Tip: When to Think (and When Not To)


Readers of this blog know that we’re hu-uuuge fans of stealing — by which I mean the kind of stealing where you shamelessly pickpocket good ideas from one line of work (sports, music, business, whatever) and put them to use in another. Here’s one, which I especially like. It’s stolen from Annika Sorenstam, the golfer, but it could apply to pretty much anybody.

Here it is: Draw an imaginary line that separates your practice space from your performance space. When you’re inside the Practice Zone, your brain is fully switched on. You’re thinking, strategizing, planning. But when you step across the line into the Performance Zone, you click off your mind and just play.

Here’s how Sandy Williams, a reader who recently attended one of Sorenstam’s camps, describes her using it:

Essentially she drew an imaginary line about a yard behind the ball (think of the back line of a batters box).  She deemed the area behind the line as the ‘thinking’ zone and the area in front of the line as the ‘play” zone.  In the thinking zone, she would get info from her caddy and think hard about the wind, the aim, which club, which shot, visualization, etc.  Then once she had figured out what she wanted to she crossed the line into the ‘play’ zone, she said she turned her mind off and hit the shot (or ‘played’ like she was a little kid) like she had done millions of times before.

There’s plenty of brain science that supports this method (MRI scans show that the more skilled an athlete is, the less they’re thinking). And of course we know that top performance happens when we relax and go on autopilot, letting our unconscious brain do its magic. But I like it because this Practice/Play Zone idea could be applied to lots of stuff beyond sports. Music, writing, trading stocks, chess, you name it. We all have a zone where we build, and then a zone where we relax and show what we’ve built.

I also like it because it shows the real paradox at the heart of improvement. During practice, thinking and planning are your friends. During performance, however, thinking and planning are your enemies. You can’t avoid this paradox; you need to build a routine that embraces both sides. You essentially have two brains, the conscious and unconscious; so the best way to improve is to give one zone to each.

PS — Thanks to Sandy Williams and the always-enlightening Finn Gunderson, director of alpine education for the U.S. Ski Association and director of sports education at YSC Sports, for passing this one along.

PPS — What other strategies have you come across that address the practice/performance issue?

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20 Responses to “Tip: When to Think (and When Not To)”

  1. Jay Godse says:

    This is so true. I notice that with the best coaches I have seen of my boys’ hockey, soccer, and basketball teams, they spend practice time doing thinking exercises where they spend time doing set plays, and skills drills, and other drills, but they also spend time in scrimmages where they have to just play.

    In competitive team sports, play mode is also different than with golf or figure skating because your performance is strongly affected by how you and your team react to your opponents, and how your opponents react to you.

  2. Adam Stewart says:

    I am a college lacrosse coach and I am a big follower of this site. My question regarding this specific post is that, in sports like lacrosse/basketball/hockey that are “fluid”, it is difficult to really create these zones. In sports like baseball (batter box) or golf (setting up for a shot), or even tennis (time before hitting/receiving a serve), there is a clear start and stop to the flow of play that allows for these moments of thought and the moments of “play”.

    I wonder what you think might be an effective way of taking this notion of separating the practice/preparation from the playing/reacting in a sport that is more fluid and constant.

    Thank you!


  3. As a weightlifting coach, I teach that as the weight on the bar is increased, analysis should decrease. Similarly, the close you get to competition, the more you must let the body drive the mind, as opposed to vice versa.

  4. TJ Allan says:

    Huge fan of the site. It’s helped me a great deal training basketball players.

    I use a similar method with all of my basketball players.. Before they take a dribble at the free throw line, they think about the shot (up, out, snap the wrist, hold the follow through, etc). Then they take a deep breath, and dribble. Once they dribble, their mind turns off.

    We also use this with our shooting warmups during our practice session..

  5. djcoyle says:

    Hi Adam, That is a great question.One thing that comes to mind is the finding that great soccer players (fluid sport) spend a lot of time taking long looks around the field. They don’t glance — they stare. (There’s a great BBC show on Ronaldo called Tested to the Limit that shows this.)

    So maybe we can divide even fluid games into two zones: the reading/thinking/planning zone (where you’re circling, looking, recognizing, choosing) and the action zone – where you execute the pass, the shot, the move. What if you practiced each of those separately? Help players to learn how to recognize/choose — then (separately) help them learn how to execute on autopilot. This reminds me a bit of how John Wooden coached. Does it ring any bells with you?

