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Worrying Versus Caring

Written by Daniel Dymond on Wednesday, 29 October 2014.

Athletes that Worry and Athletes that Care

I often hear athletes I work with say to me "I wish i could just not care (or care less) about the outcome". It's an interesting comment to make and one that if I explore with athletes comes to a point in which a realisation is made... Not to care (about something you care about) is not possible. Furthermore, I don't think it's helpful. Caring less will not help you in the long term, it will only serve to lower your standards. I shall explain why in a moment but first I want to tell you why a lot of athletes come up with this statement.

Essentially, the 'I don't want to care' thought is a product of long-term worrying. Performance related worries to be more specific. These worries can take form in thoughts about what the weather is going to do on competition day, whether the opponent will expose a weakness of yours, giving up a lead, or post competition feedback. There are an infinite amount of experiences that an athlete can get caught up in. It's exhausting. We would all like our minds to switch off sometimes and when it continually brings up another thing to worry about we can often become concerned with the amount of worrying we engage in. When that happens, a logical conclusion is self-doubt (oh yes and more worrying).

So of course, given all the worrying we engage in, we would like to switch it off by not caring but that would be costly. Pause for a moment and think about something you do not care about... that could be anything from what the stock markets are doing to what's for dinner. Now that you have thought of something you do not care about, ask yourself how much of your time you devote to committing to improving yourself in that domain? Probably very little, if any time at all. Not to care is to have low standards and there isn't a good coach or decent sport psychologist alive that would tell you that this is helpful.

If you're asked to worry less, but not caring is unhelpful then you might be asking what are you to do? The answer lies understanding the difference between caring and worrying.

Both caring and worrying are related to having high standards, however the devil is in the detail. When you become caught up in high levels of worry, it's likely that your standards are tied to outcome and threat to your ego. With caring, your standards are tied to your values and to how you want to behave.Caring as opposed to worrying will allow you to perform with more freedom and more focus. Caring about your performance is being more genuine.

You can sometimes see athletes who act as if they don't care and it can take them away from their valued behaviours. You are allowed to care about whether you win or lose of course, that is human nature. The difference is that when you worry about winning or losing, you're aren't focused on the present. Instead your mind will consistently bind with thoughts of 'what if', beliefs of not being good enough or being a failure. Being bound to these worry related thoughts will likely lead to increased tensions, increased anxiety, increased pressure, and inconsistent performance.

When you truly care about winning or losing, you know that staying focused on each shot, on each point, or passage of play is what will give you the best chance of winning, but you don't let winning consume your thoughts.
I would never ask an athlete I work with to care less and settle for lower standards, but to worry less and care more.

Once you understand the difference between worrying and caring, the next part is how you shift your attitude and focus towards caring more and worrying less. This takes a bit of time, and don't expect to never have a worry related thought - the mind is designed to create worry. The skill is to catch your mind when it binds to worrying, and gently remind yourself about what you value, and engage in an activity related to the task at hand. It sounds simple, but it is a skill that requires a good amount of emotion and thought awareness. That is where the sport psychologist can help you, not just to educate you on where your focus needs to be for optimum performance, but also to teach you how to achieve it. For some athletes it comes more readily than others, but you can all get there in the end.

Daniel Dymond

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Daniel Dymond