  • Why do I make so many mistakes? – no one else does!
  • If only I was more careful, more useful, more thoughtful or more attentive!

…and so, your self-talk can go on and on, disabling yourself in the process.

Overcoming negative self-talk through self-kindness

Leo suggests that being kind to yourself is a way to negate the disabling effects of negative self-talk that focuses on your blemishes, mistakes or incompetence.  He proposes several ways to practise self-kindness: 

  • Give yourself compassion – instead of beating up on yourself when you get things wrong, have some compassion, positive feelings toward yourself whereby you wish yourself success, peace and contentment.
  • Focus on your good intentions – you may have stuffed up by being impatient in the moment, by a rash or harmful statement or by making a poor decision, but you can still recognise in yourself your good intentions, the effort you put in and the learning that resulted. 
  • Be grateful for what you have – rather than focus on your defects or deficiencies. Gratitude is the door to equanimity and peace.  You can focus on the very things you take for granted – being able to walk or run, gather information and make decisions, listen and understand, breathe and experience the world through your senses, be alive and capable, form friendships and positive relationships.  You can heighten your experience of the world by paying attention to each of your senses such as smelling the flowers, noticing the birds, hearing sounds, touching the texture of leaves, tasting something pleasant in a mindful way.

I found that when I was playing competitive tennis, that what worked for me was to ignore my mistakes and visually capture shots that I played particularly well – ones that achieved what I set out to achieve.  I now have a videotape stored in my mind that I can play back to myself highlighting my best forehands, backhands, smashes and volleys.  You can do this for any small achievement or accomplishment.  The secret here is that this self-affirmation builds self-efficacy – your belief in your capacity to do a specific task to a high level. 

These strategies and ways to be kind to yourself are enabling, rather than disabling.  They provide you with the confidence to move forward and realise your potential.  They stop you from holding yourself back and procrastinating out of fear that you will make a mistake, make a mess of things or stuff up completely.

Ways to achieve what you set out to accomplish

Leo maintains that being kind to yourself enables you to achieve creative things for yourself and the good of others.  He proposes several ways to build on the potentiality of kindness to yourself:

  • Do positive things:  these are what is good for yourself and enable you to be good towards others.  They can include things like yoga, meditation, mindful walking, taking time to reflect, Tai Chi, spending time in nature, savouring the development of your children, eating well and mindfully.
  • Avoid negative things – stop doing things that harm yourself or others.  Acknowledge the things that you do that are harming yourself or others. Recognise the negative effects of these harmful words and actions – be conscious of their effects on your body, your mind, your relationships and your contentment.  Resolve to avoid these words and actions out of self-love and love for others.
  • Go beyond yourself – extend your loving kindness to others through meditation and compassionate action designed to address their needs whether that is a need for support, comfort or to redress a wrong they have suffered.  Here Leo asks the penetrating question, “Can you see their concerns, feel their pain and struggle, and become bigger than your self-concern and serve them as well?”  He argues that going beyond yourself is incredibly powerful because it creates meaning for yourself, stimulates your drive to turn intention into action and brings its own rewards in the form of happiness and contentment – extending kindness to others is being kind to yourself.

Reflection

There are so many ways that we can be kind to our self and build our capacity and confidence to do things for our self as well as others.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the negative self-stories that hold us back, be more open and able to be kind to our self, be grateful for all that we have and find creative ways to help others in need.  We can overcome fear and procrastination by actively building on the potential of self-kindness.  As Leo suggests, self-kindness enables us to get stuff done that we ought to do for our self and others.

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Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

A Guided Meditation on Self-Compassion

Diana Winston provides a guided meditation on self-compassion as part of the weekly offerings of meditation podcasts from the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.   These weekly podcasts are also available via the UCLA Mindful App.  

Diana explains that the tendency to be self-critical – to disown parts of ourselves that we don’t like – is universal, not the province of a single age group, gender or ethnic group.  We can hear our own voice telling us that we are “stupid” “undeserving”, “inconsiderate” or some other self-demeaning term.  These inner voices focus on our flaws and not our essential goodness or kindness.

In line with the research and philosophy of Kristin Neff, Diana encourages us through self-compassion meditation to accept ourselves as we are with all our warts and flaws and to recognise that in common with the rest of humanity we make mistakes, make poor decisions and say or do things that we later regret.

