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  • Writer's pictureLuke Patrick

(Your) Body('s) Language

(...Or, How to Improve Your Performance Without Thinking About it)

Almost by definition, sport psychology is largely about improving performance by changing the activity of the mind. As a reader of this blog, you probably have some appreciation for–or at least interest in–the way that thoughts and emotions affect skill execution. Approaching performance from a thinking (cognitive) perspective makes a lot of sense. One can't get far as a practitioner of sport psychology without a good working knowledge of the way the mind influences the body.

But what if I told you there's a complementary approach to better, more consistent performance that has as much to do with your physicality as your mindset? Body language is a nonverbal signal of your current mental state. It's a communication not only to your teammates, your coach, and spectators, but also to yourself; to your own mind. In other words, the lines of communication between mind and body don't flow in just one direction. While the brain communicates thoughts and emotions (and a lot of other signals we're not even consciously aware of) to the body, the body also sends signals to the brain.

As a demonstration, try a little experiment. Right now, wherever you are sitting or standing, take a moment to drop your shoulders, slouch forward, and let your head tip downward, chin toward your chest. While you do that, pay attention to your thoughts and emotions. Give it 20 or 30 seconds.

Now, make a shift. Bring your head and chin up, draw your shoulders back, and sit or stand in a posture that is upright and open, but not too rigid. Now for another 20 to 30 seconds, again notice how you are thinking and feeling.

Did you feel the difference? Some postures and movements are consistent with power, confidence, and successful performance, whereas other give your mind a sense of hesitation, uncertainty, or even fear. The specifics of effective body language can vary somewhat from sport to sport, but in general you will improve your performance with these types of body language:

• Open, upright posture

• Direct eye contact, especially with teammates

• Positive facial expressions such as head nods (Even a smile can improve performance!)

• Appropriately timed power poses and fist pumps

• Movement that is fluid and consistent with best performance

By contrast, negative body language will not only dampen your performance, but will set a negative tone for those around you. It can become contagious, with teammates becoming infected and opponents exploiting the weakness. Even athletes in individual sports can find their coaches and supporters impacted by negative body language, creating a negative feedback loop among everyone involved. Coaches need to be aware of their nonverbals as well. I've seen some otherwise great coaches manage to really undermine their teams' progress with negative nonverbal behavior.

Fortunately, body language is one aspect of sport that is 100% under your control. Give these concepts some consideration before your next practice or competition. You might even ask for feedback from trusted coaches and teammates, or review video of yourself from prior contests. Keep in mind, your body language on the sideline is just as important as when you are performing on the court, field, or track. You might keep a written "cheat sheet" of the list of positive body language above, to refer back to and add to as you go. Like any skill, body language can be revised and improved with practice! With time, you'll be better and better able to make your body send your brain a message of success.

Do you have other examples of positive body language in a sport or performance context? Post them in the comments!

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