I’m going to make a request of you: Don’t think about a pink elephant. What did you do? Well, you thought about a pink elephant, of course. Now I’m going to make a demand: DO NOT THINK ABOUT A PINK ELEPHANT, DO NOT THINK ABOUT A PINK ELEPHANT, DO NOT THINK ABOUT A PINK ELEPHANT!! What did you do? Again, you thought about that light-hued pachyderm. In fact, the more I tell yourself to not think about pink elephants, the more the pink elephant seems to sink its tusks into your brain, making it seemingly impossible to stop thinking about it.
Now, you’re probably starting to wonder what pink elephants have to do with sports (I’ll get to the blue hippos shortly). Let me explain.
In a recent post, I noted that the spring is, for many sports, a time filled with many important tournaments, games, and competitions (think March Madness). Again, for many sports, it’s a time when results matter. It is also a time in which pink elephants can mess with your mind, hurt your confidence, distract you, and cause a lot of anxiety.
Now, to the blue hippos. Here’s a request: Think about a blue hippo. What did you do? Well, think about a blue hippo. What didn’t you think about? That troublesome pink elephant. So, instead of trying to not think about the pink elephant, you have to simply think about a blue hippo.
In the last two weeks alone, I’ve had four of my clients call me up in a panic because they couldn’t get that pesky pink elephant out of their heads as an important competitions approached. Each of them manifested their pink elephant in different ways that were playing bad tricks with their minds and made performing their best in the upcoming competitions incredibly unlikely. Let me describe each of their pink elephants and the blue hippos they used to let go of the pachyderm and get in a better mental place for their impending competitions.
One athlete, who happened to be a perfectionist (though in recovery since starting to work with me), was so obsessed with results that he was in a near panic with needing to get the results he wanted in an upcoming event. His blue hippo was to refocus on what he had to do to get the results he wanted. He actually made a list of what he needed to do and, whenever, the pink elephant started to creep into his brain, he would pull the list out, read it through, and he felt much better after.
Another athlete had had an incredible season so far, but had a poor week of training before his championships. He called me up saying that he wasn’t “feeling it” in training and was having doubts about whether he could keep his great season going in the upcoming championships. His blue hippo was to realize that his tough training block was due to the stresses of finals week at his school and not having had a day off in several weeks. The blue hippo enabled him to see that, with his finals behind him, the stress wasn’t there any longer and he was going to take two days away from training and catch up on his rest. He also acknowledged that he should base his confidence not on the last few days of training, but rather on the consistent quality training and strong results he had accumulated all season.
Still another athlete I work with had created a burdensome set of expectations that had put him into “threat mode” where he was more focused on not failing than on pursuing success. As I noted in a previous post, he was using phrases such as “I need to,” “I have to,” and “I must,” all of which were followed by an “or else” related to what truly awful things would happen if you performed poorly (none actually would occur, of course). His blue hippo was to shift those expectations to goals with phrases such as “I would like to,” “I’m doing everything I can to,” and “I’m focused on” which encourages him to pursue success rather than just avoid failure. A really powerful tool we discovered was, before each competitive performance, to say “I want this!” This statement alone created a tectonic shift in his mindset, emotions, and attitude toward his competitive performances (when you want something, you want to go after it!) that resulted in his best performances of the season.
Finally, a college athlete I work with went into last season with zero expectations and with a sense of having nothing to lose because he hadn’t been a true standout as a junior. He surprised a lot of people, including himself, with a breakout season last year, establishing himself as one of the top athletes on the college circuit in his sport. In retrospect, he realized that he should approach this season the same way because, well, it worked. Regrettably he didn’t. Instead, he put immense pressure on himself to improve on his results from last year. This season, his self-esteem became overly invested in his results, he was trying way too hard, and he felt like he had everything to lose. He presented himself with an ultimatum: “I will only be happy if I achieve success in my sport this year.” Now that is pressure! Despite our best efforts, his pink elephant loomed too large and he wasn’t able to embrace his blue hippo in time and, as a consequence, he wasn’t able to replicate his stellar college results from last season. At the same time, there was a bright spot, a powerful lesson, and new approach that he will take with him into next season. After missing his chance to make the NCAAs, he truly had nothing to lose and crushed his last college competition of the season. The feeling he had before this last college event and the way he performed was a real wake-up call for him and now he is deeply committed to taking that approach into his final competitions of the season and carrying it over into next season.
I don’t know many athletes who don’t have the pink elephant visit periodically. When the irritating pachyderm shows up on your doorstep, you should take several steps to prevent him from storming into your mind. First, recognize what the pink elephant represents to you. Second, realize that the pink elephant isn’t there to help you achieve your sports goals. Third, figure out a blue hippo to redirect your focus, thinking, and energy onto. Finally, when that annoying pink elephant appears in your mind, make a commitment to pushing it out and replacing it with that wonderful blue hippo. I can assure you that you will have a much better chance of perform your best and achieving your sports goals if you do.
Want to learn more about how to be mentally prepared to perform your best consistently? Get a copy of my Prime Sport e-book or register for my Prime Sports 101: Psychology of Champion Athletes online mental training course.