  6. Peter Conrad says:

    This might explain why learning projects, when done in a way that frees students to play with the subject of study, provide more overall learning than lecture. In lecture we seldom get out of the thinking mode, and that is only if we are paying attention to the lecture. In project-based learning we are actively doing something: alternating between planning and carrying out actions that reinforce knowledge.

  7. Rory Marsden says:

    I can think of plenty of coaches who also need to draw this line. It’s funny how often you see a coach yell intructions at a player on the field, only to see the player do something weird as they try to follow the instructions.

  8. djcoyle says:

    I could not agree more. Trying to teach, across a distance, during competition, is ridiculous. If it happened in any other walk of life, we’d think it was comic.

    Let’s say you’re getting your car serviced in a garage. While your mechanic is working on your transmission, totally absorbed in the complicated project, all of a sudden the head mechanic pops his head in the garage, pulls out a megaphone, and shouts him “No, no — don’t do it that way! Do it this way!”
    We would think the head mechanic was a little crazy – and we’d be a worried about the condition of our car. Yet this exact scenario happens all the time on the sports field. Why do we let it keep happening?

  9. Rod Roth says:

    Do, not think, is a good thing for me, Dan. I’ve always prepared for my day trading futures by going through my written plan. But the real breakthrough has been to allow myself to just trade in the moment, relying on my response to what is going on in front of me without trying to remember what I’ve written. Thanks, Rod

  10. david dunkley gyimah says:

    Hello Daniel,

    Just stumbled upon your blog in between a whole load of work I really ought to finishing. Thoroughly enjoyed combing through past articles.

    This anecdote would support what you say. In videojournalism there’s a staging space of visualisation -planning the shot approach, much the same way as techniques used by luge sportsmen and women, and performance space, where the film maker with subject goes into auto mode.

    But equally I like this one. Years back a CEO city broker invited a class of grads to the trading floor. He gave us some money to spend. After 30 seconds no one had spent anything. “That’s why I don’t hire graduates”, he said, “you think too much”.

    Cheers David

  11. Robert says:

    does not explain why her sister only won one event and she won 80+

  12. Hi Daniel,

    I couldn’t agree LESS with this nonsensical article. Don’t be offended, I don’t make the statement lightly.

    May I suggest we get together and have a discussion about this nonsense of golfers being told to “turn the mind off and hit the shot”. I am based in the UK and think you will relate to my work in attentional focus coaching.

    Once you have an understanding of the neuroscience and nature of the conscious mind and how it processes external/internal auditory and visual information you will discover why it is physically impossible to carry out such a suggestion, let alone offer it as practical ‘advice’ when playing the game of golf.

    The conscious mind is always ‘thinking’ and always active. The only thing the likes of ‘Annika’ and ‘Tiger’ at their peaks could not do and still can not do today is explain HOW they were able to quieten their minds from the erroneous thoughts which most mere mortals suffer from in high level competition. It involves a deep understanding of neuroscience which they will not have an understanding of themselves. They are sports people, not scientists. So they suggest they weren’t thinking when performing. They were, it was simply very controlled and directed.

    We and they were and are always thinking whilst conscious. The key is to understand what, when and HOW you are actually paying attention throughout as you prepare to execute.

    Kind Regards,

  13. djcoyle says:

    Hi Colin, Nice to meet you — thanks for your comment. I’d be happy to chat about this; sounds like it’s something you’re really into. Reading your take, I’m struck by a quick thought/question. What do you consider “thinking”? Is it different from “attending”? I think maybe we’re more on the same page — because I don’t think anybody would argue that a golfer (or a writer, or a ballet dancer) should shut off their brain. The argument is that they should shut off strategizing. What do you think?

  14. Hi Dan,

    thanks for taking my comment in the spirit it was intended. I have dedicated my life to understanding attentional focus and coaching golfers HOW to take control of their conscious mind, in order to trust their sub-conscious mind to the physical task of swinging and putting. Golf is taught with a polar opposite mentality today and why, I believe, so many struggle to play consistently.

