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Developing the Observing Mind

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

Yogi Berra famously said, “You can’t think and hit at the same time.” I famously said, “Using a quote to start any writing endeavor is flat out lazy.” Anyway, let’s go back to Yogi’s infinite wisdom and how it is frequently misinterpreted. Many athletes take Yogi’s quote to mean that in order to perform optimally it is necessary to turn off thinking. If you buy into this message then you are setting yourself up for some unintended negative consequences. Let me explain…

First, it is impossible to turn off thinking. Our minds are story generating machines. Much like a sportscaster announcing a game, the mind is constantly analyzing, judging, catastrophizing, evaluating, predicting, reflecting, assessing, and commenting. This leads many athletes and people alike to search for ways to turn off the “sportscaster mind,” which rarely works because we cannot treat our internal world (i.e. thoughts and emotions) the same way we treat our external world (i.e. an actual sportscaster). For example, if you are watching say the Yankees game and you do not like what the sportscaster is saying you can just hit the mute button or change to a different live feed (let the John Sterling vs Michael Kay debate begin). However, we cannot just hit the mute button on our thoughts and efforts to change the “station” can be like playing a tug of war in the mind. Pretty hard to hit a baseball when you are distracted by playing mental tug of war.

The second problem is that the more we try not to think about something, the more we actually think about it. For example, don’t think about a cheeseburger. As you are reading this just don’t imagine a big juicy cheeseburger cooked perfectly with your favorite toppings. How did that work for you? Headed to Shake Shack? Fact is, research has demonstrated that attempts to suppress thoughts can eventually lead to having those thoughts with greater intensity and frequency. Therefore, if a baseball player is taking Yogi’s quote literally (as many do) and using the strategy of trying to suppress negative thinking (i.e. “I’m going to strikeout”) then there is an increased possibility of that very thought arising at the plate. Not good. As noted by world renowned mindfulness expert Jon Kabat Zinn in his book Full Catastrophe Living, “trying to suppress thoughts will only result in greater tension and frustration and more problems, not in calmness, insight, clarity, and peace.”

It is for the above reasons that mindfulness- and acceptance-based strategies (such as the Mindfulness Acceptance Commitment approach) are gaining increased attention in the field of sport psychology. Although for years sport psychologists have used control-based strategies (i.e. thought stopping, positive self-talk) it seems that excessive attempts to fix, control, and/or eliminate “negative” thoughts can interfere with task relevant focus and ultimately performance. In contrast to control-based strategies, the mindfulness- and acceptance-based approach suggests that our thoughts will just come and go if we simply allow them to. And through developing the ability to observe thinking without getting caught up in it, optimal performance will emerge as we have a greater cognitive capacity to focus our attention squarely in the present moment. This requires that athletes put in the necessary mental repetitions to shift attention away from fighting/trying to control the “sportscaster mind” and towards developing the “observing mind.”

Given I started this blog with a quote, I suppose I can also cave and give into the ever so popular list of suggestions. So without further ado below are 5 ways to build the observing mind.

  1. Awareness of Thoughts Meditation - Take at minimum 5 minutes per day to practice observing thoughts come and go as part of a formal meditation exercise. Start by taking a few gentle deep breaths in a space of your choosing and then shift your attention to the process of thinking. Notice each thought come and go like clouds floating through the sky. Observe your thoughts as if they are visitors passing in and out of a room. Some visitors you may like, others you may not, and some you may feel indifferent about. Whatever the case may be just greet each visitor, briefly observe each one, and then watch each visitor exit. Continue on as you let the thoughts just naturally come and go without getting hooked on any one thought in particular. Give it a try, it’s quite freeing!

  2. Drop in and give me 20 - 20 seconds that is. Frequently we go through our daily life activities (e.g. brushing teeth, showering, getting dressed) on automatic pilot, typically lost in thoughts about the past or future. It is a far different experience to step back during any of these daily activities to observe the process of thinking. I recommend to athletes to just drop in and observe the process of thinking during any task for 20 seconds. Just let each thought be there without pursuing it or rejecting it. Don’t analyze it. Don’t argue with it. Just observe each thought. Noticing that from moment to moment new thoughts will come and go. Doing this a few times a day can translate into being better able to activate the observing mind during any sports-related task.

  3. Practice thought labeling - Left on automatic pilot we can often respond in a habitual and impulsive manner to what can seem for many to be a pretty constant stream of irrational thoughts. You can strengthen the observing mind by labeling your cognitive distortions. For example, if you have a tendency to catastrophize (always think the worst is going to happen) you can notice catastrophic thinking and label it as such – “Ahh there my mind goes again catastrophizing.” Or if you frequently mind-read (believing you know what others are thinking) you can notice when you are assuming what others are thinking and note – “Ohh, there’s mind-reading.” In sports one of the biggest cognitive distortions is fortune-telling (predicting a future outcome will occur). So if you have a tendency to predict outcomes (positive or negative) label it as such …“I notice my mind is fortune telling.” When the observing mind is activated, we can let experience be our teacher not what our minds tell us the experience should or will be like.

  4. Recognizing thoughts are just that – thoughts - They are not you. They are nothing more than passing events that stream through our mind. I cannot emphasize enough that you are not your thoughts. In reality, a thought is just a bunch of words. Look at it this way – if you are your thoughts then who is observing the thoughts? I repeat, a thought is just a thought, nothing more!

  5. Get unhooked - There are certain thoughts that just hook us. Perhaps it’s “I’ll never be good enough to start on this team” or “Coach doesn’t like me” or “I have to get a hit every time up.” It is very important to become familiar with the thoughts that reel you in. Of course it is part of being human to get hooked so we cannot expect that this will not happen. However, through developing the observing mind you can begin to notice with greater frequency when you are hooked and what the content is of those thoughts that reel you in. Master this skill and you’ll likely spend less time worrying and ruminating about sports and life.

So there you have it Yogi fans. Perhaps in the future it’s better to stick with a different Yogi quote that makes a little more sense such as when he said “You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six.”

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