Don’t Become What You Resist!    

By Dr. Ron Cruickshank

Beginning now, and until you finish reading this article I am asking you to do something. DON’T THINK ABOUT THE COLOR RED! Seems simple enough doesn’t it? Yet, I know a secret about the mind that perhaps you haven’t discovered yet. It is not possible! In fact, if you can go for more than about 10 seconds from NOW without having the color red flit through your mind please write me as you should be a future subject of some study on mind control. The reality is, the more you resist thinking about the color red the more your mind becomes obsessed with it.

In the mind game this phenomenon has been recognized for centuries and often times gets categorized under the adage ‘what you resist will persist’. More recently, the phenomena have fallen within the scope of scientific interest and put under more meticulous scrutiny. Most notably, Daniel M. Wegner, social psychologist and the Director of the Mental Control Lab at Harvard has been focusing on it. He calls this process ‘ironic process theory’.

The bottom line is that a negation doesn’t work linguistically. Like the title of this article, you can’t tell someone NOT to think about something. The act of reference to a specific object in the sentence forces the listener to access their personal representation of the word. Further, in the presence of mental overload (fatigue & stress) the ironic process seems to prevail and our mind becomes dominated by unwanted thoughts. This becomes the irony and the source of insight into the process.

Practically then, if you have your brain access a mental image by saying to yourself ‘don’t hit it right’ or ‘whatever you do, don’t three putt’, you absolutely increase the potential for these things to happen. In order for your brain to comprehend the meaning of what you are saying, it must access the mental file that represents you hitting it out of bounds or three putting. It does seem ironic doesn’t it?

There doesn’t appear to be an easy antidote for this phenomenon although the mind is conversely drawn to the other end of the spectrum. The undemanding answer would be to focus on what you DO want. Popular culture would then have us develop positive affirmations in the belief that we will be more inclined to move in that direction. However, like most things if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

For years we’ve all been told that positive affirmations will somehow help arrange the universe to conform to whatever we fervently declare. The famous affirmation ‘every day, in every way, I am getting better and better’, was first introduced by the celebrated French psychologist Emile Coue (a typical under achiever, he also discovered the placebo effect early in his career when working as a pharmacist) as what he called an autosuggestion. The belief is that by constantly repeating words or images (autosuggestion) that the subconscious mind will eventually absorb them and thus we will act in a manner consistent with these beliefs.

Autosuggestion intuitively seems more productive than negation, but recent research has also suggested that this too has a downside. A Canadian psychologist, Joanne Wood has been researching positive affirmations recently and found that they can actually work against our incredibly strong need for internal coherence. Wood theorizes that when the actual conditions (reality) present compelling alternative evidence that people get confused and de-motivated. Her research indicates that over reaching with affirmations not based in a realistic perceived probability of success could take you down an ineffective path.

Imagine you are over 50 years old and decide you want to make the next Olympics as a participating athlete. While theoretically possible, most of us would agree that this is irrational optimism and would tend to believe that all the positive autosuggestion in the world couldn’t really make this a reality. Well, I guess nobody told that to Galen Carter Spencer when at the age of 64 he won an Olympic GOLD medal in archery or British rider Lorna Johnstone who participated as an Equestrian in the 1972 Olympics at the age of 70 years and 5 days old.

In recapping the above information relative to golf we can easily surmise that we are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If we resist thinking about something we are practically assured, we will think about it or in opposite if we focus on what we DO want and it is not realistic then our cognitive dissonance kicks in and we get a loss of performance. What is to be done? How can we deal more effectively with these performance issues?

Here are three suggestions for finding a workable balance between these two undesirable outcomes in competitive performance when playing golf. These suggestions are especially important in situations that you find anxiety producing. This can range from tournament play to a weekend foursome given that the source of stress is almost always a result of your personal interpretation “that this matters”. The more something “matters” to you, the more likely it is to produce an internal state of anxiety.

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I   Focus your attention to external proceedings not internal.

The research indicates that when competing, performance is improved by focusing on external processes, not internal.

I recently read an interview citation with Doug Sanders, made thirty years after the event by the way, in which he discussed his famous miss of a 2½ foot putt to lose the 1970 British Open. He said.” I made the mistake of thinking about which section of the crowd I was going to bow to…I had the victory speech prepared before the battle was over… It is amazing how many different things to my normal routine I did on the 18th hole.” In other words, he was totally focused on his internal functioning rather than a putt that he would make 99.5% of the time. He functionally distracted himself by not focusing on the task at hand.

Certainly, external distractions can impede performance. Crowd noise, weather, camera noise, gamesmanship or even weather can take your attention away from the task. If your attention is on the wind blowing you about or on the difficulty of your downhill stance, you risk becoming what you resist. Learning how to recognize when defocused and inattentive and then taking steps to intentionally focus your attention can reap big rewards.

II. Maintain Attention on What You Are Doing, Not It’s Meaning To You

The more anxious or doubtful you become during competition the more you should focus on your actions. This is a narrowing of your concentration to directly manageable parts. For example, when lining up a putt, place your conscious attention on insuring your face alignment is accurate to the target line and your set up is correct. These you can control. If your attention or dialogue is that a missed putt is a lost bet or 5th place instead of 4th, the likelihood of an optimized performance is diminished.

III. Conscious Use of Imagery and Visualization

Imagery is widely utilized by athletes to enhance performance. This mental rehearsal methodology has proven to be especially useful in the sport of golf because it supports specific focus on an external target. I also believe the use of imagery helps in keeping ones’ attention focused on external proceedings and helps to separate your feelings of anxiety from the performance itself.

The act of visualization is not totally understood and yet we find some fascinating implications. Some stellar research done by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation demonstrated that just doing a visual rehearsal would actually strengthen muscles. In fact, the act of imagining exercise for 15 minutes a day for 12 weeks was found to strengthen finger muscles by 53% and biceps power by 13.4%. No traditional exercise was done during this research period.

It was found through measurement of brain activity through this research that the act of visualizing improved the brains ability to signal muscle activity. This means the process is much more than emotionally helpful, and in fact helps rehearse and prepare your body for the activity. Why not use this free and helpful tool?

Lastly, I have one last question. Was anybody able to not think about the color red during this article?

About the Author: Ron Cruickshank, Ph.D., is a GGA Master Instructor and the author of the soon to be available book entitled Swing Like Moe Norman- Use Your Brain for a Change and Learn the Swing of the World’s Greatest Ball Striker featuring Todd Graves. This book is written to utilize the latest in neuroscience to help turn you into a reliable and consistent ball striker.