    ‘Thinking’ is a high level construct to describe consciousness whereas ‘Attending’ describes HOW you occupy it. We are always ‘thinking’ whilst conscious and your attentional focus is analogous to the lens of a film projector, the film running through it at a very high rate comprises of information from your external senses and internal thoughts. Most spend their lives feeling like ‘observers’ of the film being shown rather than being taught how to take active control over what is being projected and become the director.

    I know we’ll agree that Flow only exists in any life performance when we remove the conscious mind from the control of our physical actions. Whether playing music, driving a car or making a sandwich, flow exists when we let our sub-conscious mind manage our physical actions. So what is the conscious mind doing whilst we perform those tasks? It can be anywhere in time and place. We don’t need to control it to carry out those tasks but that is not the case in golf or many other target oriented activities where what we need single pointed concentration, where understanding what we are attending to is critical as we execute. Golf is similar to these other life activities only at the MOMENT of execution where we wish to experience physical Flow, with no conscious control of our actions. How can this be achieved if the golfer is thinking about HOW to swing a club? It can not. Yet many Pro’s still strive for elusive performances whilst insisting on having a swing thought!? They have not been taught attentional focus switching either so they do the best with the tools they have available.

    In golf, just as in any sport where an athlete has time to ‘think’ before they execute, what happens at execution is significantly influenced by what an athlete CHOOSES to think about prior to this moment. This is where you and others suggest a golfer should stop ‘strategizing’ (I agree) but this does not also mean that significant tasks such as state management, physical alignment and attentional focus do not require deliberate conscious attention during this period of preparation time. Creating a void, as suggested by ‘not thinking’, only leaves a hole in which some erroneous thought will seek to occupy. You will then be ‘out of control’ at that moment in time rather than ‘in control’ of your process.

    Unfortunately, for most golfers, performance does not manifest itself regularly for they are too busy erroneously ‘thinking’ about how to control their physical actions at execution with a conscious ‘swing thought’ due to the inherent nature of the way the game is taught to them. How can you ever trust in competition that which you strive to only control in practice? If the swing is not the focus of the golfers’ conscious mind on course, it will often be replaced with some outcome oriented event like score, water, don’t hit it left etc. hence the ‘advice’ to not think as you prepare to execute being offered is a better alternative to thinking. Thinking is not the problem Dan. It is erroneous thinking which lies at the heart of poor performance.

    In order to perform in ANY life skill we must remove the conscious mind from any control of our physical actions. We agree. The process happens AUTOMATICALLY in life skills where we are not actively and regularly coached, in that we switch our attention from internal to external focus naturally. Remember how you learned to drive a car? In many sports, especially golf, this is not the case. We are continually taught to play by consciously attempting to control our physical action of the swing (internal focus) and this prevents the individual from achieving the state of mind where performance lives (external focus). There is a need to understand the separation of visual/attentional focus in golf which is not systematically being coached today. It is clear that repetition alone does not produce mastery in sport/life skills, in fact it can inhibit the acquisition of skill if used inappropriately. There is a vital brain function which must also occur in order to perform and that involves attentional focus switching. This is unwittingly prevented from occurring in many due to outdated and ineffective coaching practices.

    In golf, when stepping across your ‘commitment’ line, a single erroneous thought in your pre-shot routine can instantly elevate arousal levels and destroy physical flow. You see this even at the elite level of golf. ‘Thinking’ is critical in order for the individual to remain in control of a situation. The art of golf is mastering when to switch from internal ‘verbalising’ to ‘visualising’ in order to execute. This is where the ‘quiet mind’ and performance lives.

    We create our reality Dan by what we choose to attend too. Both on and off the golf course! If you’d be interested to discuss this in more detail, let’s get together and do so.

    Kind Regards,

  15. Tim says:

    “MRI scans show that the more skilled an athlete is, the less they’re thinking”

    I had a brain MRI once, which required me to be motionless inside a container for about half an hour. How could someone be playing sports under these conditions?

  16. djcoyle says:

    Hi Tim, Great question — and it’s a weird answer. They actually put the golfers in the machine, put a high-def video screen in front of them, and have them go through their pre-shot routines. It’s not perfect, but as far as virtual-reality goes, not bad.