A guided self-compassion meditation

In her introduction to a guided meditation on self-compassion, Diana leads us through a basic process for becoming grounded – adopting a comfortable position, taking a couple of deep breaths and engaging in a body scan to release points of tension to enable us to become focused on the task at hand. Diana then takes us through three basic steps of a self-compassion meditation:

  • 1. Mindful awareness of our negative “voices” – getting in touch with the self-criticism in our heads and being able to accept ourselves as we are, with all our faults, failings and mistakes.  This does not mean engaging with the voices but noticing what they are saying and accepting that we are not perfect.
  • 2. Recognising that flaws are an integral part of our shared humanity – acknowledging that this is part of the human condition.  No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes – we have this in common with the rest of humanity.  We can then offer self-forgiveness and kindness to ourselves.
  • 3. Extending kindness to others – when we recognise that we share a flawed existence with the rest of humanity, we are better able to offer kindness towards others.  We can start by expressing gratitude to the people we admire and acknowledging how they enrich our lives. We can then extend this kindness to wishing them and others safety, health, happiness and the ease of wellness.

As we grow in mindfulness through awareness of our negative voices and our inherent flaws, we can learn to accept ourselves as we are, acknowledge our shared humanity and extend self-compassion to ourselves and kindness to others.

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Image by Ioannis Ioannidis from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Being in the Zone Through Mindfulness

George Mumford, Mindfulness and Performance Expert, recently presented during the Embodiment@Work online conference coordinated by the mindful leader organisation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to encouraging and supporting mindfulness and compassion in the workplace. George works with elite sports teams and individual elite athletes, business leaders and academics to help them to achieve their very best. He is the author of The Mindful Athlete: The Secrets to Pure Performance.

Flow requires integration of body, mind and emotion

George argues that athletes, leaders and academics only achieve flow when they have achieved integration of their body, mind and emotions. What often stops people achieving their potential is what goes on in their minds which, in turn, negatively impacts their emotions. He gave the example of a young elite basketballer who can achieve a 90% success rate for three-points shots in practice, yet in a game situation her success rate drops to 33%.

We have previously discussed why it is so hard to serve out a match in tennis and how even top tennis players (men and women) often have difficulty with this feature of playing tennis. In both these examples, it is what goes on inside someone’s head that makes the difference – a difference in mindset from a positive outlook to negative anticipation.

Once people can achieve an alignment of body, mind and emotions they are open to the insight, wisdom and high performance that epitomises “being in the zone”. George argues that you can’t wish yourself there, but you can develop mindfulness so that the chances of being in the zone are increased. He maintains that it requires being present in the moment and being in control of your mind and emotions – traits that develop through mindfulness practice.

Once you are in the zone, all that is required is to let it happen. You are typically not in control – things happen spontaneously. You make the right choices, execute perfectly and achieve success. I recall being in the zone on one occasion when playing tennis against a a very good player – everything I attempted worked, stroke play was effortless and choices of shot and strategy were made without conscious intervention. At the time, I said to myself, “Just enjoy the moment while it lasts”. It lasted two sets – after which time my opponent gave up, not having won a game.

George reinforces the fact that there exists a space between stimulus and response and we can learn to use that space to make conscious choices rather than act out habituated, reactive behaviour. This form of self-regulation is achieved through sustained mindfulness practice.

Developing a mindfulness mindset

George contends that is not enough to sit, be still and maintain silence. Mindfulness must become a way of life – a sustained mindset. This can be achieved, in part, by adopting a variety of mindfulness practices in different settings as illustrated in the pausing approach described earlier or making conscious efforts to incorporate practices such as mindful walking, intention forming, open awareness or mindful eating.

George suggests that these regular practices help to develop a mindfulness mindset, but they are insufficient of themselves. He argues that we need to attempt to be fully conscious in the moment by asking ourselves a set of questions as we engage in any activity:

  • What is going on for me bodily, in my mind and with my emotions?
  • How aligned are my words and actions with my goal, my overall purpose and who I want to be?
  • Have I got the right balance of energy and effort, or am I over-exerting myself and being so energetic that it is counter-productive?
  • Do I have a firm belief in my ability to achieve the outcome I am seeking?
  • Am I distracted by negative emotions (fear, anxiety) or the inability to concentrate because of a lack of focus in the situation?

