“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” – Quote from Dostoïevski, in his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.

The young Dostoïevski challenged his brother not to think about a polar bear, leaving him perplexed and confused.

In 1987, Daniel Wegner, American social psychologist, discovered the Dostoïevski quote and decided to test its validity. He asked a first group of students (group A) to concentrate on something other than a polar bear for 5 minutes, ringing a bell each time they thought about a polar bear. Next, he asked the group to intentionally think about a polar bear and to carry out the same task.

A comparison group (group B) were asked to think about a polar bear for 10 whole minutes.

Not only were the first group, group A, incapable of suppressing the thought of polar bears for the 5 first minutes, but this group continued to think more about polar bears during the 5 last minutes than the group who weren’t trying to suppress the thought.

Suppressing negative thoughts

Jennifer Borton and Elisabeth Casey, of Hamilton College in New York, decided to continue this experiment and carry out their own study. They asked a group to identify the most unpleasant thought that they have about themselves. The group were then divided into two sub-groups. Group A had to dispel this thought from their mind for 11 days. Group B did not receive any specific advice. Over the 11 days, every person in group A and B had to note every evening how often this unpleasant thought occurred, their mood, their anxiety and self-esteem levels.

The result? The members of group A ended up thinking more often about the negative thought they were trying to dispel, and they described themselves as being more anxious and less confident.

These classic studies show that suppression creates the very worry it is directed at, as well as lowering self-esteem and affecting mood.

As an athlete, what can you take from this experience?

The trick to outwitting your brain

In our sports training, we often try to avoid negative thoughts or thinking about past mistakes, or thinking about stress.

Did you know that…your brain holds back the message in your thoughts, and not the meaning or intention behind it. Therefore, if you think about not having negative thoughts, the subject is negative thoughts, and that is therefore what you will focus your attention on. It is the same when it comes to stress or mistakes.

Keeping this in mind, you have 2 options to achieve what you want:

  1. When you have a goal, say what you want to achieve, and not what you want to avoid.
  2. When a negative thought appears, welcome it, without judgment, without wearing yourself out trying to fight it, then redirect your attention towards something positive which makes you feel good.

Direct your attention towards the right place

This week, pay attention to the way in which you express your words and your thoughts. Do you have a tendency to say what you what to avoid, or to say what you would like to achieve?

To gain the best results, direct your attention towards what you want to achieve. For example, instead of not thinking about your stress, you could say to yourself that you want to feel calm and bring your focus to your breath. Or even, instead of not making mistakes, you could concentrate on specific technical aspects that guide your performance, like keeping your eyes on the ball or feeling a particular muscle movement.