Words Can Make You Old - Yes, even you!

Most of the time it isn’t about the skill during matches or even the mistakes. It is about the pressure players put on themselves and how they deal with the mental side.

Words Can Make You Old - Yes, even you!

Environment. How much does the environment around you impact your performance? Your growth as an athlete or the growth of your team?

Let’s talk about priming. Priming is when a world or action ‘primes’ an action or result from another person. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’ he explores this phenomenon. What words have an impact on our subconscious mind, what real-world impact do they make and what are some examples? Can priming make us physically slower or faster? Nicer and calmer, even smarter? The answer is Yes to all. The 'how' is fascinating and what I look forward to sharing with you here.

Priming is so connected with the environment. When you think about your daily environment, what comes to mind? The way you drive to work, your car perhaps, the roads and scenery. Your place of work, the buildings, office décor and the chair and desk you sit at. What does your local place for lunch look like? Do you have a spot where you take a few minutes for yourself during the day? Think about this for your weekend too. What about holidays and family events?

The second element of the environment is; The words, behaviours and energy of those around you. How do colleagues talk with you, how do you respond? What is your inner voice like at work, at home or when you are out running? How do you talk with your child? How do they talk with you?

Let’s link these in for tennis. How does the coach talk with your child, how does the energy feel on the court? Do their teammates discuss things, importantly how do they discuss these things? If you are training 4-5 times a week, with similar people and at similar places, this will have a major impact on how you think and feel. Is the environment high performance, is it negative? Does it inspire you to grow or will it leave you feeling neutral or worse, feelings that are negative or depressive?

I would like to share with you some examples from Blink. Malcolm explores this idea in multiple ways, I want to explore the one example that impacted me the most when reading, page 52 - Blink, Malcolm Gladwell

Primed for Action

Imagine that I’m a professor, and I’ve asked you to come and see me in my office. You walk down a long corridor, come through the doorway, and sit down at the table. In front of you is a sheet of paper with a list of five-word sets. I want you to make a grammatical four-word sentence as quickly as possible out of each set. It’s called a scrambled-sentence test. Ready?

  1. him was worried she always
  2. from are Florida oranges temperature
  3. ball the throw toss silently
  4. shoes give replace old the
  5. he observes occasionally people watches
  6. be will sweat lonely they
  7. sky the seamless gray is
  8. should now withdraw forgetful we
  9. us bingo sing play let
  10. sunlight makes temperature wrinkle raisins


That seemed straightforward, right? Actually, it wasn't. After you finished that test - believe it or not - you would have walked out of my office and back down the hall more slowly than you walked in. With that test, I affected the way you behaved. How? Well, look back at the list. Scattered throughout it are certain words, such as ‘worried,’ ‘Florida,’ ‘old,’ ‘lonely,’ ‘gray,’ ‘bingo,’ and ‘wrinkle.’ You thought that I was just making you take a language test. But, in fact, what I was also doing was making the big computer in your brain - your adaptive unconscious - think about the state of being old. It didn’t inform the rest of your brain about its sudden obsession. But it took all this talk of old age so seriously that by the time you finished and walked down the corridor, you acted old. You walked slowly.

The test was devised by a very clever psychologist named John Bargh. It is an example of what is called a priming experiment.


The above can be a little confusing to tackle at first hopefully the infographic helped. It was a really profound moment reading the above for the first time. Such profound behaviour changes from minimal priming. The important question comes immediately to mind. If these 10 sentences can make physical changes to us in a very quick way, what can long term priming do to us?

The drop off conversations before school. The sideline remarks on the tennis court. Pre-match words of ‘inspiration’ condolences or scolding post-match. The general conversational tone and words at home. The words in the car. The coaches words during practise. The words from teammates and friends. Some all too common phrases from parents on the sidelines

'You always miss your backhand down the line'

'You looked tired and angry'

'Why did you miss so many short balls'

'Your second serve really let you down'

'You need to hit harder on those high volleys'

'You struggled on their harder deep shots'

‘Your second serve really let you down’

‘You struggled on their harder deep shots’

Some parents may think that a few of these sentences are purely observational.

In a way they are statements but they will not come across as statements. The position parents hold, is never neutral. Children know and more importantly feel the deeper meaning and message of what you are saying. Think how simple the priming impacted behaviour above, now let’s add in stress and the dynamic of opponents, people watching etc. Talk about a pressure cooker! Tennis is one tough stage.

Let’s rephrase the above examples, ever so slightly. Change the priming. First thing, let’s remove the ‘YOU’ element. It makes it very personal and with flaws, it feels like you are talking about them.

'You always missed your backhand down the line' to

‘Those backhand down the lines are tough shots, did you feel comfortable with them today?'

'You looked tired and angry' to

'How did you feel before you started the match? Sometimes when I sleep badly I struggle at work the next day. How are your energy levels?'

'Why did you miss so many short balls' to

'When you came forward to the net, did you feel confident?'

'Your second serve really let you down' to

'When you start the point, did you have any goals in mind? First, serve goals, second serve goals? Did you feel you got as many in as you liked and were you able to hit them where you hoped to?'

'You need to hit harder on those high volleys' to

'I would use the same prompt as the short balls ‘When you came forward to the net, did you feel confident? Or what are you working on with the coach when you come forward?'

'You struggled on their harder deep shots' to

'Those deep hard shots look tricky, what are some things you practise with your coach on these ones?'

These changes take immediate ‘attack’ mode away from your child. They open them to an answer that can go in multiple directions and most importantly guided by the child. They may have responses that take the conversation to somewhere completely different, somewhere completely unexpected. They need to trust the space, trust your motivations behind the questions and feel confident that you as a team will work through them at the right time in the right way.

Another option and a way to support these conversations in a different way is, just be with them. Hang out as a parent and spend time with your child. Did you enjoy the match? Cool, let’s go home and play in the backyard or whatever you like doing together. Then, send the coach a message and describe the match, how you saw it, what elements look like they need attention and an overall feel for the day. Then the coach has the power to talk about the direction moving forward, decide the on-court drills to make adjustments if they feel they are needed.

Most of the time it isn’t about the skill during matches or even the mistakes. It is about the pressure players put on themselves and how they deal with the mental side. I’m sure there will be technical problems, most of us don’t have the ‘perfect game’ even the very best are working daily to get better. It is very often, ‘THE HOW’ we approach the task or playing, the way we think during those moments of high pressure. You are in the corner of support, you are the child’s most secure voice. Be the voice that shapes future growth and trust. It may be a challenge but like most challenges, the rewards will be great!