I often work with clients who are either perfectionists or accustomed to rapid success in most areas of their lives. That’s how they’ve been able to do so well in their professional lives: by maintaining an uncompromising vision of their own potential to excel in current or new endeavors. I respect that tremendously and try to follow such a philosophy as well.
However, the way in which we achieve excellence can be quicker and less detrimental if we limit the tempting, judgmental jabs at ourselves when struggling to succeed.
For my client Suzanne, who’s used to progressing at a fast rate, who ‘gets it’ quickly, challenging balancing exercises can bring out her inner ugly. She is quick to berate herself when struggling through a set of one-legged squats and I observe her meltdown with interest.
My goal is to help her remove the negative personal attacks ("My balance sucks," "I'm pathetic") and learn how to get to the essence of improving the skill.
My objective questions help her focus on what's actually happening rather than how she feels she's doing. I’m not interested in putting her down but I want to help her come up with a solution to do the movement better.
With shame and humiliation off the table, we've taken her feelings out of the equation so she can focus only on the pertinent, objective information about the single-leg squat to achieve a better outcome.
Playing the tape of negativity often enough will lead us to believe our self-generated recordings.
Rather than thinking that the exercise was challenging, Suzanne classified her own ability to execute it as insufficient. I encouraged her to record a new tape with a different message by focusing her answers towards constructive solutions.
If you’re attempting to learn a new skill, whether it be knitting, baking, or skiing, leave your emotions out of the process.
Before you judge yourself incapable of accomplishing a task you need to understand:
1. What is required to do it well
2. What skill level you’re starting from
The Well-Meaning, Misguided Approach
Think of a well-intentioned yet boisterous parent shouting to his daughter from the sidelines at a basketball game. Ella is new to the sport and isn’t yet good enough to execute her father’s instructions. More often than not his ‘helpful’ commentary only makes things worse.
He'll say things like, “Drive it down the lane, honey.” While that might be the right strategy, Ella is having enough trouble just dribbling the ball under control. Inevitably, when she tries to do more than her skill level will allow, she creates a turnover. “That was terrible,” he shouts. “Stay focused!” She was focused—on dribbling—until her overbearing father pushed her beyond her skill level.
The shouting father in this example represents the voice we often use to talk to ourselves when trying something new and Ella represents our actual skill level. Scolding words may work for some highly-skilled technicians as a motivating factor (a la John McEnroe) but will work for few others. They only serve to make us feel bad about what we’re not yet able to do rather than helping us figure out how best to improve.
The Patient, Respectful Approach
When learning to play any sport one easier skill comes before the next, more progressively difficult one. In basketball dribbling comes before layups. So, what’s the point of yelling at yourself for not being able to hit a 3-pointer if you can’t even shoot a free throw? How will negative self-talk be effective in improving your jump shot?
Rather than spending time telling yourself that your jump shot sucks, try objectively analyzing how you missed the shot in order to get it better the next attempt.
Ask yourself objective questions if you didn't achieve the desired outcome. Examples of useful questions to improve your jump shot include, "How far away from the rim was the ball?" (2 inches versus 2 feet dramatically changes how you would approach the next shot.) Likewise, "In what direction did the ball go in relation to the basket?" (2 feet to the right is very different from 2 inches too low).
The better you get at asking yourself objective questions the better (and more accurate) the information you'll glean so that your future attempts will be more likely to hit your mark.
Learning is a proactive process that involves being curious and patient with yourself. If you can remain objective enough to gather pertinent clues from your movements you’ll be better able to put the puzzle together.
Keep on Movin’