Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why Sport Cognition?

      After shooting a third round 76 to drop out of contention in this year’s Masters tournament, Sergio Garcia made the following statement: “I don’t think I have what it takes to win a major golf tournament.”  And when asked what the missing element was, he responded: “Everything.”  Many in the golf world were shocked by such an announcement from the player who was once chosen to be The One to challenge Tiger, but is now spoken of as someone whose main enemy is himself.  In fact, he is quite open about his turmoils, as in this comment from last year, “It’s not happy days out there on the course.  I’m not going to lie.  It’s difficult.”  Such comments are distressing, because if he’s making statements like that to the press, he’s saying much worse to himself.  And while sport is not ALL about the self-talk, we must acknowledge and marvel at the incredible, self-fulfilling power of self-talk.  Just ask Vijay Singh, who in 2008 claimed that he was the best putter in the world and then went on to have one of his most successful years, sinking putts from everywhere, winning the first two playoff events (the first in a playoff against Sergio) and ultimately, the entire FedEx cup.  But, more than just a quick lesson about self-talk, these statements point to the ultimate value of healthy sport cognition as a crucial element in any athlete’s quiver, no matter what level.  Here are just three reasons why you, too, should be considering talking to a sport cognition specialist.  Just not Sergio’s.

  1. Sport cognition is life cognition.  Perhaps the best reason to know more about your own cognitive patterns in sport is because they are the same cognitive patterns you engage off the course, the court, the track or the pitch.  Indeed, I would argue that the aspect about sport that makes it such an important endeavor is not (just) so that we can taste the joy of victory and the agony of defeat, but so that we can come to know ourselves better.  In that regard, competitive sport involves an intense confrontation with the self.  We don’t do sport for the Roman reason (healthy mind in healthy body) but rather for the Greek (know thyself).  The brutal aspect of sport is how laid bare we are by our defeats and our shortcomings, as Sergio well attests.  But, in them lie the greatest opportunities: for understanding, for improvement, for soul-fashioning and for a heightened awareness and appreciation of our allotted time.  As I have said before in these bytes, getting closer to the difficulties is not only the way through them, but also the way to seize the tremendous opportunities they represent.
  2. Know your cognitive traps.  Closely connected to this idea is the fact that we all have cognitive habits that we fall prey to.  Whether you call them biases, distortions or just patterns, it is important to know your default settings.  Do you engage in rigid perfectionism (a shot, round, match or tournament is either a fantastic success or a brutal failure; “I’m either great, or terrible.”  “There was nothing good about that round.”)?  Do you tend toward the pessimistic or catastrophic (“This’ll probably miss.”  “I’ll probably lose.” “That double bogey ruined the entire round, and with it, my chance for a happy life.”)?  Are you magical or grandiose (“This seven-iron into a 2-club wind can carry that 200 yard water hazard, no problem.” “I’m so far ahead, no one can catch me now.”).  Do you have a tendency toward anxiety (i.e. worrying about the big bunker on the sixth hole when you’re teeing off on the third; “Oh my god, this hole looks so hard.”  “This field is SO strong.”  “Maybe I’ll mess up and look foolish.”)?  Remember that these patterns and biases get reinforced not only by thinking them repeatedly, but by taking an often incomplete data set as proof that you should continue to think this way.  That is the insidious nature of them and working to bring them to light and challenge them as often as necessary is an important step to better performance and a better life.  And again, sport is a great avenue into knowing these traps more intimately because they emerge much more obviously in the kind of high tensile situations offered by sport.  Though tough to spot in any arena, catching our cognitive traps in our daily non-sporting lives can be as hard as catching flies with chopsticks.
  3. Have your cognitive distortions become self concepts?  When we have met with serious challenges and have endured hard failures, a set of thoughts and beliefs spring up which over time become calcified into negative beliefs about the self.  “I struggle with putting,” becomes, “I can’t putt.”  “I can’t putt,” becomes “I can’t win.”  “I can’t win” becomes “I’m a loser.”  As you see, an initial frustration becomes a cognitive distortion which ushers in a cascade of hopelessness regarding the possibility for improvement, doubt regarding our reasons for playing the game and ultimately, diminished faith in ourselves as effective agents in our lives.  Sergio’s comments reveal how undermining it can be to let a belief fester in the dark cavities of shame such that what was initially a blister is now a callus.  Abrade the skin!  Pick the scab!  Air it out!  And don’t stop until you’ve overturned every stone.  Maybe, somewhere lingering in the darkness is a technical flaw you didn’t know about.  (Think here of Nick Watney who received a tip involving a slight weight transfer in his putting stance right before this year’s Barclay’s and then putted the lights out to win the tournament.)  Or maybe, what appears as a technical flaw is really the reflection of some cognitive distortion that is eroding your potential like termites in a load-bearing wall.  Or perhaps what is most likely is that the distinction between a technical and a cognitive challenge is specious, since every technical challenge involves a cognitive skill, and any cognitive lapse will manifest itself technically.

    Cognitive work, like any other striving toward excellence, is not easy.  But, that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, ponderous work to be relegated to the semi-lit, confessional sanctum of a therapist’s office.  No.  The work includes three basic elements attainable to anyone possessed of enough desire and willfulness: 1) a steadfast commitment to knowing one’s mind better; 2) a ruthless honesty to admitting to what the mind is saying when the chips are down; and 3) daily practice of more effective thought patterns to offset or soften the ineffective ones.  Of course, number 4 doesn’t hurt either: someone willing to help you do the work.  The potential gains are limitless.  Sergio stands as evidence enough of the pitfalls of letting the demons of faulty cognition tell the final story.  Someone have him call me, immediately!

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