Performance growth through discomfort and mistakes

Being in the zone is more likely to occur when we are in a learning mode – open to alternative ways of doing things and to the vulnerability that comes with making mistakes. Jacob Ham argues that to overcome fear and anxiety in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, we need to develop a “learning brain” and to quiet our “survival brain”.

George suggests that there is no growth without mistakes – we have to try out innovative ways of doing things but this requires being “comfortable with discomfort” and being ready to be self-forgiving for our mistakes (which are a part of every sport or leadership role). It also entails a readiness to be vulnerable and a willingness to learn from the mistakes we make and adapt to new situations we encounter.

As we grow in mindfulness through various forms of meditation, different mindfulness practices and conscious questioning and curiosity about our mind in the present moment, we can achieve “innovative action” and approach the unique reward of being in the zone (whatever our endeavour).

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Image by Erich Westendarp from Pixabay 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Naomi Osaka – Mindfulness in Action

Naomi Osaka won the Women’s Singles Championship at the 2019 Australian Open on Saturday 26th January, beating Petra Kvitová (winner of two Grand Slam titles). In winning the championship, Naomi became the first Japanese tennis player to win the Australian Open and the first Japanese player to become No.1 in the world. In reflecting on her mindful approach to her recent matches and her achievements, I have become very conscious of the level of mindfulness she has attained at such a young age (21 at this tournament). Her advanced level of mindfulness is reflected in her resilience, capacity to handle negative thoughts and emotions and her strong sense of gratitude which enables her to stay grounded.

Resilience – capacity to bounce back in the face of setbacks or adversity

Naomi was serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set, having won the first set. Despite three match points in that game, she was unable to win the second set. Her disappointment was palpable – she left the court after the set with a towel over her head to hide her tears. However, she was able to settle herself in the break before the third set and to to resume the match with a new resolve and focus that enabled her to lift her game and go on to win the match and the Championship.

In overcoming the setback when she served-for-the-match at the end of the second set, Naomi had to deal with two conflicting challenges that beset the best champions in these circumstances – (1) anticipating the result (she so wanted to be No. 1 in the world that she could almost see and feel what it would be like) and (2) her negative thoughts and emotions resulting from missing her opportunity to close out the second set.

Her capacity to bounce back shows her resilience when having to deal with disappointment following a setback. This resilience was also in evidence when she was able to win the US Open five months earlier, despite the bad behaviour of her tennis idol and opponent, Sarina Williams – behaviour which was both unsettling and distracted attention from Naomi’s wonderful achievement.

Overcoming negative thoughts and emotions

Naomi was distressed at not being able to serve out the match at the end of the second set. It would have been easy to continue to entertain the negative thoughts that were going through her head, “I was so close and missed my opportunity”; “Why did I serve so poorly?”; and “I’m not going to win now or be No.1 in the world”.

Naomi took time to get centred again and to control her negative thoughts and emotions. She reminded herself that she had come back from being behind and that she could regain her ascendency (building on a very strong sense of self-efficacy).

It is so easy to entertain negative thoughts and emotions to a point where they disable us. However, Naomi reported that in the third set she put her emotions aside (self-regulation) and focused on playing each point. Even when she made mistakes in the third set, she used one of her anchors to shake free of her negative thoughts and emotions – she could be observed shaking her head from side to side, taking a temporary pause or a few deep breaths.

Naomi revealed in an earlier interview that she is an avid online gamer, a passion she enjoys with her sister. She described gaming not only as an alternative pursuit for up to four hours a day, but also as a way to reframe her tennis matches. She describes this unique anchor as follows:

I just feel like I know [tennis] is sort of my job and, like, if I were to say it, like, in a gaming term, then it’s sort of a mission that I have to complete. Um, so yeah. I just sort of tune everything out and just try my best to complete the mission.

Naomi demonstrated what it takes to be a mindful tennis champion through her demeanour, her self-awareness and self-regulation and her capacity to manage her inner dialogue. Her sense of gratitude is another trait that belies her youthful age and demonstrates her advanced level of mindfulness.

