Psychology: Goldfish

Goldfish Strategy: Labeling to Overcome Negative Thoughts in Tennis

Human nature, driven by our primal instincts, often fixates on negative thoughts as a defense mechanism to protect us from danger. This tendency, which I’ll personify as “Mildred” for illustrative purposes, frequently intrudes at inopportune moments during tennis matches. For example, thoughts like “don’t double fault” or “make this return no matter what” suddenly pop up, especially against formidable opponents like Jimmy, who you haven’t beaten before. Mildred might remind you of past failures, undermining your current performance despite any improvements or changes since those past encounters.

One effective method to counteract these intrusive thoughts is to recognize them as the ‘impostors’ they truly are. Labeling these thoughts helps in managing them. For instance, before a major National Doubles Final in the US, my partner expressed concerns about facing a seasoned opponent, Jimmy Parker. To lighten the mood and shift the mindset, my spouse jokingly referred to the opponent as “Jimmy Buffett” instead of the formidable Jimmy Parker. This humorous mislabeling helped my partner reframe the situation, leading us to win the match comfortably in two sets, even earning praise from Parker himself.

This strategy aligns with my usual advice to treat each point in isolation, akin to a goldfish with no memory of the past. Whenever those impostor thoughts arise, take a moment to breathe and mentally shout “GOLDFISH” to yourself, before moving on to the next point. This approach helps in maintaining focus and staying present, crucial for high-level performance in tennis.