• Dr Lottie Miles

Overcoming "I Can't" with the Help of Sporting Legends!

Have you ever looked at a challenge and thought, "I can't do that"? I suspect we all have at one time or another, but is it the truth?

I've enlisted the help of some sporting greats to help you get the 'can' out of your 'can't'. Let's get legendary boxer, Jack Dempsey to set the tone:

"A champion is someone who gets up when he can't." - Jack Dempsey

Dempsey is explaining that the term 'can't' is very often a mental barrier, not a physical one, which means we can do something about it!

Can't is toxic!

'I can't' is a conclusive and damning judgement about your ability to perform a task. It suggests you have absolutely no control over the outcome, regardless of the circumstances. Therefore if you let yourself think you can't, you almost certainly won't.

Why are you saying "I can't"?

I agree with Dempsey - the notion of 'I can't' is actually rarely true. Unfortunately, it's a term often used as an 'easy way out' when you believe the odds are stacked against you.

Pressure, high task demands, and low coping resources (e.g. poor self-confidence, low perceptions of control and threat avoidance goals) all push us in the direction of believing we are incapable of success, but these are mental barriers that can be overcome.

Have you considered if any of these barriers are your source of your 'can't':

  1. Fear of failure (or making mistakes)

  2. Fear of intense effort or pain

  3. Fear of threats to your esteem (the consequences)

Let's look into each of these in more detail...

1. Failure opens the door for success

Fear of failure is all too common in sport and is perhaps one of the most crippling aspects of performance psychology. It diverts you away from taking risks and trying to perform at your best, and causes you to focus on avoiding mistakes.

"You miss 100% of the shots you never take." - Wayne Gretzky

Believing you can't, condemns you to failure without even taking a shot. For some people, this is a safety mechanism - If you say you can't do it, you don't have to risk trying and failing. But you're missing a trick - the very process of learning, requires you to make mistakes.

"Don't be afraid of failure. This is the way to succeed." - Lebron James

It's simply impossible to be successful in everything you do, but the ability to recognise the value of a failure is a characteristic of mental toughness. We all miss, make mistakes and mess up - that doesn't mean you can't do something.

“You can always say, ‘I wish I had landed that triple flip better, or I wish I didn’t fall.’ They’re not regrets, just mistakes.” – Michelle Kwan

Mistakes will teach you what you need to work on, where your weaknesses lie, and how you can be stronger. Our instinct is to regret failures, but you have to use your mistakes the open the door to your successes. Basketball superstar Michael Jordan was an expert at this:

“I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” - Michael Jordan

Jordan saw failures as a 'right of passage' in order for him to learn and improve. He embraced his mistakes as valuable lessons. Do you think Jordan could have scored 12,192 shots and become a legend of basketball without missing 9,000 along the way? Despite missing more than half his potential game winning shots, I doubt Jordan ever said, "Sorry guys, I can't do it".

2. Crawl if you have to!

Another source of an "I can't" comes from a fear of effort or the pain you may have to endure to get through a challenge or activity.

Sometimes, you need to scale a session down to make it easier, but when it comes to a fear of effort, scaling should be a last resort (unless you are concerned about causing an injury). Before you scale down, make sure you've considered this first:

No one ever regrets hard work! It's OK to find something hard; struggling on shows tremendous grit, not weakness.

"Run when you can, walk when you have to and crawl when you must, just never give up." - Dean Karnazes

Giving up with an 'I can't' will only deprive you of the chance to get better. All the training and graft you have put in to this point is worthless if you don't try when things get really hard. Take this opportunity to learn what you are capable of, instead of fixating on what you think you can't do. Dig deep, trust yourself and just keep moving; one step, one rep at a time.

"I can accept failure, but I can't accept not trying." - Michael Jordan

3. Consequences are a product of the process

A threat to your esteem might sound 'meek', but don't underestimate its power. Very few people in this world are completely immune to the pressure of taking an crucial game winning shot - why? Because they fear the consequences of missing. For some people, this fear outweighs the joy of success, thus, they withdraw and say 'I can't' even when they are actually perfectly capable of performing successfully.

“Putts get real difficult the day they hand out the money" - Lee Trevino

The best way to combat a fear of consequences is to switch your attention to the process. That means concentrate on the things you need to do to perform at your best - your mindset, your preparation, your effort, your communication and your plan B! As Payton Manning says,

"Pressure is something you feel when you don't know what you're doing." - Payton Manning

I think Manning hits the nail on the head! If you know what you can control, and can focus what you need to do, you'll be just fine. The moment you forget that and let your focus shift back to the outcome or your opponents, you're in big trouble. Even in a sport like tennis, where almost every shot is determined by your opponent, Arthur Ashe believes you need to concentrate on your own performance:

"You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy." - Arthur Ashe

You can only effect what you do and the things you control. Stay in your own lane. Carl Lewis' simple yet controllable plan seemed to work pretty well for him:

"My thoughts before a big race are usually pretty simple. I tell myself: Get out of the blocks, run your race, stay relaxed." - Carl Lewis

OK, I've got all that but what if I physically can't do it?

We've talked about the mental barriers to why you believe you can't do something, but what if the problem is physical? I believe in being rational. Therefore, if you can't do something because you really are physically incapable, I am not going to sit here and tell you that you can do it... yet!

Focus on doing it 'like you'

If you try hit serves just like Serena Williams, or drive just like Lewis Hamilton, you're potentially setting yourself up for a major crash! You might model your serve on Serena, or take elements of her technique and strategy, but don't be afraid to moderate your goal to suit your own set of skills, strengths and traits. Be rational - acknowledge your limitations, and focus on maximising what you have... a bit like Serena and Lewis!

"I don't believe you have to be better than everybody else. I believe you have to be better than you ever thought you could be." - Ken Venturi

This might mean breaking a skill down into something easier for now, and then learning what you need to do to progress and improve. You will surprise yourself with what you are capable of if given a chance.

"The more I practice, the luckier I get." - Gary Player

Practice, make mistakes, try again, and again. Chase goals that give you little wins along the way and reward yourself when you make progress. Don't ever expect to be perfect, but never doubt that you can do a skill in your own way and with some perseverance you can learn to do it really well. If you ever find yourself thinking you can't do something, stick a 'yet' on the end of that sentence and get to work!

"Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence." - Vince Lombardi


'I can't' is a harsh and often unfair judgement of your skills and abilities. Instead ask, 'why can't you do it'? Is it because you can't tolerate failure, you are afraid to suffer the pain of hard work or endure the consequences of your mistakes? Perhaps you just haven't taken the time to learn to do it yet?

Never forget that failure, effort and mistakes are critical components of learning, improving and performing - Michael Jordan would never have scored 12,192 shots without missing more than 9,000 times... and that's just in competitive matches!

You won't always be great at everything. Sometimes you might suck at it, but that doesn't mean you can't do it at all. Listen to the advice of the sporting legends; take your shots, miss plenty, learn from mistakes, crawl when you have to, always get back up, and focus on being the best you can be.

Remember, failing is not the same as being incapable - that's my quote!

#Sportpsychology #mentaltoughness #confidence #motivation

sport mentality

by dr Lottie miles