Are You Trying Too Hard?
One of the best and worst aspects of modern-day sport psychology is our sheer number of theories. Wow, there is a lot to choose from. The upside of having so many frameworks to draw from is it’s rare we encounter a challenge without at least some empirical guidance. Struggling with your confidence? No worries, we’ve got you covered. Finding yourself in the middle of a motivation rut during the middle of the season? Easy Peasy, we’ve got about a dozen processes specifically designed to help with that.
But of course, there is a downside as well. Information overload! Due in part to the fact that we employ several sport psychologists and performance psychologists and, therefore, are ethically obliged to agree with one another to a certain degree, we have always been interested in organising these theories in some way.
A Theory For All The Theories
By organising, I mean sorting them into different types. For example, which of them contain useful and useable processes? When you examine many of these models properly, you’ll be surprised how many don’t contain applied advice.
Let’s take the Theory of Internal And External Motivation as an example. It is a great concept but falls short regarding practical tips. So, for example, running a workshop on types of motivation for a group of athletes rarely impacts their actual motivation.
Then, there are some theories that virtually nobody has come across. And yet, without too much creativity, they are packed with usable recommendations. The Law of Reverse Effect is just one of these.
Have You Heard About The Law of Reverse Effect?
The Law of Reverse Effect is sometimes called The Law of Reversed Effect (with a ‘d’ at the end of reverse) or The Law of Reverse Effort or The Backwards Law.
Classic psychology, we can’t even agree on the thing’s name!
Speaking of which, have you voted yet for what you believe should be the correct spelling of sport(s) psychology from now on? If not, you can vote here to have your say.
Anyway, The Law of Reverse Effect suggests that “the greater the conscious effort, the less the subconscious response” or “whenever the will (conscious mind) and imagination (subconscious) conflict, the imagination (subconscious) always wins.”
At some point, when your motor skills are automated enough (muscle memory has been established), then trying hard to hit the ball, stick the dismount, or make the right incision (surgeon) will have the reverse effect and potentially make you worse. It would be like trying hard to walk better.
How is this possible? Surely, putting in the maximum effort is universally beneficial. Wrong.
To explain, we need to tap into a little bit of neuroscience. When you complete a body movement, your basal ganglia and cerebellum attempt to learn how it was done. The more you repeat the same movement, the stronger the memory of the muscles becomes. After a while, the movement becomes automatic. In other words, it can be done and prefers to be done without conscious effort. One of the best examples is walking for able-bodied people.
Thinking about how to complete this body movement acts as a circuit breaker for this automatic process. Muscle memory is blocked, and your body returns to a novice/learning mode. The prefrontal cortex overrides the basal ganglia and cerebellum. As you can imagine, in the work that we do, this is very useful information. It informs us that it is not that trying too hard is the problem but rather what type of effort is best avoided.
Have You Worked It Out Yet?
That’s right, it is the mental effort related to the technical aspects of what you do. The biomechanics of the putt, punt, pass or pivot. In essence, the last thing we want to think about when you are lining up to take the corner kick is how to kick the soccer ball.
So, if we spare ourselves from the technical or biomechanical elements of effort when we are under pressure to perform, what does that leave us with? It leaves us with mental effort about something other than technique.
For example, saying to yourself “trust your processes or stick to your processes” doesn’t interfere with the neurones involved in automatic muscle memory. So these cognitions can coexist quite happily with allowing your body to do what it’s learnt how to do.
The same applies to reminding oneself about tactical aspects. Let’s use the previous example about taking a penalty in soccer/football. The decision about where to aim the shot is both necessary and non-interfering of muscle memory.
These mental and tactical endeavours are already occurring in the conscious front part of the brain. Therefore, by their very nature, they are completely out of the way of the basal ganglia and cerebellum. No short-circuiting is taking place.
Thoughts Are Not Essential
Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention in an article of this type that there is no need to have any pre-meditated thoughts before or during one of these memorised body movements. The basal ganglia and cerebellum will do their job whilst you are thinking about almost anything other than how to do that skill.
Please note that this is only for expert performers whose skills are already automated. This does not apply to novices learning the skills for the first time.
To cut through all of this psychobabble, I often give advice to my sporting clients as follows. Put all your effort eggs into the preparation basket, and then come competition time, turn up and let it happen. And yes, this also applies at the highest levels of competition, such as world championships and the Olympics. It’s, in fact, even more important in these kinds of high-pressure situations.
Interested But Need A Hand?
Has this article piqued your interest in improving either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance? Then Get In Touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at [email protected] and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services.