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Charlie Unwin - Episode 6 - Thinking in Positives

Watch Episode 6 here


If you would prefer to read Charlie & Amy's latest vlog - check out the video transcript below

Amy Williams:

Hello, it's Amy Williams here for the U Perform channel. We are back with Charlie, our sports psychologist and expert for U Perform. Now, last week, we spoke about the power of having strong beliefs. Today we're going to kind of dribble that down into more positive thinking and the fact that from a really young age, we're all taught to think positively. That's what you just have to do on a day to day basis. Why?

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. And it's a good question because I think sometimes we feel guilty for not thinking positively all the time. Having negative thoughts is really bad, but the reality of it is, and as we discovered last week and in your stories as well, we are going to have the occasional negative thoughts. We're going to have the occasional wobbles. But we can train ourselves to be that person who thinks more positively and research shows that there's huge value in being able to doing that from a performance perspective as well.

So maybe if you're willing to do a quick demonstration...

I'm sure would have seen this at home before, but it's worth reminding ourselves and Amy, all I'm going to ask you to do is pop your arm out in front of you. And your goal is to keep it there and not let me move it. I guess the problem is we've had quite a long day already and you're hungry. I know that much, which means that you're probably just feeling a little bit weak and you're not really going to be able to do it very well at the moment. And it doesn't take too much, probably two fingers. I can sort of pull that down and it's really annoying. Isn't it? So put it up again. And of course, I really want you to channel your focus and attention. Now, I want you to imagine that what you've got here is an iron bar, which is cemented to your body and actually couldn't move. Even if you physically try to, you've got all sorts of reinforcements up here. And it's absolutely pushing it and I can, it's taken definitely a lot more effort from me.

So I'm sure you must have done that before, right. But it kind of reminds us, really simple point, that if we're going to channel our attention or energy into doing something well, we've got to think positively and clearly about what we're doing and the moment we allow kind of distracting and interfering thoughts to creep in, certainly negative thoughts. It doesn't allow us to kind of channel the effort, the energy, the focus that we need to be able to do something well.

Okay. So the other thing is something called 'The Happiness Advantage'. The Happiness Advantage was a book written by Shawn Achor. It's a great book. Fantastic. And he's a positive psychologist, a very inspiring speaker. And he kind of asked this question; what comes first happiness or success. Because, generally what we do know is that when are happy as an emotion, we're more relaxed with thinking more clearly.

Therefore we make better decisions. We're more connected with the world around us or the activities that we're involved with. So being happy does generally have huge advantages, but we tend to set goals for our self and sometimes goals that may not be achieved for years potentially. And of course, what we potentially do is push happiness beyond that sort of cognitive horizon. We're not going to be happy until we've achieved our goals until we have achieved success.

And I think the problem there comes with how we maintain our motivation and how we think positively on a daily basis. If we have a bad training session, suddenly the world ends because we just feel like we're that much further away from our ultimate goals. So his argument was, we should try to bring success and happiness much closer to us. And actually what I would say is that needs to be part of our every day. We need to see the little successes and everything we do. We need to experience pride, satisfaction in doing small things really well. And the research backs that up, the better we are at doing that, the more it enhances our motivation are persistence. It makes us more resilient, but we're less likely to experience anxiety. And all around It's going to improve our performance.

Amy Williams:

So Charlie, it's all very well. We're talking about all these wonderful flowery positive thoughts, but why is it that I feel like, and maybe particularly as an athlete, it's always about the negatives for me and my coach you'd watch a video of your performance and it's like, right, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. These are the things that you've done wrong that you need to work on, that are bad. You know, how can we then almost stop feeling like you're programmed to always go towards those failures and the negatives?

Charlie Unwin:

Okay, well that's probably the first point actually worth addressing is that we are programmed. We are very negatively biased. So it's not that mistakes don't happen. And it's not that we shouldn't focus on how we overcome them. However, what we tend to do is magnify those mistakes beyond that, which is useful for us. So that's, I guess the point that's where we're trying to get to now, why are we negatively biased. If we look at the brain and how the brain works, we have evolved in order to have a super heightened response to threats. Why? Because it keeps us alive. Right? So think about why our brain is there to help us learn, keep us alive fundamentally. If we're walking through the Serengeti, if we were cave men, for example, and we hear a rustle in the bushes, we shouldn't be all kind of positive and curious and just peeping to see what it is we get away from there.

Why? Because we have to assume it's a threat and act accordingly. So the brain has to dominate with threats. And of course the threat now, isn't Sabre to tigers, threats are more of an ego threat. It's how we might look. It's matching our expectations of what we want to happen with what actually happened today. So that's how negative thinking sort of predominates. And by the way, we're about four times negative biased as well. It's huge. If something good happens, something bad happens, we will focus four times more or that thing will blow up four times more in our heads. So that's the kind of level of bias that we're, it's not an exact science, but that's the kind of level of bias that we're looking at.

