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  • Writer's pictureCord Thomas

How to Get out of Your Head

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

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I chose today’s topic as one of the maybe easiest, and most beneficial things we can do for our careers, be that in sports or not.

A couple of years ago I had a professional hockey player come to me, and say that he knew he was much better than how he was playing. He had played in higher leagues and has the skills, when he’s alone training everything goes great. But during games, he acts timid and is so afraid of judgment from his coach and manager, that he stopped being productive. And after every game, between games, his coach and manager were harder and harder on him, because they knew that there was more in him, and that made him play worse and worse. He came to me hoping to find out how to not pressure him anymore so that he could be relaxed and play his game.

What I asked first, is when he gets the puck during a game, what are his thoughts?

"I can’t make a mistake otherwise I’m going to get yelled at. With every mistake, I’m going to be seen as not good enough and not get back up to the leagues I used to play in. If I turn the puck over, I’m not going to get a next contract. When I turn the puck over to the other team, my teammates are going to stop trusting me. More importantly, I don’t trust myself enough not to make any mistakes, and so I freeze."

Do something that no one can be mad at. Pass the puck backward, don’t lose the puck.

And so what’s the result of this type of thinking?

"I play worse and worse, timid, scared. I don’t score points where I know I can. I’m in a constant fight with myself. Where I know how I want to play, but my head isn’t allowing me to."

First of all, this is extremely common among athletes. We get into our heads, our thoughts, tense up, become timid, are afraid of being judged by others, and then we don’t have the kind of results we know that we can.

So when you get the puck, what’s your goal?

"Well, to not mess up. To not disappoint anyone. To make sure that whatever I do, the manager and coach aren’t going to be angry at me."

Dear reader, I hope that you’re pulling your hair out a bit right now. From the outside, this seems so obvious, but so many athletes fight with this issue. Can I focus on now, can I focus on what’s essential in the here and now, or am I more focused on the long-term, and therefore making fear-based decisions?

I said at this point, good, that that’s great noticing. But for us to have a correctly stated goal, it has to be positive, not what we don’t want, but what we do want. The hockey player thought for a second, and then lightbulb.

"The goal when I get the puck is to score."

Snap, crackle, lightbulb, I’ve never seen anyone’s eyes light up like in that moment. He literally realized that his main focus on the ice should be having his team score, no matter how that happens.

"Okay, Cord, so, you’re telling me that all I have to focus on is scoring?"

It’s not quite that simple. We want to focus in on small goals in the given moment, which we’ll get to in the third segment on how that looks. But instead of making decisions out of fear, we want to make decisions for something. Take steps towards our goals instead of away from them, or somewhere else because fear is leading us. So when I get the puck, I’m thinking about how I can get my team to score best. Can I do that within the system that the coaches proposed, or should I freestyle? Is the best approach to play risky, or play it safe? Whatever gets us to scoring.

On defense, the single main goal should be to get the puck back, without giving up the position to allow the other team to score. Again, using whatever path possible to make that happen. Risk when it’s worth it and the best option, and play it safe when we’re in a vulnerable position. It’s all about knowing what we want in any given moment, focusing in on that goal, and letting the outside chatter, thoughts, and emotions come and go.

Let me add a great tip here, as soon as you step onto the field/court/rink, etc. as a player, you’re the one in control. It’s not your coach's responsibility anymore to control you and the game. You’re the one holding your, and part of your team’s fate in your hands. What your coach or manager thinks or feels, or how they want to control the game is purely just want for control.

It’s your responsibility to make decisions, and do your best. So stop looking for their approval. If you are doing the best you can to achieve the small goals, in between competitions you can work on small things to change how you get there. Once you’re in a competition, your job is to do the best you can to focus on that single goal of that moment. Score, or get the puck or ball back so that you can score.

"Okay cool, but sports is where I usually get out of my head, and just enjoy myself, Cord. I’m not a professional athlete, so how does this apply to me?"

Well, it applies in a lot of ways. A lot of my non-athlete clients come with the same issue. They want to do something well at school or work, but considering what their boss and colleagues will think about their work gets in the way. At the end of the day, can you look yourself in the mirror and say you did what was needed to achieve the goal in your understanding of the goal? If yes, then you did absolutely everything you could.

Can you learn and tweak things for next time? Absolutely. But getting stuck, doing things indecisively, being timid and unsure about things just because you’re scared of what others are going to think if you just do it to the best of your abilities isn’t getting you anywhere closer to your goals. Move forward, get closer to your goals, and learn and grow along the way. Make decisions from a place of how do I move forward, not how do I not make mistakes.

