Why Overthinking Kills Athletics and Art

March 19, 2021
6 min read

Bad art and weak athletic performance stem from the same seed: overthinking.

Overthinking is the byproduct of fear and self-doubt. “Fear doesn't go away," Steven Pressfield reminded us in The War of Art. "The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day."

In his book The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, W. Thomas Gallwey talks about the game of tennis, but really the book is about how to quiet the mind. For artists and athletes, a mind unfettered by worry or self-doubt is what helps us achieve peak performance.

What gets in the way of peak performance is what Gallwey calls the Self 1 and Self 2—the same way Daniel Kahneman posited that our brains are comprised of two systems.

Gallway said,

"We have arrived at a key point: it is the constant “thinking” activity of Self 1, the ego-mind, which causes interference with the natural capabilities of Self 2. Harmony between the two selves exists when this mind is quiet and focused. Only then can peak performance be reached.

When a tennis player is “in the zone,” he is not thinking about how, when or even where to hit the ball. He’s not trying to hit the ball, and after the shot he doesn’t think about how badly or how well he made contact. The ball seems to get hit through a process which doesn’t require thought. There may be an awareness of the sight, sound and feel of the ball, and even of the tactical situation, but the player just seems to know without thinking what to do."

For an artist or athlete to attain a mindset where they naturally behave without self-judgment is a daily practice, one that shapes both abilities and character. Gallwey shares his wisdom on the mindset of overthinking and why returning to that way of playing is so essential:

"As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes. . . . The arrow is off the string but does not fly straight to the target, nor does the target stand where it is. Calculation, which is miscalculation, sets in. . . . Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. “Childlikeness” has to be restored."

This "childlikeness" is synonymous with the concept of play. Play is when we are intrinsically motivated to do an activity. It gives a sense of meaning and fulfillment because the act itself is deeply stimulating.

Almost every coach that I've had in my life concluded their motivational speeches with, "Go out and have fun." Back then I never understood why a great speech would end this way, but by developing an understanding of that wisdom, it now makes perfect sense.

Quieting the mind is what brings us back to that essence of play, where we discard self-judgments and allow for self-expression to breathe and dance. Inadvertently, this state of mind allows us to wholeheartedly express our creativity.

Gallwey describes it the following way:

"For most of us, quieting the mind is a gradual process involving the learning of several inner skills. These inner skills are really arts of forgetting mental habits acquired since we were children.

The first skill to learn is the art of letting go of the human inclination to judge ourselves and our performance as either good or bad. Letting go of the judging process is a basic key to the Inner Game; its meaning will emerge as you read the remainder of this chapter. When we unlearn how to be judgmental, it is possible to achieve spontaneous, focused play."

The moment we apply the labels of "good" vs. "bad" is when we begin overthinking. When we're assessing while doing is anti-flow. Even more difficult is to be self-aware when we make these judgments so that we can stop right then and there. When we get "all up in our heads."

Gallwey expresses this through the lens of tennis:

"What does this have to do with tennis? Well, it is the initial act of judgment which provokes a thinking process. First the player’s mind judges one of his shots as bad or good. If he judges it as bad, he begins thinking about what was wrong with it. Then he tells himself how to correct it. Then he tries hard, giving himself instructions as he does so. Finally he evaluates again. Obviously the mind is anything but still and the body is tight with trying. If the shot is evaluated as good, Self 1 starts wondering how he hit such a good shot; then it tries to get his body to repeat the process by giving self-instructions, trying hard and so on. Both mental processes end in further evaluation, which perpetuates the process of thinking and self-conscious performance. As a consequence, the player’s muscles tighten when they need to be loose, strokes become awkward and less fluid, and negative evaluations are likely to continue with growing intensity. . . . As a result, what usually happens is that these self-judgments become self-fulfilling prophecies."

The ultimate goal of an artist or athlete is to return to that essence of play, to view the outcome of their actions as a source for learning and self-exploration. To fully be immersed in the process and to trust one self that this very act of paying attention will build the work.

Gallwey stresses the importance of this throughout the book because it's seemingly the only way to counter our mind's natural inclination to assess everything we do. This is effortless for children because they haven't formed the habits yet — notice how their fear of failure is amiss when engaging in new activities, and notice how ours, as we get older, is the sole reason why we never find out what's inside of us.

Gallwey talks about learning and playing:

"The less instruction interferes with the process of learning built into your very DNA, the more effective your progress is going to be. Said another way, the less fear and doubt embedded in the instructional process, the easier it will be to take the natural steps of learning. One way to gain insight and trust in natural learning is to observe young children learning before they have been taught, or to observe animals in the act of teaching their young."

All of this is to attain the ideal state for intense mental and physical activity, what pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined as flow.

Gallwey explains:

"In fact, someone playing “out of his mind” is more aware of the ball, the court and, when necessary, his opponent. But he is not aware of giving himself a lot of instructions, thinking about how to hit a ball, how to correct past mistakes or how to repeat what he just did. He is conscious, but not thinking, not over-trying. A player in this state knows where he wants the ball to go, but he doesn’t have to “try hard” to send it there. It just seems to happen—and often with more accuracy than he could have hoped for. The player seems to be immersed in a flow of action which requires his energy, yet results in greater power and accuracy. The “hot streak” usually continues until he starts thinking about it and tries to maintain it; as soon as he attempts to exercise control, he loses it."

The Inner Game of Tennis is a short, fantastic, and insightful read. It will provide a newfound perspective on your inner narrative when you're either facing a blank canvas or on the hardwood floor of a basketball court.

The lesson is simple but difficult to embrace: Go out and have fun.


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