Shut Up, Word Mind! I’m Busy!

by | February 26, 2014, 4:30am 0

I recently finished Daniel Kahneman’s excellent Thinking, Fast and Slow. The book is a journey through a career spent looking at the failures of the human mind. From the first page, I was struck by the foundational similarity between Thinking and my all-time favorite book about sports, Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis. Both books posit a split mind with one branch in charge of intuitive, rapid judgments and the other in charge of slower, more analytical judgements. Confusingly, they each call the two minds Self 1 and Self 2, but backwards.  For clarity, I’ll refer to the two minds as the Doing Mind (intuitive, rapid, visual) and the Word Mind (slow, analytical, judgmental).

The recognition of the split mind is pretty much where the similarity ends. Kahneman has an essentially distrustful view on people’s ability to make judgements and has designed experiment after experiment to demonstrate the ways in which we mess things up. Gallwey’s philosophy is much more experiential and completely oppositional to Kahneman’s. Where Kahneman sees the human mind as rife with failings and prone to mistakes, Gallwey sees the mind as essentially trustworthy and exquisitely functional, provided we can channel it in the right way. What I’d like to do in this essay is look at each book individually, compare them and then examine the implications for playing and coaching.

Inner Game 

If you haven’t read this book, do so today. It is the best use of the next two hours of your life. Better than track or lifting or throwing or practice. It’s that good.

Inner Game begins with a recognition of two minds and the damage the Word Mind can do to athletic performance:

…within each player there are two “selves.” One, the “I” seems to give instructions; the other, “myself” seems to perform the action.  Then “I” returns with an evaluation of the action. For clarity, let’s call the “teller” Self 1 [the Word Mind] and the “doer” Self 2 [the Doing Mind].

By thinking too much and trying too hard, [the Word Mind] has produced tension and muscle conflict in the body. He is responsible for the error, but he heaps the blame on [the Doing Mind] and then, by condemning it it further, undermines his own confidence in [the Doing Mind]. As a result, the stroke grows worse and worse and frustration builds.

Once he has established the idea of the two minds, Gallwey uses the rest of the book to explain methods to avoid the dangers of this split mind and allow natural athletic ability to flourish. There are two essential steps in this process: quieting the Word Mind and trusting the Doing Mind. These steps aren’t necessarily sequential because the trusting of the Doing Mind is often a key step in getting the Word Mind to be quiet.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Like Inner Game, Thinking divides the human mind into two systems:

The [Doing Mind] operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. The [Word Mind] allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of the [Word Mind] are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.

Kahneman sees the human mind fail in multiple ways. The root of the problem is that the Doing Mind is always working and the Word Mind is lazy. No matter what you do, you cannot turn the Doing Mind off; it will always supply an answer to a question, even if it has no idea what it is talking about. This is particularly true of questions that are better answered by the Word Mind. Compounding the problem, the Word Mind requires a lot of work and effort to bring to bear. It is very resource-intensive; it tires easily; it cannot multi-task. So although it is very, very good at certain things, it is also very limited. Kahneman often sees the Word Mind fail to answer questions it should.

A common type of Doing Mind error is for the Doing Mind to supply an answer to a different, simpler question. “Is this politician competent” (a tricky analytical question) gets replaced with “Does this politician look and sound like a leader?” There are a number of different “substitution” errors of this nature described in the book. As coaches we have things that we care about and choose to emphasize. When our teams are struggling, we are inclined to place the blame and the appropriate correction within the area we care more about. Personally, I am apt to attribute struggles to lack of effort and defense. Other coaches will attribute struggles to poor choices or execution. These things might be right, but we are substituting the question “What is making me frustrated with my team’s play” for the broader “Why is my team struggling?”

