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I can vs. I can’t vs. Can I? Mindsets for the competitive athlete.


When training it can be very resourceful to ask yourself questions.

During sparring might not sound like a very good time to start asking questions- “someone is trying to choke me out so I must act now!! There’s no time to think, right!? Let alone ask questions….”

However, being able to remain conscious, present minded and in control enough to continually ask questions of youself is not only a very strong marker; it is a continual pursuit.

From what I have experienced there are generally 3 mentalities we may come across when it comes to a pursuit similar to jiu jitsu and combat sports;

1: The no hoper
As soon as it gets tough this guys tells himself he cannot do it. He berates himself. And what do you think happens in response? He fails. He is outwitted.
Very few of these types of personalities make it past the first 2-3 sessions of jiu jitsu for obvious reasons.

2: The I can
These guys can go far and have done. There are many examples of champions with this mentality; for it sure as hell beats the ‘I can’t’ mentality.. We all know outstanding guys who just push, push, push. There is no negativity, no ‘I can’t’, no doubt, no fear, no questioning anything. Just a freight train heading full pelt at everything.

These types tend not to think at all if their perceived success leads them to stubbornly keep investing more and more into this mindless ‘push, push, push, I konw I can’ mentality. Often with less than desired consequences..

‘I can’ can be extremely effective up until a point. Yet with all being equal this mentaility is rendered utterly ineffective against the participant with the below mindset:

3: The Can I?
For those Brits reading this, just think Bob The Builder.

Bob the Builder is an English childrens television show. Throughout his day Bob is faced with challenges. The moral of every story is that with the right amount of careful consideration and the ability to act in a timely fashion you can really make sh*t happen.

Bob never puts more pressure on himself or his friends than is beneficial to the cause, so remains in control at all times.

He will weigh up the problem and take care of any challenges that stop him weighing up the problem fairly immediately, but before getting stuck in he often first asks ‘Can we fix it!?’

That question is powerful.

So powerfult it illicits a response from deep within.

Rather than mindlessly demanding more of oneself, the question; purposefully phrased so closely to ‘I can’ as to almost trick a part of the mind that’s not really listening anywayand need to be given the go ahead, is proven to lead to an increase in awareness and the ability to problem solve.

In this game of chess, we must problem solve under immense pressure. Often with the lack of leverage or force that would have otherwise allowed us to simply ‘muscle out’.

Chess is played strategically. Chess is picking the lock; not kicking the door in at the hinges, and to approach a chess board full of questions is to approach the wrestling mats with an open mind.

It is this ‘can we fix it’ effigy that leads Bob to succeed everytime, and you too will see the difference..

Personally I have never suffered with the mindset of a quitter. In my first year of grappling no matter how hard I was sprawled on or how stuck I was under the bigger guy I would never give up. I had little idea of what to do, other than that mentally I was only getting stronger if I kept pushing, and so I pushed any doubts out of my mind.. So I never told myself I cannot once, instead I only told myself I can..

However, that pressure stunts ones growth.
To constantly demand higher and higher and more and more of yourself will eventually create a glass ceiling which I have seen exceptionally talented athletes fail to overcome.

So next time you’re stuck under that sprawl, or you struggle to free your hips and get them off the mat the two inch that is needed to retain the guard.. next time you’re having those moments with yourself.. don’t settle for I can, because ‘I can’ is blind at best and worse still, ‘I can’ is mindless. ‘I can’ is stupid.

Ask ‘Can I?’

Illicit a response from deep within and observe what happens; something dramatically more powerful will come from asking yourself a question than forcing yourself, pressuring yourself, to perform from beneath that glass ceiling.


Further reading ~ Daniel H Pink is an author and business leader who writes about the world of work. His most recent book is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Canongate Books):

In a nifty set of experiments, three social scientists explored the differences between what they call “declarative” self-talk (I will fix it!) and “interrogative” self-talk (Can I fix it?). They began by presenting a group of participants with some anagrams to solve (for example, rearranging the letters in “sauce” to spell “cause”.) But before the participants tackled the problem, the researchers asked one half of them to take a minute to ask themselves whether they would complete the task – and the other half to tell themselves that they would complete the task.

The results?

The self-questioning group solved significantly more anagrams than the self-affirming group.

The researchers – Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois, along with Kenji Noguchi of the University of Southern Mississippi – then enlisted a new group to try a variation with a twist of trickery: “We told participants that we were interested in people’s handwriting practices. With this pretence, participants were given a sheet of paper to write down 20 times one of the following word pairs: Will I, I will, I, or Will. Then they were asked to work on a series of 10 anagrams in the same way participants in Experiment One did.”


The outcome was the same. People “primed” with Will I solved nearly twice as many anagrams as people in the other three groups. In subsequent experiments, the basic pattern held. Those who approached a task with questioning self-talk did better than those who began with affirming self-talk.


“Setting goals and striving to achieve them assumes, by definition, that there is a discrepancy between where you are and want to be. When you doubt, you probably achieve the right mindset,” researcher Albarracin explained in an email to me.


“In addition, asking questions forces you to define if you really
want something and probably think about what you want, even in the presence of obstacles.”


To Lisa Gansky, this makes sense. Gansky has launched several ventures, including Ofoto, a pioneering photo-sharing service now owned by Kodak. “I’m a self-talker for sure,” she told me (and probably herself). “And when I’m working on an idea, it starts out as a declarative.”


But as she progresses, she moves toward the interrogative – because business leaders in general, and entrepreneurs in particular, face an occupational hazard that Gansky calls “breathing your own exhaust”.


“When you create something, you can fall in love with it and aren’t able to see or hear anything contrary. Whatever comes out of your mouth is all you’re inhaling,” she says. “But when you ask a question – Will I? – you’re creating an opening. You’re inviting a conversation – whether it’s self-conversation or a conversation with others.”


Dov Seidman agrees – to a point. In 1992, fresh out of Harvard Law School, Seidman started LRN, a consultancy that advises large companies on creating ethical cultures and that now has offices around the world. He acknowledges that “people who make proclamations show a little hubris”. But he says that “proclamations by people who are guided by integrity are promises they have to keep. And that can be very powerful.”


Yet Seidman also believes there’s equivalent power in humility. “People who ask questions come from a more humble place, which creates space to come up with a deeper solution,” he told me.


In other words, questions open and declarations close. We need both, of course. But that initial tincture of honest doubt turns out to be more powerful than a bracing shot of certainty.


And that’s something that the research affirms and that Bob the Builder exemplifies. Although Bob and his anthropomorphic trucks might not qualify for a London Business School case study, his workplace isn’t all that much different from yours or mine (leaving aside the weirdly compelling romantic frisson between Bob and co-worker Wendy).


His business is a series of projects – many of them unexpected, most of them hazily-defined – that require people to collaborate, fashion solutions on the fly and contend with surly customers. By asking “Can we fix it?”, Bob widens the possibilities. Only then – once he’s explored the options and examined his assumptions – does he elicit a rousing “Yes, we can” from his team and everyone gets to work.


So the next time you’re feeding your inner self a heady brew of confident declarations and bold affirmations, toss in a handful of interrogatives with a few sprinkles of humility and doubt.


Can you do that? Yes, you … well, you’ll have to ask that yourself


Linked from: ‘Can we fix it’ is the right question to ask The Telegraph

Good luck all you hungry grapplers.

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