The human mind does not process negative instructions or deletions.

If I say “Don’t think of a black cat”, you have to first of all think of a black cat, in order that you can try to carry out the instruction. So for a place kicker in rugby or gridiron, or a free thrower in basketball, “I mustn’t miss this kick” or “Don’t miss this throw” will be more likely to lead to a miss – as the player’s internal dialogue focuses him towards the positive element in what he’s saying – “miss…

He’ll most probably be also considering the consequences of missing the kick or the throw, and piling the pressure upon himself, and his physiology will start to reflect this and tighten up. He’ll be consulting the MAP of his kicking or throwing world and remembering the previous instances when he missed, what happened, how he felt, how everyone else felt, the responsibility, and so on. This map is now also highlighting all the hazards and difficulties. Suddenly it seems he’s trying to kick a concrete ball into the smallest of target areas.

Negative instructions bear a particularly bitter fruit when the stakes are raised. Playing a wrong note or missing a catch in practice is no big deal after all. But the same process in context on stage or in a packed stadium adds an entirely different set of pressure variables.

They placed a piece of gymnastic apparatus, the beam, on the floor and invited a group to walk along it. At four inches wide it posed no internal or external problems, no physical or mental difficulties. The same beam was then suspended between two tall step ladders and the group was again invited to walk along it. Reluctance spread like wildfire as the consequences were significantly raised. Falling off was now an issue as there was a prospect of pain and injury. Small losses of balance would (they thought) be magnified and lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. If that same group had been taught to walk blindfold perfectly along the beam, would height above the ground have been an issue?

Many performance shortcomings can be laid at the feet of our internal dialogue, where our thoughts and words echo around the chart-room where we keep our Maps of the World.

At times like this it is vital to have a strategy to deal with physical and mental distractions, and internal dialogue, in a positive way.

  • Establish a habitual thought pattern to lead into the skill or performance process.
  • Perform deep, abdominal breathing which gets a good supply of oxygen to the brain and around the body, helping more rational thought processing, relaxing joints and muscles so they can function properly within the requisite technique.
  • Set up an anchor or chain of anchors to be fired at particular pressure moments. Anchors that will elicit a beneficial state of mind and/or body.
  • Use localised trance to activate or close down certain areas of the body.
  • Use momentary visualization to focus or override input from the five senses.
  • Use an internal dialogue inhibitor such as a) a floor to ceiling eye-roll or b) dampen micro movements of the tongue by resting it delicately close to the upper set of gums.

Some of the above are routines, some are emergency ‘tricks’. The routines can be built into a more complex strategy that you know will work for you. Set it up and test it out in practice. Practice is your “beam on the ground” scenario after all! The more you set it up in a “blindfold” kind of way, the more control you will have when the real situation comes around, when you are “2-3 metres above ground without any safety net or landing below”.

Dealing with stressful and pressure moments in performance, which you know will always be there, is your key to mastering the process and getting the outcomes you want – without having to rely on that lucky Black Cat!

Don’t Think of a Black Cat