There are a number of setting and framing errors described as well. One that I thought was particularly telling in ultimate was the ‘halo effect’.  This is an error where we make a judgement about one ability based on our observations about something else entirely. The example from ultimate that came to my mind immediately was from tryouts. Two people show up for practice; you can only pick one for the team.  (This is a difficult analytical question that involves weighing a lot of different factors, a classic Word Mind question.)  The first player looks the part — 5 shorts, sublimated jerseys — you know that kid.  The second looks a schlub: raggedy cotton sweatshirt, bad hair. It is really, really hard to give these two a fair comparison. 5 shorts don’t make you a better ultimate player, but they make you look like a better ultimate player and the Doing Mind will say that they are a better player. This is a really great argument for objective analytics at tryouts. At Oregon, we run a series of 6-8 different metrics as a part of our tryout process. In addition to the support of hard data, you also have to openly address halo effect issues in the tryout process. This is what Kahneman refers to as bringing the Word Mind into action.  This is where the Word Mind is strongest – detailed, slow analysis.

Implications for Players

There is no question that the act of playing ultimate is a Doing Mind activity. I don’t want to rehash what Gallwey has already said so eloquently, but the essence of it is that to be an effective player, you need to get the Word Mind to shut up and get out of the Doing Mind’s way.

We already do a lot of work to get the Word Mind out of the way.  The most obvious example is drill work. Running a drill is taking a new concept and by practicing it again and again moving it into the automatic, intuitive Doing Mind.  Part of the difficulty is that you have to pass through a period of Word Mind work until this becomes automatic. Let’s look at learning dump-swing as an example. The first time your coach or captain explains this fairly basic piece of technology, it is hard to grasp and hold all the different pieces: the initial handler does this, the second handler does that and then the weakside cutter…it goes on and on. You have a million what-if questions.  You get into the drill and completely muck it up. You are trying to remember to time your cut and forget what to do when the initial handler goes up the line. You get yelled at. But as you do the drill more and more, it becomes more and more automatic. You get into a game and without being told what to do, the dump-swing just happens. It’s like magic. But it isn’t magic, it’s just how we learn. It’s the Doing Mind in action.

Another way we do this work already is to prepare ourselves to play during our warm ups.  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, your warm up should be preparing you mentally as well as physically.  You are getting yourself into a frame of mind where the Word Mind shuts up and the Doing Mind takes over.  This process is a slow to learn, but it is learnable skill.  If you’ve ever been around experienced club players and watched them ‘turn it on’, you’ve seen someone who has learned how to make that switch without a lot of prep work.

A final note: the Word Mind is activated by high-stress, high-pressure moments.  There isn’t really anything you can do about this because it is automatic. This is why people get the yips, drop passes on game point, blow defensive assignments. All of a sudden, at the worst possible time, the Word Mind is turned on and activated. It’s just trying to be helpful but it mucks everything up.  The best way around this is to play in a lot of high pressure situations. This is why so many teams fail in their first trip to the Finals; experience mitigates pressure and inexperience maximizes it.  You can replicate this at practice: the standard drill for this is Game to 2.

Implications for Coaches/Leaders

Unlike the relatively straightforward problem faced by players, the issues for coaches and leaders are much more complicated. Is coaching a Doing Mind or a Word Mind activity? At first glance, it seems like it would be a Word Mind activity just because there is so much thinking involved, but as I’ve reflected back on my own thought process I feel more and more that coaching is largely a Doing Mind activity with an uncomfortable and awkward amount of Word Mind mixed in.

Think back on your own mental process during a game. (This is a bit like using a scale to weigh itself.) How much are you carefully weighing evidence? How much are you looking at data and extrapolating plans and strategies from this data? If you’re like me, not much. So much of the work I do during a game is fast — really quick, rapid judgements. Even in a situation where I am trying to make a decision about a strategic change (it could be anything: zone to person or a change in match-ups or which pull play to run) I only have 30 seconds or at most a couple of minutes to make that decision. I’m not looking back at film, I’m not analyzing a lot of data — I’m going with my gut, which is unquestionably the Doing Mind.

I think this is true of most of the work we do. Running drills, doing player analysis, watching film…so much of this work is image-based and intuitive and so little of it involves the detailed analysis of data. This was surprising to me. I really expected coaching to be Word Mind.

