Learning to think differently

February 5, 2022

When it comes to learning new exercises and movements, we seem to automatically understand that we get better at things by practicing them.

When babies become toddlers, their walking improves the more they do.

When kids learn to throw and catch, they become stronger and more efficient as they practice.

When you’re learning a complex new exercise, like Olympic Weightlifting, we get better over time.

And while there are lots of reasons we improve with practice, one of the key drivers is our nerves’ ability to send signals. And this is important, because our brain, tells our nerves, to tell or muscles, to do things. If we get better at the ‘nerve conduction’ bit, we get better at movement.

And while that might seem a little technical, we already understand it, because we understand that we get better at physical tasks with physical practice.

But notice a key word in that last sentence… ‘physical’.

And while we automatically understand this for ‘physical’ skills, we don’t realise that the same applies for mental skills.

We’re really good at thinking the way we think, because we’ve spent a lot of time thinking that way! The nerves in our brain have got better at those patterns of thinking.

If you’re an anxious person, the more you have thoughts that give you feelings of anxiety, the better you’ll be at having these thoughts in the future. Just like throwing a ball makes you really good at throwing a ball, worrying about things outside your control makes you really good at worrying about things outside your control!

And on the flip side, people who are optimistic (looking for the ‘good’ in things) will get better at being optimistic.

Let’s go back to physical skills for a moment. If you’re right handed, it’ll be a challenge to teach yourself to throw with your left hand. It will be difficult, but it is possible. And it’s difficult because you haven’t established the neural pathways required to effectively perform that skill.

Mental skills are no different.

Like throwing left handed, it can be hard to change the ways we thing… but it is possible. And the more you deliberately practice how you think, the easier it will become.

Changes to how you choose to think (choose being the operative word) will make thinking that way easier (and eventually automatic).

Maybe you always complain about the weather. You’re really good at that because you’ve had a lot of practice. Instead, look for the positives. There are so many good things about rainy days that you can uncover if you spend less time practicing complaining.

Maybe you angrily react to other people when they cut you off in traffic. You’re really good at road rage, because yo’ve had a lot of practice. Practicing empathy (maybe they’re rushing to hospital so they don’t miss the birth of their first child) makes you better at ‘doing empathy’.

Maybe you have a fixed mindset, where you believe that if you’re not good at something, you’ll never be good at that thing. Practising a growth mindset (where you know your abilities are not fixed) will make have a growth mindset easier.

Thinking is a skill. Thinking in a certain way makes us better at that skill.

How can you change the way you think to make that thought pattern your new normal?

Dan Williams

Dan Williams


Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.

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