So we're human, I guess, is the principal there. We shouldn't beat ourselves up. And the goal is to never have negative thoughts. The goal is to recognize them for what they are. That was a mistake. Oh, that was interesting. Throw your hands up in the air and say, how fascinating, you know, what can I learn from that? Now, the other thing, as well if we go on the journey of a typical athletes, we start out in our sports and there are no expectations, right? So we kind of do it because it's fun. We enjoy it. We get better at it almost every time we put our trainers on or every time we put our kit on, because just a bit of practice helps propel us quite a long way. And we learn a lot very quick quickly.

And then we get to the point where the margins of improvement gets smaller and smaller. And we start to notice the things that we should be doing well, but today we didn't. And so we start to take on a lot more negative than perhaps we did when we were starting out and everything was brilliant. The problem here is that these expectations mean that we start to kind of self-edit. We have this view of what we should be doing and getting rights. And we're constantly mapping our self against that. And the problem is that it causes this editing function. It's actually a part of the brain that scientists it's something the brain STEM does. So right at the bottom of our brain there. They found it in freestyle rappers.

I mean, I think what they do is incredible. If you have ever watched 8 mile. So creative, their ability to be able to be creative and think freely in that moment, as the words come out, it means that they have to have total freedom within their brain. The moment they start editing themselves or thinking, how am I doing, what am I going to say? It stops, it stifles that process. And I think most athletes will relate to that process. We almost start to over control it. So we have a problem there with mistakes and being worried about their mistakes. The anticipation of making mistakes almost makes us over control what we're doing. So we don't perform with freedom. And if there's any goal that I have with my athletes, how can we get you just to perform with total freedom?

Amy Williams:

So what's your actual approach to this then? What are the principles that we can take away to work with?

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, well, personally, I've developed an approach that has been informed by neuroscience because I think what we know about the brain and how new neural pathways form in the brain can tell us a lot. Now let me explain that for a second. So there are two mechanisms that it's really important to recognize in the brain. And one leads to a principle called the focus principle and one that I call the motivational principle.

 So if you think about neural pathway in the brain the brain works by joining dots, by making connections. If I do that, that will happen. We can reinforce this connection through repetition. But we can also reinforce it through something called resonance, which is when we reapply emotion to that pathway. Getting good at sports is about forming the right pathways, right? It's as simple as that. If we have well-formed pathways for doing a particular skill in our brain, we will do it very precisely and very consistently. The whole process of training is about building well-formed pathways in the brain. So that's the principle, that's the goal here.

So why positive thinking? Well, think about what a negative pathway is or think about what a mistake engenders. A mistake highlights a pathway that we don't want to exist. So the more we think and invest in that pathway, the more we actually practice it. Now we need to be able to identify what happened there and translate it into the pathway we do want to practice. So that mistake has given me feedback. It's highlighted something that I need to do or think about differently, but the ultimate goal has to be as part of that training process to invest in the positive pathway. Right? So that's, that's the goal. That's what we've got to do. So that's the focus principle.

Now, if I say to you don't think of yellow car, don't think of yellow car...

Amy Williams:

I see a yellow car.

Charlie Unwin:

Exactly. And the more I say don't think of it, and now it's really important. Now what I'm going to do is I'm going to put a pile of cash on the floor. You can have that if you don't think of a yellow car for one minute. Now we're doing something which the brain can't do, which is trying to block out negatives. How do you not think of yellow car? Well, what would you do? What would be your strategy?

Amy Williams:

In my head, I'm trying to mentally image a whole pile of cash and I'm like cash, cash, cash, cash cash. Mentally, try and look at a picture here of cash. But in the background, the reason I'm thinking of that is because of a yellow car. And I could still see the yellow car in my head as well.

Charlie Unwin:

So you're using some kind of distraction technique. And a lot of athletes use this distraction technique. You know, that they're under pressure. They, they notice a negative thought come along their mental conveyor belt. And they know I don't want to think or I'm not meant to be thinking about that and they fight it. And then in the process of fighting it, they think of it far more. So that's just the reality. You're human, right? We all do this. This is fine. What we need to be able to do is replace that for something more compelling. How do you not think of a yellow car? Think of a blue car. Now, the difference here between distracting yourself by thinking of the cash is that the cash is kind of extraneous to the goals that you're doing. So it's got nothing to do with being good at what you do.

What we want you to do is to focus your attention on what you're there to do, focus on what's right in front of you that will enable your performance positively. We're not going to get you to think of any blue car, exactly what shape of blue car and what type of blue, dark, metallic, blue, what do the handles look like? What do the wheels look like? The more I get you to invest in this thought process, what happens to the yellow car. It just kind of disappears off somewhere.