This raises a really awkward problem for us as coaches and leaders. Our job as coaches is to impart our understanding to the players. How do you impart this knowledge without words? We must grapple with a brutal 4-step translation problem: Our Doing Mind to our Word Mind spoken to the players’ Word Mind to the players Doing Mind. Yikes! It’s no wonder we say stuff in a huddle and then watch it not happen on the field. The real surprise should be that it happens at all! (It is a poorly understood and often ignored athletic talent to translate Word to Doing. I think it’s related to processing speed, but I’m not 100%.)

Here are some real practical suggestions to work around this problem:

  • If you make an unpracticed, in-game adjustment expect it to go poorly. You’re asking the Word Mind to play ultimate. So when you are weighing whether or not to do it, you are balancing the ‘rightness’ of the adjustment with the ‘poorness’ of the execution.  As an example – you never play zone, but your person is getting killed. Zone might be the right hypothetical choice, but defenders are going to blow assignments. No choice here is good, so pick the best of the worst.
  • Find the players who can translate quickly and have them make the adjustments for the whole team. In the 2011 Fury-Riot final, Matty Tsang said at halftime that he wanted to use forehand inside-outs to move the disc to the high-side of the field. Then Alex Snyder went out and threw 4-5 of these beautifully. Not all of Fury made this adjustment, but one player adjusting was enough.
  • Don’t talk analytical strategy right before game time. Don’t turn the Word Mind on. The best way to manage this is to have your strategy conversation the night before or at the beginning of the day before you have started warm-ups. Present your strategy adjustments in a way that make them easily transferable to a few words each, like “No arounds”. Your pre-game huddle is then a very brief reiteration of these key points and a lot of emotional preparation. A tactical suggestion: don’t go into the pre-game huddle. Leave it to the players.
  • Words are worthless. If you want something to happen, you have to drill it. And drill it again. And again. It has to transfer into the Doing Mind.

The Together Mind

There’s a stronger place than merely silencing the Word Mind. You need the Word Mind to be successful because so many of the goals of ultimate are artificial. You need the judgement seeking, external analysis of the Word Mind to create forward momentum. Without it, the Doing Mind just sits and zens itself to nowhere.

When you are really on, when you are really aware, your Doing Mind is absorbing each and every piece of information and taking it into account. The wind, the mark, the slight positioning of the defenders, the match-up…there’s so much. But amazingly, the thoughts of the Word Mind become just another piece absorbed into the decision making of the Doing Mind. The score, the number of time-outs, these just become another piece of information added in.

There is a place even beyond this, where both the Word and Doing Mind are fully active. I’ve been there once. In the 2004 finals, I was fortunate enough to be on the field for Sockeye on double game point. We forced a turnover and I had to walk the disc up to the front cone with 70 yards to go. Twice. The first time it happened, I had an out of body experience where a part of me was watching from above as I walked the disc to the line. The watching-me thought, “Holy shit, you’re walking the disc into coffin corner on double game point in the finals of Nationals!” But the rest of me, the active me, the part of me that was in my body just stepped up and threw the swing pass. The second time it happened, I had the same out of body experience, complete with the same internal monologue. And again I threw the swing pass.


To bring this back to Kahneman and Gallwey, they’re actually in agreement. They see the human mind exactly the same. They each agree that the human mind has its flaws and its strengths. They agree that the challenge that faces us is to attack the situation in front of us in an appropriate way. Gallwey spent a life on the tennis courts watching and teaching. It is no surprise he favors the Doing Mind. Kahneman spent his life in the halls of academia wondering about errors in judgement and statistical analysis. This is Word Mind work. Their works themselves reflect their favored Mind. Inner Game is succinct and thematic; Thinking is meticulous, detailed and long.

The next stop for me will be to look more closely at the expert mind. Gary Klein’s Sources of Power is likely. What I am seeking is how we can learn to see something immensely complex (like an ultimate game) in a coherent manner. I have struggled lately with the realization that what I see on the field is not what the players see. This should be obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to me. Now I struggle with how to impart that vision.

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