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March Madness to Bolster Our Cognitive Skills?

What if you were to learn tapping into the March Madness basketball tournament could be a key to bolstering our cognitive skills and thus enhance a range of personal, professional, and athletic pursuit outcomes? If you’re a basketball fan, you’ll be happy to discover that is precisely the case. The following strategies (additional strategies avail here) are so effective for true fans that you might even ask your manager if perhaps you can utilize some professional development time to invest in upcoming games 😉

So how does it work? Here are 4 ½ steps you can take to enhance your cognitive skills through the tournament – or any life activity into which you might happen to be fully engaged. By the way, the more “into” the game you find yourself, the more effective these strategies. And just to re-emphasize: these strategies don’t simply make you more tolerable to friends and family members, they actually STRENGTHEN your cognitive skills in ways that will translate into other aspects of life, from leadership to athletic pursuits, parenting, test-taking and more…

1 – Create space – even just 3 seconds – between stimulus (e.g., the TERRIBLE call by the ref) and my response. Notice the word choice: response (not reaction). A response is a purposeful choice. A reaction is automated. By shifting ourselves from reaction to response, we are strengthening our cognitive control mechanisms. Perhaps start with just a single second (you’ll likely find it’s harder than it sounds to pause “one, one thousand” between the referee’s whistle and our response 😉). Yes – it’s a simple strategy but one that challenges our cognitive skills quite significantly. And, if you can master it in this setting, it will cross over into others.

2 – Consider my true identity in light of the game. I’m an immense Colorado State University football and basketball fan. Since moving to Fort Collins a few years ago, we’ve attended most of the games as a fun activity to enjoy with family, friends and the community. Unfortunately, I simultaneously began connecting my personal identity to the team. The team didn’t just lose a game, I became a loser when they fell short on the scoreboard, which affected a multitude of other aspects of life. I finally tuned into the fact that while I loved being a fan as a hobby, it was a hobby (not an identity)!! I wasn’t a player, a coach or even a water boy – I was a fan, enjoying an entertaining event with incredibly gifted athletes, detailed strategy and some occasional luck. While I still love to see the team win, fully distinguishing between pleasurable hobby and personal identity allowed me to focus on the things I could – and DO enjoy, most notably the time with family and close friends in an atmosphere of camaraderie. Massive change.

3a – Label the emotions I’m feeling – the more granularity involved, the better. Angry about the tournament seeding my team received? Am I actually “angry”? Or is it more “disheartened” (the selection committee didn’t watch our games) or “disappointed” or “excluded” (the big conferences get favored)?

3b – Once my emotions are clearly labeled at a more granular level (vs. the generic mad/sad/happy), it’s much easier to process those emotions and what those emotions are telling me. “Ok – I am disappointed we got the lower seeding, but the more I think about it, our conference really hasn’t performed up to expectations. This is our year to change that.”

4 – Lastly, remember emotions are Resources… not Rulers, existing to bring things to light we might otherwise miss. They do NOT guide our actions (at least they don’t have to if I don’t give them that power). Listen to them like a friend. Sometimes that friend is a little crazy and should be ignored. Other times that friend is pointing out something important. Once contextualized as such, I can then move forward based on a decision vs. autopilot.

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