  17. Jon Harnum says:

    Hi Dan-
    I’ve really enjoyed the last several posts. Thanks for sharing. This particular one got me thinking about the differences between procedural and declarative memory, declarative memory being an ability to think and/or talk about a skill, and procedural memory being the ability to do the thing. There’s a 2001 study you might find useful/interesting (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1087079201901649).

    The study examines how sleep impacts both of these types of memory after a training session. According to this study, it appears different sleep states (REM and NREM) are necessary for consolidating procedural (doing) and declarative (thinking/describing) memory.

    And for what it’s worth, I disagree somewhat with Tim, although I do see his point. Charles Limb who looks at brain activity in improvisers and it appears that a portion of the brain does actually “switch off” when these players improvise. Charles Limb gives an excellent TED talk on his research exploring this topic (http://www.ted.com/talks/charles_limb_your_brain_on_improv.html)

    Yes, biologically, it’s impossible to “not think,” but this is a great example of the declarative v. procedural issue. When great performers do what they do, using words to describe their performance experience is at best a crude tool for understanding. When we talk about something we’re using the declarative mode. It is only in the doing that the procedural memory kicks in. So when an athlete/musician/whoever talks about “not thinking” it’s a crude way to describe that special state that is so different from “normal” thinking/doing. I experience it in music profoundly. True, it’s not “not thinking,” but it can sure feel like that. Regardless of what’s going on, it’s incontrovertible that sleep helps improve both these types of thinking.

    Think I’ll go take a nap.

  18. Dan, if you would permit me to respond to Jon’s comment on different types of memory and when they are used I would like to do so as I think his comment was directed at my comment.

    When you play music Jon, clearly this relies on procedural and if you ever happen to ‘think’ about chords you should be playing you can stop your ‘flow’ in an instant. This happens a lot when learning a piece doesn’t it. Playing music however is only comparable with the game of golf during the moments where we execute the action of driving, pitching, chipping or putting. At these moment, the mind does need to be quiet, focused on a target not the physical action. Unfortunately, most attempt to play golf with swing ‘thoughts’ which destroy their ‘flow’. The reasons why they choose to do this are beyond this discussion!

    However, as the golfer prepares as in many other sports where you are afforded time to think before execution, the conscious mind needs to be actively engaged to ensure state management and attentional focus are correct prior to execution of a task. This is where declarative memory can be actively embraced. Sure you don’t need to be ‘strategizing’ but there are many other aspects to consider when preparing physically and mentally to perform a shot.

    The key point is this which is what the point of Dan’s article. You do have to recognise where – in what ever activity you are attempting to perform – there is a time for thinking and a time to perform. Many suffer performance anxiety for the reason that the time where they are being told to ‘not think’ is only creating a conscious void in which erroneous thoughts are able to flood in.

    I do wish we were all taught metacognition and awareness of mind at school – anxiety/depression are all rooted in this subject matter.


  19. achilles says:

    Mr. Coyle,
    I love your blog. I love all the foundation messages. It’s practical.
    And I love sport. I have been a coach.
    I have also worked 1:1 with “learners”
    But now I teach in ESL.

    Do you have any specific ways, how tos, examples etc. to use these lessons in ESL?

    Achilles (Ohioan in Seoul)

  20. Richard says:

    Great discussion from Colin, John and Dan.  Suspect as you suggest and from reading your previous work you are on the same page, just expressed slightly differently. 

    I am not a psych, nor a scientist, onlly a coach with an interest in this particular area.  I work in cricket, which through the temporal parameters of the sport, provides ample time for erroneous thoughts, and conscious thinking to wreak havoc with performance execution. 

    A concept we have been trying to utilize is establishing a gateway or key ( read line) between the conscious and unconscious mind.  Understanding as Colin discusses the inability to ” not think” we have attempted to have player practice, funneling their thoughts between each delivery and trying to come back to a single focus thought just prior to executing their skill.   There seems to be a few steps in this process: firstly identifying a constructive, on distracting focus or thought that will help the player make good decisions and execute their skills, secondly practice the funneling process during training sessions, to be able to filter downs through the erroneous thoughts, distracting thoughts and move through into the subconscious mind, thirdly practicing the ability to stick to the routine in practice and then trying to apply this in match situations. 

    I would be keen to hear your thoughts on the practical application of these concepts with athletes who don’t have high levels of understanding of the background of these concepts.   


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