When I was in high school, I was a pretty good tennis player. Beginning in tenth grade and through my senior year, I was the best player in my school. But let me put that in perspective. Since I lived in a rural area of Appalachia, there were not a lot of tennis players in my school. In fact, a couple of guys who were new to the game came to our first practice with badminton rackets. Go figure.
When it came to the game, I was always a cerebral player—and I mean that in the most sarcastic way. You see, my greatest opponent was my brain. I tended to overthink, second guess, and obsess my way to loss after loss after loss. If a match was close, a little voice in my head would say, “You may be winning this game but the set is close. You’re probably going to lose.” And then I’d lose. Or if my serve was really hitting, my doubles partner would say, “Hey, your serve is really on today.” After that, it would appear to anyone watching us that I was vying for the interscholastic double-fault record for small to medium schools. Ultimately, I realized that I would forever be in battle not only with my opponents, but also with my thoughts.
During my junior year in high school, I went to the beach during spring break. The trip coincided with the start of tennis season. But, unfortunately, I didn’t play any tennis while I was at the beach. When I got back, my timing was off and I couldn’t seem to hit the ball consistently. It was as if I had forgotten how to coordinate my steps with my swing. It was confounding, and the more I thought about it, the worse it got. I was hitting balls out of bounds, into the net, and over the fence with uncanny regularity.
One day, my coach gave me some wise advice. He said, “You just need to practice enough so that you’re no longer thinking about it.” My first thought was to give it some thought. And that’s when it dawned on me that he was absolutely right. He nailed the problem and helped me understand what was happening. But lest you think I defeated the voices in my head and won the state championship, please know that I did not. In fact, I still struggle with overthinking today.
For example, last week I had to renew my CPR certification. Since I had recently studied the requirements for another class, I was up-to-date on all of the material. So, I figured the test would be a breeze. Well, not so fast. I’m not the best test taker because of my overthinkism. Oh sure, when it comes to multiple choice questions, I can always eliminate two answers right away. But then, the remaining two answers look like a verbal version of an M.C. Escher print with layers of multiple angles. That’s when the second-guessing kicks in and I’m paralyzed. One of the paramedics who was also getting re-certified told me he’s great at taking tests. He said he just trusts his gut and goes with the first thing that comes to his mind. My gut probably works the same way—it just tends to defer to my head.
I see this same type of behavior in people who dislike public speaking. I believe that most people dislike speaking because they’re thinking about how nervous they are to be speaking. Then, they forget what they meant to say or they can’t make sense of their notes. Once they get into this self-conscious mode, they lose their edge. If, on the other hand, they know their material and can be fully present while onstage, they’re not only engaged themselves, they engage the audience as well.
This goes back to my tennis coach’s wise advice. If we’re not practicing our game while being aware of our thinking, we won’t be functioning at our best. Here’s a suggestion for how to approach it.
First, we have to be good at what we do. As I learned in high school, I needed to practice until I got past the thinking-about-it phase. When it comes to public speaking, most people could talk at length about their family or their job because they know the topic so well. So it follows that we need to get good at the topic before we speak on it. However the same is true for running meetings, managing people, or even cooking dinner. We might need to put in a little practice so that we can stop thinking about it and just be good at the task at hand.
Second, we need to be constantly aware of our thinking (and overthinking). Our mind never shuts down. And sometimes, it works overtime giving us a flurry of wrong messages. I’m almost sixty years old and my mind still says, “You’re going to fail that test” or “You’re not good enough to speak to that audience.” Sometimes, this kind of message encourages me to prepare more. Most times though, it makes me nervous and less confident and that leads to poor performance. The key is to understand the way the mind works and then practice redirecting the unhelpful messages.
During this year’s U.S Open Tennis Tournament, both the men’s and women’s champions overcame significant deficits to win. They were both losing by quite a lot yet turned their matches around. I suspect the voice in their heads didn’t say, “You’re behind. You’re going to lose” but instead said, “You can win this!”
Yogi Berra probably captured the concept best when he said, “Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.”
Well said…when you think about it.