Should mental training coaches teach athletes to think positive and ignore negativity and failures? In John Branch’s New York Times article The Haunting of Lindsey Jacobellis, he describes the difficulty she had dealing with a mistake during the 2006 Turin Olympic Games. Jacobellis was the world’s most dominant athlete in the short history of snowboard cross, but she made a mistake. She was gliding for the finish line, sure to achieve the gold metal, when she did a little style move, slipped, and fell, which allowed Tanja Frieden of Switzerland to pass her and win the gold. This event haunted Lindsey. She became defined as “that person who showed off, blundered, and lost the gold.” Jacobellis decided to work with a mental training coach, one who wasn’t even a snowboarder: Denise Shull. Shull’s strategy was different than the typical positive thinking approach. Shull explains that “What you want athletes to do is say, ‘I’m afraid,’ because they all are. And if they say it, they can use it. If they try to set it aside, it’s lurking around them, interrupting what they normally know how to do.”
Fears diminish by working through them. They exist for a reason: our survival, whether that survival is physiological or psychological. They won’t go away by ignoring them. By honoring them we allow fears to be acknowledged, expressed, and dissipated.
Branch explains that “It is the opposite of what many sports psychologists and coaches preach, which is to clear the mind and think only positive thoughts. To Shull, to pretend that negativity does not exist is as ridiculous as children holding hands over their ears and shouting ‘nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh’ to avoid hearing what is being said.”
The Warrior’s Way takes this same approach. We call it neutral thinking. We focus on the negative and the positive to see reality for what it is. Otherwise, we live in some illusory reality that can either kill us, make us ineffective, or achieve goals without knowing why we wanted to. Sports are about more than winning; they’re a vehicle to dig deeper into our lives. Who am I? Why am I doing this activity? Why am I pushing myself so hard? You can’t answer these questions with positive thinking. It takes honesty and a willingness to dig into our fears, failures, and the negative side of ourselves. Without this balanced process we’ll find ourselves at the finish line without learning why we wanted to arrive there in the first place.