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Mindfulness, Positivity, Gratefulness and Every Other Cliché Thing to Practice by Lily Zhang

4 golds under my belt… Women’s Teams, Singles, Doubles, and Mixed Doubles. On paper, this was the perfect ending to cap off my tournament at the 2019 Pan American Championships. But, how did I actually get this point? The weekend directly before the Pam Am Champs, I had just lost to U.S. National Team Member Amy Wang at the 2019 U.S. National Ranking Tournament for the first time ever in my career. In fact, this entire year I had been feeling somewhat down, especially about the way my table tennis journey seemed to be developing.  

As many of you know by now, after graduating from UC Berkeley, I decided to take a gamble and go fully professional, dedicating practically all my time to training and competing. Compared to university, where I barely managed to practice 2-3 times a month, I was truly living and breathing table tennis. Just by looking at the pure statistics of training sessions and competitions, shouldn’t I have soared in the world rankings and in my competition results by now?  

Yet, there I was. Lying face down on the hotel bed after I had just lost to Amy, feeling particularly sorry for myself. I felt like the world owed me something after dedicating so much of my time and energy to this sport – it felt unfair. And to be completely honest, I probably would have continued sulking in my pity party if it had been the end of the tournament, but I knew I still had one more match to go the next day against my teammate and #1 seed, Wu Yue. So I picked myself up, stepped in the shower, and in the meantime, put a TEDTalk in the background to listen to.  

This particular TEDTalk, by social psychologist and UC Davis Professor Alison Ledgerwood, focused on positive thinking and how to cultivate it. She talked about her own research, which through a series of scientific experiments, found that people in general have a fundamental tendency to view the world in a more negative light. Furthermore, a loss or negative thought tends to linger far longer in our minds than a positive one. For instance, if you take a look at the U.S. economy, we saw a crash and a recession in 2007. By 2010, the economy had bounced back to repair itself, but consumer confidence remained as low as ever, indicating that consumers were still psychologically stuck back in the recession (Ledgerwood). We often find ourselves stuck in a cycle of negativity and it takes actual work and effort to see things with a positive angle. However, not all hope is lost. Despite our natural inclinations to see the darkness, we have the ability to change this by practicing and training our minds daily into focusing on the upside, thus improving positive thinking (Ledgerwood).  

After listening to these words, I took some time to reflect on my past half year as a professional athlete. In a moment of clarity, I suddenly realized that each time my friends asked me how I was doing, I often jumped immediately to the negatives in my life. I told them I was tired from training hours upon hours every day; I was burnt out from living out of a suitcase and traveling constantly; I was homesick; I was playing horribly. I believed that what I was doing was that I was simply venting to them in order to cleanse out the negative thoughts in my head. But in reality, the more I talked with a negative undertone, the more I genuinely began to see my life with a pessimistic perspective. Continuously dwelling on these toxic thoughts only threw me deeper into a spiral of negativity.  

Interestingly enough, I also recognized that I left out the countless positives in my life during these conversations. I left out the fact that I have the unique opportunity to live out a dream and passion of mine; I have the resources and ability to travel and experience much of the world; I have an incredibly supportive circle of friends and family; I in fact did have some really good matches and competitions over the course of the half year. So it turns out that even though I spent the majority of my time ruminating on how my life was dreadful and unfair, it was actually quite decent after all.  

Being able to take a step back and evaluate the situation with a more logical and appreciative outlook truly did grant me with a different and much more positive mindset. I took this attitude with me the next day during my match against Wu Yue, winning 4-1, and then also to Asunsción, Paraguay for the 2019 Pan American Championships. Each day, I worked hard to identify things that I was grateful for. I even practiced various mindfulness exercises, seeking comfort and awareness in the present. Whenever my mind wandered to the dark and anxious places of what would happen if I lost this certain match or played poorly, I used breathing techniques to reel it back and just focus on things I could control in the moment.  

While I won’t go into detail about every match I played in Paraguay, I must say these practices of mindfulness and gratefulness helped me enormously. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself on the top of the podium for every event that I participated in. And even if I didn’t make it there, even if I had lost every single match, I had made peace with it beforehand by telling myself that whatever happens is simply part of sport. As long as I try my absolute best and put everything on the table, I should feel content with the results. Even now, I understand that there will be ups and downs in my journey to come, but I am confident that these experiences will help me become not only a better athlete, but also a better person. 

Yes, this might sound cliché, perhaps like every other overused and commonplace article out there on the internet, but to practice mindfulness, positivity, and gratefulness is crucial in order to flourish in life. If you are going through a tough period in life or feeling stagnant, the only advice I can offer to you is to try not overly ruminate on a perceived negative situation. In fact, research shows that rumination is connected to a higher likelihood of developing depression or anxiety. Moreover, co-rumination, or the extensive and frequent discussion of negative feelings with friends or close friends, has been shown to have statistically significant correlations with clinical levels of anxiety (Carlucci et al. 133).  

I personally like to use the analogy that life is like a ferris wheel – as we rise slowly towards the pinnacle of the ride, we feel like we’re on the top of the world, but then there are times when nothing seems to be going our way and it feels unconditionally hopeless. Regardless, there will be a time when we reach the point of elevation again. Every feeling you have on the ride is absolutely valid, but we can definitely still work to be grateful for what we have at the moment and try to see the positives in life as well. As Professor Ledgerwood said, we may find “that the glass may be a little more full than we initially thought.” 

 Works Mentioned 

Carlucci, Leonardo et al. “Co-rumination, anxiety, and maladaptive cognitive schemas: when friendship can hurt.” Psychology research and behavior management vol. 11 133-144. 11 Apr. 2018, doi:10.2147/PRBM.S144907

Ledgerwood, Alison. “A Simple Trick to Improve Positive Thinking.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, May 2019, www.ted.com/talks/alison_ledgerwood_a_simple_trick_to_improve_positive_thinking?language=en.

 

 

 

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