Gratitude – a way to stay grounded

Naomi mentioned in one of her interviews that she had visited Haiti, the homeland of her father. This visit had a significant effect on her, not so much for her treatment as a hero and a publicly acclaimed sports ambassador for Haiti, but more for the profound sense of gratitude she experienced after seeing the abject poverty of the Haitian people.

This strong sense of the deprivation of others in her father’s homeland, made her appreciate how much she herself had – not only her natural talent as a tennis player and the opportunity to develop it, but also having the basic things in her life (a home, loving and supportive family, food to eat and water on tap).

Naomi reported that her sense of gratitude helped to ground her and enable her to stay in-the-moment, to really appreciate everything she had and to be able to absorb losses. She indicated in an interview that her sense of gratitude helped her to deal with the disappointment of losing the second set. She reminded herself that she was playing a final against a champion tennis player in Petra Kvitová and told herself:

I can’t let myself act immature in a way. I should be grateful to be here and that is what I tried to be.

As we grow in mindfulness, through developing self-awareness and self-regulation, we can build the resilience to handle the stresses in our life, manage our negative thoughts and emotions and be truly grateful for what we have in life. Having simple mindfulness anchors can help us to be more in-the-moment and less controlled by our emotions that can sometimes blind and disable us.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Why is it so Difficult to Serve-for-the-Match in Tennis?

I have been watching the live TV broadcast of the 2019 Australian Open. It is surprising how many players – great champions among them – who have great difficulty serving-for-the-match. The more they desire the win, the more often they fail at the final hurdle. There seems to be a number of contributing factors related to mindfulness that are behind this widespread difficulty – (1) anticipating the result, (2) negative self-evaluation for making mistakes and (3) fear of failure.

Living in the future: anticipating the result

Many players when they are so close to winning begin to think about what it would be like to win the prize money, hold the trophy aloft, receive the accolades of the crowd at the end of tennis tournament and gain new sponsorships. They lose focus on playing the game and instead begin to play the result in their head. The legends of tennis and other great players such as Sarina Williams emphasise the need to stay-in-the-moment and play each point as it comes, ignoring the score. Mindfulness training can help here because it builds that capacity to be in the moment and to stay focused.

Many quality tennis players develop their own anchors to remind themselves to stay calm and in-the-moment. The anchor could be a couple of deep breaths, mindful walking, stopping to focus on their breath for a few seconds or a speedy body scan and stress release, especially of the tension in their arms and shoulders. These anchors can be developed through mindfulness practice.

Living in the past: negative self-evaluation for making mistakes

So often even top players will make a double fault on their serve when serving-for-the-match. I have even seen both Nadal and Federer do this. The tension and stress of the moment can result in muscle tightness and weakness in the arms.

Mistakes at the final, critical stage can become more momentous in our eyes because of the potential consequences of these mistakes. So, the tendency to negative self-evaluation is heightened. This self-criticism can become self-defeating as it negatively impacts our self-confidence and self-esteem. The negative thoughts can swirl around in our heads at this time like a whirlpool -“Why did I do such a low percentage shot at this time?”; “What a stupid time to play a drop shot!”; or “Why did I go down the line when the whole court was open?”.

Under stress our judgement suffers, unless we have learned to manage the stress through mindfulness. If we continue with our negative self-evaluation, then we are sabotaging our winning position, as so often happens in tennis matches.

Fear of failure

Ivan Lendl is famous not only for his amazing achievements in tennis but also for his early failures in closing out matches when he was serving-for-the-match. He kept losing finals in major tournaments, but his real breakthrough came when he beat John McEnroe in the 1985 US Open final. He went from not being able to win a final to rarely losing one.

In reporting on Lendl’s 1985 US Open win, John Feinstein had this to say of the fear demons that had beset Ivan:

The demons have chased him around the world. From Paris to Sydney, from London to New York. Everywhere Ivan Lendl has gone, the fear has chased him. Burdened by his talent and penchant for failure when the pressure was greatest, he suffered with the knowledge that people respected his skills and questioned his courage.

Fear of failure can cause us to freeze, to intensify our negative self-evaluation and self-criticism for making mistakes. We can get into another negative spiral of thinking which is even more difficult to control – “What will people think/say about my failure?”; “I am letting down so many people who have helped me!; “What will my coach say?” or “So many people who have come to see the match will be disappointed (particularly likely if you are playing on your home turf)”.

