Edition 25 (Oct 2014)

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Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.

The Magical Number Seven

By Gareth J. Mole (PSY0001372747)

No, this edition of the ‘MTD’ is not about Ronaldo’s shirt number nor the number of players on a waterpolo or netball team. It’s about a psychological fact that is so old and undisputed that even many practising psychologists have forgotten about it (or more likely, were never made aware of it in the first place). But not our sport and performance psychologists. In fact, it’s so important in the work we do it can be seen woven into almost every aspect of our efforts to help enhance the mental toughness of those we work with and for.

The psychological fact, known as Miller’s Law, suggests that most human beings “like” to have complex concepts or options broken down into about seven categories or options. “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” was published in 1956 by the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller of Princeton University’s Department of Psychology in Psychological Review.

Try it right now! Take a second to look at the random letters below for 3 seconds, then look away and attempt to remember them by repeating them back to yourself or writing them down:


How did you go? Now try this sequence:


If you’re like most people, you will have found the second sequence much, much harder than the first. In fact, it often feels twice as difficult despite the fact that the second series only has 3 more letters than the first.

What Miller’s Law is really suggesting (and you have just experienced first hand if you did the above experiment) is that our capacity to have between five and nine ‘intangibles’ on our mind at any one time is pretty good. Any more than nine (the second sequence has 10 letters), and we run the serious risk of overcomplicating the situation either to ourselves or to others. Some classic example of unnecessary overcomplicating thoughts often come from the Technical and Tactical areas of performance. I recall once working with some elite squash coaches and when I set them the challenge of coming up with the total number of squash shots they quickly got to 71! When I forced them to categorise them they soon came up with nine general types of shot each with between 6 and 8 versions of that shot – a great example of how the principles of Miller’s Law were used to make something easier for the end user. Another set of examples comes from dynamic team sports where tactics (strategy, decision making) are a key ingredient in the pursuit of a winning formula. Are the choices / options for every single situation a) agreed on ahead of time and b) limited to 7 per situation? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then you have some work to do!

What about on the low side – is there anything wrong with breaking something down into less than five? Not really, unless by doing this you are underusing the mind’s incredible internal processing system and leaving important options out. Those who are familiar with our version of Mental Toughness Training (Metuf) will be aware that the number five is a lot more prevalent than the number seven. This essentially boils down to a nice mix of pure luck (a number of key concepts just happen to have five parts) and the fact that in sport and performance situations – where pressure is common and often intense – we would prefer to lean towards the more conservative end of George Miller’s principles.

In our work Miller’s Law is most prominent in a mental method we call Simplifying It. At the heart of our mental training system are a series of mental methods (we prefer the word ‘method’ to ‘skill’ to avoid confusion with the technical side). Each of the seven methods (there’s that magical number again!) has been created to convert complex psychobabble into a format that is immediately useable. At the core of Simplifying It we break down effort into five pillars and we then split “our pillar” of mental toughness into five targets. At the very core of this mental method is a simple message (hence the title) – things are as simple or as complex as you want them to be. Feel free to add your thoughts, questions and comments below.

Author: Condor Performance

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