How to Use Your Head to Get Ahead

The game was close with each team trading off the lead.

With the clock ticking down, we were losing by two points.

I got the ball, glanced at the clock. Four seconds. I gave my defender a head fake, he bought it.  I took a large step around him and went for the score and got hammered by what felt like the entire opposing team.

Time had run out but I had a two shot foul.

I went to the line. I felt good. I had a high free throw percentage. I wasn’t concerned.

Then the other team called time out and my coach did one of the worst things you can do to a player in a moment like this.

On the bench, he leaned over me and in a rough, booming voice, said,”For God’s sake kid, don’t miss! Ya hear me? Do not miss!! You miss these and our season is over!! We’ll never make it to the playoffs!!! You got that!! Huh? Do ya!!!”

I felt my confidence drip out my head along with my sweat leaving it in a puddle on the floor as I walked to the foul line.

The gym was silent. I went through my pre-shot routine but something was off. I could feel it. What was that? What? Who? Huh? I couldn’t focus.

The first shot hit the rim a lot like a Shaquille O’Neal free throw. As I recall someone had to duck.

The opposing team’s fans roared.

And then I missed the second shot.

Game over.

Season over.

Had I known then what I now know, perhaps I wouldn’t have missed. But I was a kid. A  sophomore in high school playing in, at the time, a high stakes basketball game. I needed help not threats.

Mind Drives the Body

The technique to use is self-talk which maybe you already do and don’t know it. Most people talk to themselves (I have been known to talk to myself out loud in public which makes for some interesting looks).

For most people, the self-talk is negative and just below the level of conscious awareness. That’s what happened to me at the free throw line. I was talking myself into missing the shot because of the pressure my coach.

Psychologists already know that self-talk works in sports performance but recently have discovered that the type of talk you use depends on what you’re doing.1

  1. If you’re trying to improve your skill (like in golf, for example), having a key thought that promotes the skill development tends to work better than a thought to promote better performance. My golf teacher used to use certain visually based thoughts such as, “Slow and smooth” to get me to focus on the tempo of the swing or “You’re squeezing a tube of toothpaste” to help release my death grip on the club rather than thoughts such as, “Go for it. Hit it hard.” Performance thoughts are rehearsed and replayed to help you focus. So my coach could have said, “Find the back of the rim. That’s home. Find the back of the rim.” which is what I had been taught to think years ago. Of course, I may still have missed but my chances would have been better with those thoughts rather than the ones I had at the time.
  2. When you’re trying to improve your stamina or endurance or ability to to just stay in the game, so to speak, use thoughts that are about just that. Things like, “Keep going. you can do this.” or, “Bring your A game”. The key is to have a few “go to” thoughts that re-orient your mind otherwise your mind will take you where you may not want to be.

This quote from the research summed things up well.

The mind guides action. If we succeed in regulating our thoughts, then this will help our behavior. The goal of being prepared is to do the best you can do.”

– Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis

That’s all I have for now.

Thanks for reading.



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  1. Association for Psychological Science (2011, May 25). Thoughts that win. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 28, 2011, from