Lendl overcame his fear, born of past failures to win major finals, and went on to win 8 major titles in all, and a total of 94 singles titles, achieving a match winning percentage of over 90% in five different years. Some commentators consider him to be the greatest tennis player to ever play the game

After his historic victory, Lendl commented about the destructive effect of fear in the closing stages of a tennis match:

The worst thing you can do is be afraid of something.

As I have discussed previously naming your feelings, e.g. fear of failure, can help you tame these emotions. The R.A.I.N. meditation is a specific meditation for addressing fear and overcoming the disabling effects that fear can have on you.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop anchors to help us stay in the moment at times of stress, to minimise our negative self-evaluation and face our fears so they do not disable us.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of mohamed_hassan on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog. 

Developing Mindfulness through Managing Making Mistakes in Tennis

You might wonder what mindfulness has to do with making mistakes at tennis. If you learn to effectively manage making mistakes at tennis you can achieve two important mindfulness skills, (1) accepting what is and (2) reducing negative self-evaluation.

Accepting what is – you will always make mistakes in tennis

Tomaz Mencinger, Slovenian tennis coach, reminds us that no one has zero tennis mistakes, no matter what their level. If you watched world no.3, Roger Federer, play 20 year old, Greek tennis player, Stefanos Tsitsipas, at the 2019 Australian Open, you will have noticed how many mistakes Federer made, even on his trusty backhand – a total of 55 unforced errors. This level of errors occurred even though there were only a few points difference influencing the final result – Stefanos Tsitsipas won 6-7, 7-6, 7-5, 7-6.

The reality is that tennis is such a complex game for mind and body that it is inevitable that you will make mistakes – everyone does, no matter what their level of competence and mental capacity. Tomaz reminds us, in his landmark article on making mistakes in tennis, that a part of the brain, the cerebellum, controls our movement, coordination of muscle activity and our balance at any point. The cerebellum is taught over time through our training and activity how to assess what kind of bodily response is needed to respond to the challenge of a tennis shot from an opposing player. As Tomaz points out in his profile story, hand-eye-coordination, for instance, can be developed through various sports and utilised by our brains to direct our bodily response in tennis.

When you think about what is required to hit a tennis shot in response to a shot from another player, you can begin to realise how complex the response mechanism is and how easy it is to make a mistake in tennis. For starters, the brain must register the speed, spin and likely trajectory of the opponent’s shot (data taken from observing the force applied, the angle of the racquet, positioning of the body, experience of the opponent’s shot-making, how the shot is being disguised and the overall game strategy of the opponent). Your brain then has to direct your physical response – which is limited by your awareness, physical capacity, energy level, skill and prior experience. On top of this, as Roger Federer found in his match against Tsitsipas, a changing environment can impact the effectiveness of your shot-making (e.g. if the balls are heavier because of the night atmosphere or from closure of the roof over the tennis court).

You might think that as you improve through coaching and training, you will be free of mistakes in tennis. Tomaz argues that this is an impossible ask – you will continue to make mistakes no matter how proficient you become at shot-making. Part of the explanation for this is that as you become more competent, you take more risks and try to make more difficult shots, e.g. attempting to create greater angle, slice, depth and/or speed with your volley. So, we are programmed to make mistakes, even though we can play better shots more consistently with practice and coaching. Tomaz maintains that our percentage of errors over shots remains relatively the same over time, even as we improve our proficiency in playing tennis.

Of course, as you age, you lose some of your capacity – your eyesight declines, your reflexes slow, your mobility reduces and your muscle power declines (even when you undertake exercises to reduce the rate of decline). All these declining physical features impact both what your mind sees and interprets and how well your body can respond to the messages from your cerebellum. So, as you age, you not only need to accept making mistakes but that the rate of mistakes will more likely increase owing to declining mental and bodily facilities.

Tara Brach reminds us that a “willingness to be with what is” represents a core component of mindfulness along with internal and external awareness and open curiosity. Accepting that you will make mistakes in tennis is a good discipline for developing the mindset of accepting “what is”. This does not mean that you do not try to improve your technique, fitness, and balance – your ongoing enjoyment of the game will depend on observable improvements that you can make, e.g. better speed and/or placement of your serve, more effective and penetrating volleys or more consistent backhand shots.

