Where Do You Want To Be In Ten Years? The Power of Mental Contrasting

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A few weeks ago I was involved with parent-teacher conferences at school as part of our midterm semester check up. During my discussion with my students about their academic performance, I asked all of them one question.

Where do you want to be in ten years?

When I ask them the question, I tell them that there are no wrong answers. The responses that I receive are very revealing and help me understand my students to a greater degree. I typically get two kinds of responses.

The first type of response is the student has a general idea of where they are headed and can articulate their life goals at this stage and have some kind of a vision for who they want to be in the future. Another response is that they don’t really have an idea where they want to be or what they want to be doing ten years from now.

Both answers for young students are perfectly acceptable and I make no judgment about a student-athlete if they don’t have an answer at this stage. However, asking the question is important because it can aid important psychological processes that help a student on the path of self-actualization.

It is my responsibility to give the student the support that will help them see their future self. I must provide an environment where they can build their confidence in who they are or who they want to be. This aids them in seeing the possibilities that the future could hold for them. In turn, this provides a strategy for success and helps them see the value in all they are doing in the present moment.

During this conversation, I find it helpful to provide some information about why I decided to become an educator and coach. I tell them that I’m probably not the person who is going to invent the cure for cancer, however, it is my hope that one of the students who has taken my Chemistry class might do that or something similar one day. I express that my personal life philosophies are service to others and creating a better world for the next generation. This accomplishes two things. First, it allows the student to see me as a living breathing human being who has hopes, dreams, motivation and passion for what they do. Secondly, it serves to foster the relationship between myself and the student. Additionally, if the student envisions what they want out of life, they can use that as a psychological focal point.

There has been a lot written about the benefits of mental imagery for goal setting. When you focus on the desired outcomes and work back from that, a strategy for moving forward can be developed. I have just finished reading a book called Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation (affiliate link) by Gabrielle Oettingen. The information provided by the book is very helpful and pertinent to this post. Oettingen advocates that dreaming is productive only when a person also takes the time to visualize what obstacles might lie in the path to achieving a goal. Her technique WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan), allows for a person to work through a process where they envision a wish and outcome. During this process, the important step is to also analyze what obstacle(s) they face that could prevent them from achieving the goal. Once the obstacle is identified, the person performing the WOOP exercise can devise up a plan to overcome the obstacle when it is encountered. When you know your students and athletes and are familiar with their personality, you can help them address those challenges in a productive manner.

Oettingen’s scientific research has provided substantial proof that this technique of mental contrasting is more effective than just thinking positive thoughts alone. With all of this said, mental contrasting only works if the person has a high degree of confidence that they can complete the task and believes that the goal is achievable. The research shows that this technique has an adverse effect on those that don’t have a high level of expectation that they can achieve the goal.

This process is valuable to educators, coaches, students, and athletes because it allows them to think about and discuss the realities of reaching goals. At the beginning of each season, there should be a goal setting period for an athlete or team. Mental contrasting during this process allows athletes to discuss the various challenges that need to be overcome to reach those goals. It’s great to set a goal of winning a major race or earning the team points trophy, however, strategies need to be in place for balancing schoolwork, team dynamics, motivation, and the challenges of winter/holiday training to name a few. I recommend reading Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation (affiliate link) or checking out the WOOP app for yourself. 

In conclusion, when tests have been taken and the races have been rowed, your measurement for success as an educator or coach are student-athletes who have developed self-confidence in their own abilities. In addition, your students should be on the road to finding out who they are and where they are headed. By fostering an environment where student-athletes can set goals and understand the process for achieving them you put in into motion a strategy that can help them be more successful in the future.

If you have any feedback about this article, I would love to hear from you! Contact me at neil@coachbergenroth.com.

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