So that's the thing. A) we've got to find the neural circuitry that we want by focusing on what do I want to replace this with? What's the positive version of this? And the second thing, is investing in it. It's the resonance. Now what can enhance resonance in real life is emotion, feeling pride, satisfaction. So one of the tricks to getting better at positive thinking is the capacity to not only identify exactly what the positive version of that was, whether you did it or whether you didn't do it, but also feeling pride and satisfaction in the things that we do well every single day. And being able to write those things down becomes really important. So that those negative thoughts don't get the kind of four times more attention that they need. Kind of make sense?

Amy Williams:

It does. And I'm thinking maybe that's why when I scroll on Instagram, everyone's going on about positive planning and actually write in diaries and having a planner has almost become this quite cool thing to do recently, you know, with everyone's positive mindsets. And I mean, how do people even find time to do all this, but it is maybe simply one line, like I always used to do as an athlete, you know, writing it down every day.

Charlie Unwin:

Do you have time to not do it? Can you afford to not do that stuff? Because otherwise you're just working with the thoughts that rattle around your own head. And I've already explained why they're not always helpful to us. You're right. I think writing things down is helpful. Talking out loud, go through your plan out loud with someone, because what it does is it forces you to highlight or punctuate it with the things you are going to do rather than the things that you're not going to do. So if we can get outside our own heads, whether that's through writing down the plan or talking to the plan out loud, I always get my, my clients before a competition. I don't do any work with them in the days running up that's up to them. But the one thing I will get him to do is call me up and just talk through their plan bit by bit. And it reinforces the positive neural circuitry in the brain. And of course the other area of this will be visualization, which will be something which we'll talk about in due course.

Amy Williams:

Now this is all very well. We're talking about this in a very individual kind of way. I'm starting to think how on earth in a team sport, when you might have this little like negative group and a positive group, how would you get everyone working together and all thinking positively? We can beat the other team?

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, yeah, you're right. In team sports, it's so much harder. And I think it boils down to the kind of protocols that that team puts in place, especially when it comes to performance analysis. I think a lot of teams now have got used to the idea of warming up differently. They all need different things. In the changing room and you get some kind of smashing their heads against the wall and listening to rock music and others just sitting there very calmly inside their own head. I think it's after the performance, when you know the mistakes are there, they've just won or they've just lost. And the emotions are leading the thoughts as we mentioned.

 You know, one really good example of this came from the England rugby team in 2003, when they won the world cup and Clive Woodward was very hot on this particular protocol. And it was a really simple way of applying what we've spoken about.

So he would argue that when they had a disappointing performance or they had lost the game and their emotions were low, what people tended to do was focus on the negative focus on the bad things, but you'll do that because the emotions are leading you there. So what he said was rather than get around a table and analyze our performance whilst feeling low, get away for the weekends, spend time with family, take your mind off it. And on Monday morning, we're going to come in, we're going to have a meeting, we'll identify one or two things that would have led to a different outcome, and we will fit them into our goals for the following week. So we'll get to a positive place, but importantly, he recognized that the emotion wasn't helpful.

 However, he said that the opportunity that a lot of coaches miss is when we've had a good performance, when emotions are high, when we're excited, when we're proud or satisfied, he said, that's when I get them in on a Sunday morning, straight after the game, sat around the table, talking about their experience and what that inevitably ended up doing was highlighting all the things that allowed them to produce that result. And they're improving their focus. So by doing that, they're reinforcing the neural circuitry, that lead to that good technique or that good move, but then they also have the resonance there. So they are fast tracking that pathway by having the positive emotion that kind of runs through it. So that's a very simple way of being able to ensure that we train our positive beliefs whilst, whilst getting the most from the mistakes that we make.

Amy Williams:

Well, just quickly rounding up, any more, very quick tips that we can give our viewers to take away with them.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. I think, I think we've covered quite a lot in there and I suppose one last thing would be around savoring and it links to that point on using positive emotion when it's there. I think very often in the busy-ness of life, we fall into the trap of thinking that because we're busy, we're getting things done, we're making progress. And I don't think people should confuse movements with making progress. I think it's really important that we give ourselves time to do this stuff. And in particular, get to the end of the day or even the end of a training session and just reflect on what we did and how we did it and make sure that we are savoring. Savoring is a culinary term for holding the taste in your mouth. But actually it's a psychological term as well. And it's used to describe the process of holding a thought in your head or holding a positive emotion in your head. If we hold it for a little bit longer than we would, if we just sort of ran off and did the next thing in our day, we reinforce that a little bit more. And over time that can have a really profound effect.

Amy Williams:

Fascinating. I'm definitely going to work on that today. Brilliant. Thank you, Charlie. Well, I've loved listening to you today. I hope you have too, please subscribe and set yourself those reminders because next week we're going to be talking a little bit more about that relationship with success and failure and how we can get into the mindset of a champion. Super interesting. So see you then!


Tune in next time for Episode 7!

See you then!

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