So what are micro-goals then? Micro-goals are goals of the moment. Tiny, incremental goals that can flip and change 2 even 3 times in a second. Yes, in a second.

I spent many, many years playing basketball, and so I’ll use the basketball shell man-to-man defense as an example. Most youth especially learn the shell and think that the whole purpose is to be in the right position. When the ball’s on the far side of the court I have to stand in the middle. When it’s one pass away I’m in position to deny the ball, and when my man has the ball I’m going to push them middle or baseline. This is all somewhat true. But the entire purpose behind these positions is to stop the opponent from scoring!

So when I’m playing help defense, I’m going to watch to see if I need to help over, and otherwise, I’m looking for any way I can to steal the ball. When I’m in denial, I’m guarding against a back-door cut and looking to stop any passes to the person I’m guarding. If I’m on ball, then I’m doing anything I can to get the ball back or make a shot as tough as possible. And as the ball swings around the perimeter of the court, we see our micro-goals of the moment very quickly changing. If we can have in our head a singular focus on the micro-goal, then we see a boost in absolutely everything we’re doing.

I see this as extremely valuable to coaches and trainers as well. There’s a tendency to focus on the big-picture, on winning the game. That’s important to know the big goal, but we get there by accomplishing the micro-goals. So if a coach, trainer, or manager during a competition can have micro-goals for themselves, such as let’s stop this player who’s hurting us, or let’s get better at rebounding and focus more on that, or let’s push the pace because the other team isn’t getting back fast enough on defense, then we have much better clarity for the team. Something everyone can focus on instead of the vagueness of let’s go and win.

Back to my client the professional hockey player. Already we were on the right track, and in the next game, he put in 3 points for his team. 1 goal and 2 assists. The best game he had had all season.

My next big question for him was what happens in his head when he goes to the bench. The answer?

"I analyze what I did on the ice. I look at everything that happened and try to figure out how I can do better the next time."

The actual result of this? He became detached from his teammates, and the game happening on the ice. On top of that? He was beating himself up for every mistake he made. I asked him, as an older player who should be in a leadership role on his team, what should his goal be while he’s on the bench? The first answer:

"Make sure that when I come in next time I’m better than the first rotation."

That surprised me, to be honest. I hadn’t heard that response before. So I asked differently. What would help your teammates the most while you’re on the bench? Yet again, mind-blown. He hadn’t ever thought about this question. He came up with the answer to encourage them, have conversations with his rotation on the side-line on small tweaks or encouraging statements he could make, and notice the other team’s tactics.

Wow! What a great idea! Instead of ruminating on my play, let me encourage and help my teammates that are on the ice now, and by that start noticing how I can play better, be a leader, and keep my head in the game rather than detaching. This athlete who’s an introvert became confident in himself enough to take players aside after practices and games to have small conversations on how they can improve, or just to support them.

That’s the power of having a positively set micro-goal. So don’t just look at micro-goals on the court, we can look at them during training in terms of what to work on in that given moment, how to get better, how to support our teammates or anything else that allows us to focus on having the work we put in training shine, and the negative or unhelpful thoughts stay where they are, and not overtake our actions.

"Wait, so are you telling me that things are just as simple as focusing on a single in-the-moment micro-goal, and after 2 sessions all your client’s issues were solved?"

No, definitely not. But it’s a great start. There are other tactics, tools, and techniques that allow us to focus better, get into flow, and feel better about ourselves making it easier to focus for sure. Again, this is a great place to start though. And if you’re struggling to set micro-goals, go back and read last week’s blog post on off-season planning. The larger plans will allow us to set micro-goals even better. Because we have that larger vision, and longer-term goals set, the micro-goals become automatic.

Set micro-goals and focus in on the moment. On every possession, on every half a second action while you’re playing your sport. You’ll get more out of yourself, and simply put, be able to focus instead of being in your head. The most paralyzing thing for an athlete is indecisiveness. Take this struggle away by focusing on your micro-goal.

If you want to get your questions into a mailbag episode or give me your thoughts, give me a comment below on the blog post, or reach out on Instagram: @athlete.m1ndset, Twitter: @athletem1ndset, or e-mail at Do yourself a favor, and subscribe to the blog so that you receive all of the great new content coming out. And remember, we want to make decisions from a place of how do I move forward, not how do I not make mistakes. Have a great week everyone, and I'll have another blog post up and ready for you next week.


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