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“How the hell did you just do that?”
My teammate, Jimmy, shows me the same athletic trick he had just performed moments earlier. He plants one of his arms back behind him and seemingly flips backwards using only one arm. “What a badass,” I think. Jimmy’s so cool. I try it too but flop onto a soft patch of grass.
“BE ATHLETIC ABOUT IT!”
Say what, Jimmy? I had just received the most confusing piece of advice I had ever heard.
Technically, Jimmy was right. My back was slouched, my hips weren’t engaged, and my arm was not in full extension. Of course, I didn’t figure that out until years later when I understood athleticism (see Yandro Quintana). It turns out, Jimmy had already subconsciously internalized all those separate points. I had not, and that’s where the confusion was.
It’s a silly example, but can be applied to other things. Sometimes, simple principles need deeper explanations. Those with less experience typically need more guidance.
Here’s another one that bothered me for years. Since I had a habit of overthinking during a performance or competition, someone told me to “just stop thinking so much.” Great. Now how the hell do I stop my thoughts?
“Just stop thinking!”
Thanks, jerk. You just said the same damn thing with two less words. Very helpful.
What’s going on here?
In many cases, crappy advice comes with two qualities- oversimplification and ineffective words.
For the record, I’m guilty of this too.
Picture this. A co-worker, teammate, peer, student, significant other, or whoever else is freaking out about something. Maybe he or she needs advice on something that seems rather trivial.
“Oh, that’s easy. Just do [X]!”
“Come on, man. Don’t worry. Just stop thinking so much!”
On the delivering end, this is great. Plain and simple. Problem solved! Yay.
On the receiving end, this advice can be clear as mud. They probably looked at you like you told them to go from point A to point F. Wait a minute. What about B, C, D, and E?
I’ve been on both the delivering and receiving end. At first, I thought nothing of it. Then, I realized what I was doing when someone basically told me to go from point A to point Y. Yikes.
A few other examples of oversimplification:
“Do you know how Bill Gates is so rich? It’s because…wait for it… he saves more money than he spends!”
“To lose weight, all you gotta do is work out more and eat less!”
“Michael Phelps wins Olympic gold medals because he swims fast.”
Technically correct, but not particularly helpful.
How exactly did Bill Gates get rich? What skills did he need to learn? What actions did he take?
What should I be eating? What workouts should I be doing? What else should I be doing with my lifestyle?
What’s his training schedule like? How much does he eat? What does he do to recover?
The point here is that details get missed when you oversimplify. Of course, it’s certainly possible to overcomplicated too (see any accounting or law textbook), so it’s important to note that optimal information comes in the form of both principles and specific points. Once you understand the principles, the details tend to make logical sense. I’m not saying that simple advice is bad. I’m saying that if you’re really trying to understand or teach something, simple advice is not enough.
A sports psychologist once told me that the words “don’t,” “stop,” and “no” are difficult for the brain to process. This is because it involves thinking about the sentence, and effectively thinking about doing the opposite. A couple of examples:
Don’t think of the pink elephant.
Come on, dude, I said not to think of the pink elephant.
“Don’t scratch that mosquito bite!”
“BUT BUT BUT WHY? THIS IS SO ITCHY AAAAAGHH” *scratch*
Exactly. See my point? Easier said than done.
Instead, try to phrase the action in a way that takes out the negative word. “Don’t slow down” turns into “Keep moving fast!” “Don’t stop” turns into “Keep going!”
Being as direct as possible with your words makes it easier for the brain to process. It also gives your mind a different idea or action to focus on.
Back to my Personal Example: How to Gain Control Over Your Thoughts
Now that we’ve established why the phrase “Just don’t think about it” isn’t helpful, here’s what helped me with overthinking during performances or competition.
In mental training, you learn that focus lies in the absence of distraction. The thoughts are still there, but you simply make the choice to pull your attention to something more productive. For some people, this takes more practice than others.
In particular, I would reach a state of true focus by bringing my attention to the present moment. Personally, I do this by focusing on my own breathing. In this state, the thoughts don’t bother me. Those thoughts didn’t disappear, of course. In a peak performance or flow state, your attention is in the present. You’ve effectively replaced the center of your attention with something else.
There you have it. Distraction-free focus in the mind.
What other crappy, oversimplified advice have you gotten over the years?