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Try not to Think

I'm sitting down to write the first draft of this post after dropping our daughter off at her weekly gymnastics class.

As I was waiting for her to go into her class, we were watching some other gymnasts doing work on the balance beam.

One gymnast in particular was lined up to perform a move, and they seemed to be a bit stuck.

Not physically stuck. Mentally stuck.

One of their parents was sitting behind me, and said to the gymnast, "Try not to think about it!"

Let's talk about this.

Trying not to think about something.

That's basically impossible isn't it?

Sometimes when we try not to think about something, it's like our brain says, "Well actually, I'm going to think only about the thing you're trying not to think about."

I don't know enough about neuroscience or psychology to explain this, so instead I'd like to offer an idea from the world of sport.

Professional tennis players hit a tennis ball very, very hard.

Despite this, I've heard that these players can reach such a high level of concentration on the court that they can actually see the rotations of the ball in mid-flight.

It's as if the ball comes to them in slow motion.

I don't think professionals are trying not to think about it when they're doing whatever it is they do.

In fact, I think the opposite is true.

I think they're thinking very hard about something very specific.

The specific thing is so specific that it's likely impossible for an amateur to notice.

It's so zoomed in that it can make time feel like it's slowing down.

When we're stuck trying not to think about something, that thing can often feel quite big in our minds.

For that gymnast from earlier, perhaps the specific steps of the move felt really big in their mind.

Perhaps what sports can teach us is that in these moments, we actually need to think small. Really small.

Small enough to notice the lines on a ball that's spinning over 3,000 times per minute.

dark green background with a white tennis ball on it

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