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How Not to Psych Yourself Out

States of mind

In just over a week I’ll be attending the annual winter black belt testing of my Taekwondo Association, where I’ll be among the candidates, testing for my second dan (degree) black belt. In preparation, we’ve been practicing (among other things) board breaking. Once you know what you’re doing, board breaking is generally either easy or impossible.

Board breaking is a high stakes activity, which makes it an excellent example of a situation where it’s easy to psych yourself out. When you break boards at Blue Wave testing, you’re the center of attention–there’s nothing else happening at just that moment–and you’re being watched especially by the senior black belts of the association, people who have been doing Taekwondo for decades and whom you tend to respect and admire. If you fail to make your breaks, you may fail your test overall and not be able to test again for six months. Also, there’s the potential for personal injury, either to yourself or to the people holding the boards. It can be hard not to think about what can go wrong.

If you’re interested, consider this video from a Taekwondo group in Culver City, California. I don’t know if any failed breaks have been edited out, but there are a few occasions where the person misses, including at least two where they hit the board holder’s hand instead of the board. You won’t see much flagging confidence here, which I think does this group credit, but getting to that point isn’t easy.

In this way, board breaking is a lot like other high-pressure situations: competitions, job interviews, first dates, speeches, public demonstrations, and so on.  If you start feeling confident, then everything may go beautifully. If you begin to question yourself, it can be hard to get back on track.

I don’t have final and perfect solutions to this problem, but since I’ll be doing three kinds of board breaks at testing, I’ve made a point of trying to learn what I could about not psyching myself out. Here’s what I’ve got.

Practice makes it easy
I go on about practice a lot on this blog, because there’s immense evidence from research that practice is the crucial element that makes people good at skills. How many times have you seen someone try something new and say “I guess I’m just not good at this”? Of course they’re not good at it yet: their brains are still trying to make sense of the activity and haven’t built any dedicated neural connections to make it go smoothly! Days, weeks, or months later, after some practice, the same person make appear to be naturally gifted at whatever it is.

When we’re faced with a performance situation, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the details–but if you’ve practiced enough, you’ve already worked out the details. I watched a fellow testing candidate yesterday have trouble with several different technical aspects of a difficult break, but she later came back and smashed through perfectly. The technical problems weren’t because she didn’t know where to place her foot or how to orient her body: they were because she was losing confidence. The more you practice, the less likely it is that even disruptive situations will get in the way of your confidence. Fortunately, my friend from last night had practiced hard for a long time, and when she was in the right mindset, her good kicking habits took over.

One comment about practicing, an insight a senior black belt shared with me yesterday: practicing in as close to the real situation as possible is important. For example, you might be used to delivering speeches in a conference room, but not in an auditorium. If you’re nervous about a big speech, then, it could help to borrow the auditorium when it’s not in use and try it there. The same applies to breaking boards: practice with someone standing there holding a target for you. When you come back for the real thing, not only will you be faced with fewer surprises or new circumstances to cope with, but your brain will already have the connection for that activity in that circumstance: it will feel more natural.

Find a focus
When practicing one of my own breaks last week, my first attempt not only didn’t break my target, but missed it by a foot. I may not be perfect, but I’m not that bad: I was clearly getting in my own mental way. My instructor advised me to go “straight up and straight back,” which is to say to jump up cleanly, chambering both knees, then kick straight out behind me. Having this to focus on took my mind off the various distractions I was coming up with for myself and allowed me to tap into my good habits. I jumped, kicked out behind me, and broke through three boards, exactly as I hope to do it at testing.

One of the key reasons this works is that the easiest way not to think of something is to think of something else. Because I’m sometimes a contrary person, for instance, whenever someone says “Don’t think of a pink elephant” (and oddly, this has come up several times for me), I immediately think of a blue giraffe, because as human beings we’re very bad at doing nothing. Not doing one thing, for us, generally means choosing to do something else.

Warm up with something that makes you feel confident
I mentioned my friend practicing breaks yesterday, and how her later attempts went so well. What was the difference between the earlier and later kicks? Her very first attempt was good, but not quite confident enough, so that she hit the boards solidly but without enough forward momentum to break them. The senior black belt I mentioned earlier took her away from the boards and had her do practice kicking for just a couple of minutes, the way we do when sparring–and she had sparred so much, this was a very comfortable, confident activity for her. When she came back from it, she jumped, kicked, and smashed through. She had transported herself into a mental state in which where she felt confident and focused, and then attempted the tough task while still in that mindset. Even though she won’t have the opportunity to do that at testing, she’ll remember the feeling and, if all goes well, be able to apply it.

“Just do the thing”?
One piece of advice I can’t really comment on intelligently yet is the “just do the thing” approach, where you’re urged to put your thoughts aside and just do whatever it is. On the one hand, this is exactly what we need to do in high-pressure situations: put aside our misgivings and go for it with complete confidence. On the other hand, though, this seems like more the result of overcoming anxiety than a means of overcoming it. It may be natural advice for someone to give when they’ve seen you do something well and you’re not currently tapping into it, but I’m not sure that it’s always something we can get a handle on to change our thinking.

It’s true, though, that being confident means to some extent putting aside caution, sense, and vigilance. You can’t successfully jump up out of a trench and start shooting at the enemy, or try to put your foot through several inches of solid wood, or make a speech to a thousand people, without running the risk of catastrophic failure. Well, and so what? The only alternative to risking failure is never trying, and where’s the challenge in that?

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