Trust and Play

As youngsters we are in the habit of being creatively engaged.   This is the experience of play.  Dr. Stuart Brown, the author of Play:  How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, explains that “when we play, we are open to possibility and the sparks of new insight and thought.” This sounds very much like the definition of mindfulness.  Leading expert on mindfulness, Harvard psychologist Dr. Ellen J. Langer, defines mindfulness as a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived beliefs, and then acting on the new observations always sensitive to context.  On the basis of 25 years of research, Langer concludes that mindfulness results in an increase in competence, memory, creativity, and positive affect. When referring to mindfulness, Langer is quick to point out that she is not talking about the ‘sit still meditative state,’ although there is nothing wrong with this practice.  The kind of mindfulness Langer speaks of the kind of mindfulness we need in performance.  It is very much like play.

“when we play, we are open to possibility and the sparks of new insight and thought.”

Just think, as children we immersed ourselves in our play activities, oblivious to those around us.   We had no trouble focusing or being motivated or working hard at play.  We cared little about what others thought of us when we played or how they might judge our play.    As we matured, most of us abandoned the world of play.   Over time, we became more serious, learned to behave in a grown-up manner and, in the process, we became aware of ‘the rules’ and became conditioned to abide by them.  We learned to desire and even crave rules, steps, or guidelines to follow.  The same can be true with our performing.  At first, we just loved to play or sing.  We did it for the fun of it.  We were like children at play.  Then we were introduced to ‘the rules.’  We know that technique is necessary in acquiring skills for performance.  It serves us well, however, it can often become our entire focus.   We can get caught up in our technique and in practicing.  We often stop playing and start worrying. We worry that we will not have talent enough to follow all the rules—that we should have already known the rules, and we especially worry that we will be judged too harshly if we don’t learn the rules well enough.  When we are rule-bound—when we are technique-bound—we mindlessly focus on details and often end up missing the whole.

What happened?  Where did that fun go?  When did I stop playing? In performance, enjoyment of playing goes out the window when we are too critical of ourselves by continually analyzing and controlling our performances, when we can’t stop worrying about mistakes we just made or might make, when we are too concerned with what others will think of our performance or when we have strict or unrealistic expectations of the result of a performance.  All of these activities create an atmosphere of anxiety—not play and not trust.

Trust is a key element of mindfulness and mindfulness is an important characteristic of trust.  When we are mindful—actively engaged in noticing new things and responding to our environment—we become non-judgmental, more patient, non-striving, accepting, and in possession of the mind of a beginner.  As a child at play, we can proceed by trusting ourselves and our practice without evaluating or feeling the need to measure up.  We can choose to care less about what others think.   Although we are no longer children, we can learn something about trust from the child at play.

Immerse yourself in your performances today—really PLAY!

Let me know what you think about judging less and playing more and how that affects the trust you can develop in performance.

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  1. evelyn metcalf says:

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond to this newsletter. I am a Level 2 Lawn Bowling Coach who attempts on a regular basis as part of my sessions when dealing with athletes to embark on The Mental Training segment. It has become a very important part of my sessions with athletes, as I believe that “too much emphasis placed on “TECHNIQUE” only leads to an athlete to become “over-anxious” and constantly “pre-occupied” with their particular technique.

    I have come to believe that Trust is a key element of mindfulness. I don’t know whether being “actively” engaged in noticing new things is going to be helpful, but what I do believe is “whatever does happen in our environment that may cause us to be distracted from what we are trying to achieve, we must be able to deal with that distraction by using a “particular” routine to suit the occasion. In other words, using the distraction as a “trigger” to put your plans into place and let the distraction go and take your “mind” back to the present, only focussing on the next “shot”, or “segment of play” before you.

    It takes a deal of “practice” to do this, and as I have said before, I encourage athletes in my care to “practice” these routines at home in their daily lives, using all the usual distractions as a “trigger” to go into a particular routine, eg. ‘ANSWERING THE TELEPHONE’, or perhaps answering a doorbell. There are many opportunities in an athletes life which would enable them to repetitively use their routines. It has been my experience as a coach, that if an athlete uses routines during their daily lives, they find it easier to recall their routines when they are either in “practice mode”, or actually performing in a competition.

    We, as lawn bowling coaches use a deal of “Game sense” programmes when dealing with our athletes, because it is true to say that people learn more when actually playing than they do if only attending a lecture. When athletes are playing, I use what is called “coaching moments” to share with an athlete perhaps a MORE SUCCESSFUL WAY OF CARRYING OUT A PARTICULAR ACTION, eg. “improving their follow-through” by just staying down a little longer when delivering their bowl.

    Your are so right, “As a child at play, we can proceed by trusting ourselves and our practice without evaluating, or feeling the need to measure up. Although we are no longer children, we can learn something about trust from the child at play.

    There is a huge emphasis in Australia for coaches not to get ourselves tied up in protocol, etiquette and procedure of the game that your athletes are playing. Just get them started as soon as possible, and then start to introduce procedural matters as you progress. Usually, all new participants to lawn bowling are only interested in “getting onto the green” and playing the game.

    Thank you once again for the newsletter. I am a student of the “new age thinkers” when it comes to coaching, and looking forward to the exciting future of lawn bowling throughout the world of sport.

    Evelyn Metcalf

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