That's How It Always Is!

March 23, 2021

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No matter how much I've improved in the past several years, the bottleneck in my mental game seems to be recovering from mistakes. I've tried many many things: forgiving myself, observing the mistakes without judgment, intentionally labeling the outcome as a mistake, intentionally not labeling the outcome as a mistake, laughing the mistake off, trying hard to look at the mistake to learn from it, robotically ignoring the mistake and just making the next shot... in all this, one common pattern has persisted: gradually, eventually, if I make enough mistakes in short succession, I switch from constructive thoughts to catastrophic self-doubt. Maybe you recognize some of the thoughts that run through my mind when that happens:

This self-doubt probably plays a huge role in the general feeling I have that I don't trust my shot. If I wanted to be more accurate, I probably feel like I shouldn't trust my shot: I don't have any good reason to. We probably all agree that this kind of thinking threatens to hold me back from reaching my goals.

And I know this. When I coach kids I try to flood them with messages to trust themselves, trust that their body knows what to do, trust that they always have the capacity to improve and reach their goals. I do this hoping not only to help them but to convince myself. Unfortunately, I'm a thinker. I need to understand things. That means that until I find a way to understand what's going on, I probably won't really believe the things I'm telling myself. (I know that positive self-talk "works" even when I don't consciously believe it, but if I don't believe it, then when the doubt creeps in, the floodgates open and I'm crying on the floor in the fetal position.)

Believe me: I have tried! I have spent the last three years emphasizing positive self-talk, relying on the "fake it 'til you make it" model. Hours and hours of sitting quietly, repeating positive messages to myself, trying to visualize success, flooding my conscious mind with the thoughts I want and need to have under pressure, desperately hoping that repetition would build better habits. And I'd say that it has helped!

Unfortunately, if I make enough mistakes in a short-enough period of time, all those more-constructive habits go out the window. Eventually, inexorably, the dark thoughts return.

You've been fooling yourself this whole time with all that positive self-talk bullshit. It's just a band-aid; it doesn't solve the real problem. You are screwing up, you don't understand why, and you can't help yourself. This is as far as you'll get. You might as well give up!

Dark. Yup. That's really what goes on inside my mind. It happens less often these days than it used to, but it really doesn't show any signs of going away for good. Even just typing those words made them feel unsettlingly real for me. Whatever else I've trained myself to believe over the past few years, I still believe these words. And it's clear to me that these thoughts threaten to hold me back, no matter what else I do. I'm a thinker. If I don't understand how to take the power away from these thoughts, then I won't be able to break through.

(If you're screaming an obvious answer at your screen right now, I don't blame you. Give me a moment.)

Yesterday, while listening to a podcast, I heard something that snapped me immediately to attention. It's a textbook example of how humans truly learn things:

We humans are pretty bad at learning these important lessons. We need to hear them 30 times and 30 different ways in 30 different contexts before the lesson lands hard. We can try to be more open to them, but we generally don't know how to create the conditions in which the learning reliably happens. We have to fall back on repetition and random chance. And yesterday was the 30th time for me to learn an important lesson. I heard this magic phrase:

Yeah... that's how it always is!

The context is in acknowledging the moment of panic when it happens for what it is: nothing more than a pattern of energy in the mind that arises and passes away repeating boring old fears that are clearly a distortion of reality.

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There's nothing new here. I've heard all this before, much of it years ago and some of it more recently:

I could add more, but you get the idea. I know all this. I even understand all this. But somehow, for some reason, I had reached a plateau in my ability to let these thoughts go. At least, it felt this way. How much more sitting meditation do I need to do?! Which phrases should I be repeating to myself?! When will it end?! I couldn't think of which tricks would help me fix the problem...

... until this wonderful phrase entered my ears.

Yeah... that's how it always is!

Maybe I don't need to understand the details. Maybe it's enough to know that this is some stupid trick my mind tries to play on me under stress when I make a few mistakes in a row. Some part of me is trying to protect me, flooding me with reasonable-sounding excuses so that I don't have to feel the pain of not getting what I want. It wants me to doubt myself and I don't even care any more why. It's enough to notice that this is just a stupid pattern my mind falls into. It's doing its best, but it has a clumsy way of trying to help. I don't have to fix it; I can just learn to let it be as it is. I can even learn to love it for trying to help me.

Getting frustrated for forgetting to put good rotation on the ball? Yeah. That's how it always is.

Getting annoyed at the pain in my shoulder that hasn't gone away yet? Yeah. That's how it always is.

Shaking my head when I notice that I threw a ball without even looking at my target? Yeah. That's how it always is.

Looking desperately for some magic mechanical fix that will give me that 260 average that I think I want? Yeah. That's how it always is.

Believing that I just need to find that one magic mental trick that will finally get me out of my own way, release the kraken, and turn me into a competitive force to be reckoned with? Yeah. That's how it always is.

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So...