One Word that will Sabotage Performance Every Time

Thoughts matter. Thoughts drive performance. An athlete’s thoughts direct her emotions, physical state, and behavior. Unfortunately, many athletes battle with counterproductive, discouraging thoughts – worries, doubts, and fears. Coaches can help athletes take control of their thoughts. Start by encouraging athletes to never say “don’t.”

Self-Talk, Thoughts, Thoughts Drive Performance, Don’t Say Don’t, Don’t Don’t Yourself, Words Matter, Self-fulfilling Prophecy, Sport Psychology, Mental Toughness, Resilience, Team Culture, Culture Development, Mental Conditioning, Mental Training, Mental Game, Mindset

World Series Blunder

One of the most infamous errors in World Series history came in Game 6 of the 1986 series between the Red Sox and the Mets.

Mookie Wilson was up to bat for the Mets in the bottom of the 10th inning. The game was tied with two outs, a full count, and runners on 1st and 2nd bases.

Wilson hit a routine ground ball to Gold Glove first baseman, Bill Buckner, who allowed the ball to go between his legs. The Mets won Game 6 and the World Series.

What was Bucker thinking? Before the series, Buckner told reporters his worst fear was that “you’d let the winning run score on a ground ball through your legs.” Eerie right?

We don’t know what went through Buckner’s mind as the ball bounced toward first base for what could have been the final out. However, like many athletes I’ve worked with, he might have been thinking, “Don’t mess up” or “Don’t mishandle the ball.”

Why “Don’t” Doesn’t Work

You’ve heard athletes say, “Don’t miss,” “Don’t screw up,” or “Don’t blow it.”

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens.

It seems that as long as a batter, for example, is focused on NOT striking out, he is increasing his chances of striking out. Why is that?

“Don’t” Tricks the Brain

Our brains think in pictures. Because of the mind-body connection, the body tries to turn those pictures into reality. This is the same scientific principle behind the “what you see you can achieve” messages you may have heard.

However, left unchecked, this truth can ruin an athlete’s performance.

Try this activity for yourself:
  • Don’t think of a yellow school bus…
  • Don’t think about a red apple…
  • Don’t think about missing the free throw…

How did you do? My guess is, you failed. You couldn’t stop yourself from thinking of the forbidden picture. That’s normal.

The brain doesn’t have an picture for the word “don’t.” It’s like a silent letter of a word; it gets omitted and ignored. The brain is just left to picture the yellow school bus.

Therefore, an athlete who is thinking, “Don’t miss” before a penalty kick, free throw, or stepping into the batters box is likely to fail too.

Replace “Don’t” with an Affirmative

Coaches, athletes, and sport parents would do well to simply eliminate the term from their vocabulary. Start to speak in the affirmative – what you want to happen rather than what to avoid.

A few suggestions:
  • “Don’t forget…” becomes “Remember to…”
  • “Don’t miss…” becomes “Make….”
  • “Don’t blow it….” becomes “I’ve got this…”
A timeout example:

“If he fakes the shot, don’t jump to block it,” becomes “If he fakes the shot, stand tall and get your hands up so you’ll be ready for his next move.”

You get the idea.

This paints a picture of success. The brain sees the desired outcome – a made goal, hit ball, or caught touchdown. Science tells us this will also increase the chances of the athlete producing success.

Bonus Download

To help you educate your athletes about the brain’s blind spot with the word “DON’T,” I developed this free poster, you can share with you team.

Click here to subscribe

Keep It Positive

As a coach, your instruction often becomes your athletes’ self-talk (what they say to themselves). As in most things, your language and word choice set the tone.

Start using affirmative instruction – what you want athletes to do rather than what you want them to avoid. Then, explain to your team why you do it. They’ll catch on. They’ll copy you. Most importantly, it will have a positive impact on their performance…they might even remember all their gear.

Question: How have you seen “don’t” sabotage an athlete’s performance?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.


Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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