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Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant!

Article published in Update – The Wellington Croquet Association Magazine
New Zealand - March 2003

So what’s the first thing you thought about? Obviously, a pink elephant! But what on earth has a pink elephant got to do with croquet – or anything else for that matter?

A Pink Elephant

Perhaps I can explain ….

When I first joined Plimmerton Croquet Club in 2000, I was astonished to be told that I would be given six lessons – of three hours each. What a gift! In these lessons I learned how the experts performed the skills we all aspire to (and I found really hard) and the incomprehensible strategy of playing the game. Gradually over the next year I practised the skills while the strategy eluded me. Over the following year I began to understand the strategy of forward play, and then found that the skills needed improvement to keep up with what I knew I wanted to do. They still do!
In addition to skills and strategy, however, I soon learned that, more than in any other sport I have played, there are two more, equally important, assets. One is common to all sport, ‘positive self-talk’, and the other is peculiar to croquet, patience.

Let’s deal with patience first. On any given day, our standard of play may vary. One day we may be unstoppable. On another, we might be just a bit ‘off’. Our opponent may well experience the same. It stands to reason then, that a good approach to any game is to make good decisions and execute them to the best of our ability (at any given moment).

If our opponent is unstoppable, we have two choices. We can either watch and admire (and be delighted for them) or we can begin to worry as they go farther and farther ahead. If we do the former, we can be patient and wait for our turn to do our best again and we may well get our chance at some time. If we do the latter, we are less likely to feel relaxed and able to enjoy our turn when it eventually arrives.

Someone has to win! If it’s not our turn that day, then we can enjoy the pleasure of someone else. We could set different goals that day. To make long roquets, to fine tune takeoffs, to minimize risk – all sorts of goals that will make the game fun for us too and give our opponent a run for their money.

As for a ‘positive attitude’, I have come to believe that the absence of this is the greatest stumbling block to success, and that’s not just in croquet! You may have heard some of the following comments around the lawns. “I can’t do anything today”, “I always miss hoops from this angle”, “I never get roquets from this distance”, “I miss my rushes”, “I’m useless”, “I may as well give up this game”, “I’ll miss that”, “my takeoffs are all wrong”, and so on. And if we hear these comments said out loud, how many more are being said inside people’s heads? How much “beating ourselves up” is going on in there?

How often do you hear comments like, “I’m hitting the ball well today”, “I’m making great hoops”, “I’m getting my takeoffs really close”, “I’m getting really good rush positions”, and so on. If we don’t say them out loud, do they go on inside our heads? Perhaps not often enough!

Well, you might say, “it isn’t the Kiwi way to brag”! How sad! It isn’t the English way either, but it is so good for the brain! So what about saying these things inside our heads so that no one else can hear? You see, our brain can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. It will honestly believe anything you tell it. (I should just say here that if you tell your brain that you can run 100 metres in 9 seconds and you are not physically capable of doing that, then you would be disappointed!) So be realistic!

Let’s consider what you say to yourself as you approach a hoop. Here are two choices:

  1. I hope I don’t miss this!
  2. This looks really easy!

All things being equal, which comment is likely to give you the confidence to go through the hoop easily? Which is more likely to make your body relax? Certainly not the former.

The other important thing to remember is that our brain cannot compute the negative. So, when we tell it not to think of a pink elephant, what does it do? It immediately thinks of a pink elephant. The brain is very obedient. So when we tell ourselves “I’m hopeless”, the brain complies, like good brains do.

So, how do we change our “self-talk”? Well, here’s something that might help. Think of a time when you were playing superbly. Roquets were meeting their mark 80% of the time. Your takeoffs were not only close, they were on the side of the ball you wanted them to be on. You were running hoops smoothly and fluently. We’ve all had games like that, haven’t we?

Before you embark on an important game, one that you want to win, sit or stand somewhere quietly for just 2-3 minutes. Remember that time clearly and imagine that you are back in that game, in that moment, in the present. Picture the lawn, your opponent, the surroundings, the positions of your balls, the sky, the grass – anything else you can see. Then make your picture brighter and clearer and the colours more vivid. Next, remember what you can hear, the sound of your mallet hitting the ball, the satisfying clunk as it makes contact, the quiet buzz of someone talking, the sound your feet make as you walk to your next shot, birds, traffic – anything else you can hear. Then make the sounds louder and clearer. Finally, remember how you feel, the total concentration, the speed of your breathing, the excitement in your chest, the satisfaction of making a good break – anything else you can feel. Make that feeling even stronger. When you can see, hear and feel that memory really strongly, ‘anchor’ it – that is, place it strongly into your memory, or, if you prefer, touch a spot on your body where that memory will be safe. (Later, you can touch that same spot and the memory will come back to you).

Now go and play your game. When things go the way you expect, reinforce your ‘anchor’. When you miss a roquet you were hoping to make, reinforce your ‘anchor’ even more strongly. Missing happens! It is not an opportunity to fall back into the old ways and start on the negative self-talk again.

And remember, habits are formed after at least seven repetitions! Fifty would be better! Perhaps, if you do it often enough, it will begin to come naturally. You will actually notice when you find yourself saying something negative and change your language as fast as you can! Good luck with the games you really want to win! And one last thought, winning isn’t everything! Enjoy the gift that croquet brings, and be thankful!

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