Updated: Apr 5, 2022
I was 11 years old when my parents signed me up for a baseball summer camp at a local junior college in Northern California. The camp lasted for about six hours each day and, while we were there, we did everything from practicing fundamentals to playing scrimmages. Needless to say I had a blast. As a young baseball fiend, I was in Heaven. There was nowhere I'd rather be than on a ball field all day long in the middle of a summer day.
Even though the main concept of a baseball camp is to make kids better, I barely remember anything from my time there. In fact, I only remember one small detail. This one idea is something that made no sense to me whatsoever at that age, but it is arguably the most important thing I have learned throughout my entire career when I finally got a full grasp of the concept.
The Pink Elephant
I remember the coaches taking us into the locker room one day to talk about different aspects of being a baseball player, such as healthy eating, goal-setting, and work ethic. I'm going to be honest with you, if you pack 100 11 year olds into one room, you won't be able to hold their attention for long.
Amidst the joking and playing around with the other kids, I overheard one interesting part of the speech. The head coach asked us, "If I tell you to not think of a pink elephant, what are you thinking of right now?" Obviously, the image of a cartoonish-looking pink elephant inevitably entered my mind. As I zoned in and out of the rest of the discussion, I struggled to figure out how a pink elephant could relate in any way to baseball. It wasn't until much later, after a long series of trial and error when I discovered the true meaning of the pink elephant.
Say to yourself, "Don't think of a pink elephant." What is the key part of that sentence? No, it is not the elephant. It's actually the word "don't". The lesson: The word "don't" is an EMPTY word. It may carry a lot of significance in the English language, but to your brain it means nothing. You tell yourself to not think of a pink elephant, but the simple mention of a pink elephant causes your brain to fixate on such a creature.
"Don't swing at the curveball in the dirt."
"Don't pull your head."
"Don't make a bad throw."
"Don't make an error."
Have you told yourself these phrases before? Even more regrettably, has a coach told you these phrases before?
Are you starting to get how it all connects? Let me explain further.
In reality, these phrases do absolutely NOTHING for you. What do they accomplish? All you are telling yourself is that you don't want to do the bad thing that you just did. Duh. Tell me something a little more obvious why don't you.
I had my first personal "pink elephant" revelation in junior college, when I had my share of notorious struggles with chasing pitches outside the strike zone. I would always start off the season with excellent plate discipline. Pitchers would try to get me to chase breaking balls (curveballs and sliders) in the dirt, and I would take them without a second thought. Then, all of a sudden, I would swing at a breaking ball in the dirt. What followed seemed to happen every single time.
Chasing the breaking ball in the dirt became an epidemic.
I couldn't stop. No matter how much I wanted to lay off of the pitch, I fell for it every time, almost as if someone else was controlling my swing. This is when the conversation from years back popped into my mind. "Don't think of a pink elephant." The whole time I had been thinking of the dreaded pink elephant...
Only in this case, the pink elephant was the breaking ball in the dirt.
So we know what we DON'T want to be thinking about. We know what we DON'T want to do. Now we have to figure out how we avoid doing it. So why not use the pink elephant to our advantage? We've already established that telling yourself something will put that image in your mind. Take swinging at the breaking ball, for example. We know we don't want to be swinging at it, but because we talk to ourselves about it, our mind fixates on that pitch.
If you are anything like me, you want the fastball. Therefore, if I am having a problem swinging at a bad pitch, instead of telling myself NOT to swing at that pitch, I'm going to tell myself to swing at the GOOD pitch - the fastball. That way, instead of envisioning the pitch I can't handle, I am envisioning the pitch I can handle. This way, when the breaking ball in the dirt does come my way, I will be so intent on hitting the fastball that the breaking ball won't even register in my mind. When hitting the pitch I want is the only image in my mind, seeing the breaking ball in the dirt practically surprises me. My mind will be so surprised by such an atrocious pitch that I will have no choice but to let it go by because I'm not physically and mentally ready to hit it.
In summary, you will perform however your mind is performing. Obviously, we are going to fail sometimes. However, our goal is to prevent ourselves from failing again - and again - and again... When we tell ourselves not to fail, that failure becomes a snowball that keeps building and building. To prevent this snowball effect, we must flip the script in our mind. You already know what you don't want to do, so tell yourself what you DO want to do.
So many coaches these days fail to understand this concept and constantly tell their players not to fail. Little do they know, they doing more damage to the player performance than good. Therefore, this way of thinking is on you. By envisioning failure, you prepare to fail. Telling ourselves not to fail fills our mind with images of performing the failed task and leaves no room for envisioning success. We've all been there. We've all experienced a time where we can't seem to shake failure. So turn it around. It all starts in the mind. Stop telling yourself not to suck, and start telling yourself to succeed.
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