You could also focus on improving mental resilience as the inner game of tennis is as important as its external manifestation. What goes on in your mind during a tennis game can dramatically affect the outcome and your level of enjoyment. Learning to deal with negative self-evaluation after a mistake is a key element of this positive mental state.

Reducing negative self-evaluation

I have written a lot about negative self-evaluation and the positive impact that mindfulness can have on redressing the negative outcomes of such evaluations. Tennis with its mistake-prone nature provides a great opportunity for us to practise overcoming our negative self-evaluations and be more mindful of the enjoyment of playing tennis and interacting with others.

A starting point is to develop self-awareness around your own response to making mistakes. Do you frown, pout, scowl, hit a shot in anger, swear, psychologically withdraw or bounce your racquet. These are external manifestations of a state of frustration at making mistakes in tennis. They reflect an unrealistic expectation that you can be mistake-free in tennis – no one can! So, a key aspect of self-regulation and associated mindfulness, is to adjust your expectations of yourself when playing tennis.

Typically, we will engage in negative self-evaluation when we make a mistake – “What a silly thing to do”; “How could I possibly miss such a simple shot?”; “People will think I can’t play tennis”; “How stupid am I”; or “I’m letting my partner down”. We will blame the mistake on the fact that we did not bend our knees far enough, took our eyes off the ball, lost concentration, misjudged the speed of the ball, and many other defects in our game. The problem with negative self-evaluation is that it does not improve our game but leads to lower self-esteem and loss of confidence – all of which, in turn, negatively impacts our tennis game and increases the likelihood of errors.

Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that mindfulness entails being in the present moment non-judgmentally. If we learn to manage our negative self-evaluation when making mistakes in tennis, we can develop mindfulness – awareness in, and of, the moment, without resorting to negative self-judgment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and by effectively managing making mistakes in tennis, we can have a more productive game, interact more positively with others and really enjoy the experience of being able to play tennis. Effective management of mistake-making in tennis involves accepting that mistakes will happen and avoiding negative self-evaluations as a result.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of moerschy on Pixabay

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Mindful Self-Compassion

Compassion is an integral element of mindfulness and emotional intelligence.

It involves being concerned for the pain and suffering of others, having the desire to reduce that suffering and taking action, at whatever level, to redress the suffering of others.   Taking action is a key aspect that differentiates compassion from empathy.

Self-compassion, then, is exercising compassion towards ourselves – ultimately, it means doing things to reduce our own self-initiated pain and suffering.

As we mentioned in a previous post, our minds tend automatically towards negative thoughts.  We are critical of ourselves, dwell on failures, feel embarrassed when we make a mistake and carry shame with us to our own detriment and that of others.

Diana Austin, in her doctoral study of midwives in New Zealand, found, for instance, that the sense of shame and self-blame impacted severely the ability of midwives to recover from the trauma of critical incidents.  Her study resulted in an e-book tool designed to promote self care and kindness towards self in the event of a health professional experiencing a critical event.

The Critical Incidents E-Book contains stories, information and practical advice for health professionals and their managers when mistakes happen and things go wrong.  In the final analysis, the e-book is a journey into self-compassion for those experiencing the depths of self-blame, shame and questioning of their own competence and ability to support others professionally.

Kristin Neff, one of the founders of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, identified three components of self-compassion:

  • physical warmth
  • gentle touch
  • soothing vocalization

In her video describing these three components, Kristin suggests a number of self-compassion practices that draw on these components.  For example, she recommends self-hugging and a simple exercise involving placing your hands over your chest while communicating care and tenderness towards yourself.

More detail on these self-compassion exercises can be found in the video below where Kristin Neff describes exactly how to do them:

As you grow in mindfulness you become more aware of self-criticism and the ways in which you blame yourself, and you gain the presence of mind to counter these self-initiated attacks on your self-esteem and sense of self-worth.  Mindful self-compassion exercises build mindfulness and develop self-care and kindness.  The more we are kind to ourselves, the more sensitive we become to the needs of others.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain  on Pixabay