The Power of “What If…?”: Envisioning Possibilities, Not Catastrophes

As a clinically-diagnosed anxiety sufferer, the phase “what if” has historically had a very negative connotation to me. In the past, when I have considered a question in my mind that starts with “what if,” it has led to a vision of the most catastrophic outcome possible. Failure. Death. Embarrassment. You name it. However, I finally started to master my anxiety about five years ago with the help of proper medication and a variety of mental skills. Now, questions starting with “what if” have an entirely different meaning to me.

I hate to admit it, but I have been a fan of professional wrestling (yes, WWE) since childhood. I still watch wrestling once in a while now, but not nearly as fervently as I did when I was a kid. However, as an adult, I have developed a deep curiosity for how the professional wrestling industry operates through listening to podcasts on the subject. It is very much a guilty pleasure of mine.

The wrestling podcasts that I listen to explore the creative storytelling process. I am fascinated by this aspect of wrestling. One of the most interesting things that I’ve heard relates to the phrase “what if.” When wrestling executives are crafting creative strategies, they will often ask the question, “What if… we tried it this way?” Asking the question this way serves a number of purposes.

First, asking the question helps avoid the discomfort of directly criticizing someone’s idea and thus, creating unnecessary conflict. The person who originally generated the idea then has the opportunity to participate in the forward-looking challenge of making an idea better rather than feeling compelled to defend their original idea. Further, asking the question, “What if we tried it this way?” shifts the focus to a collaborative process of improvement. The possibilities can seem endless.

So, why do I bring this up in the context of youth sports?

I bring this up because I believe asking the question “what if?” to young athletes could be a key component to their long-term athletic and personal development.

Research has suggested that individuals who feel a sense of autonomy and competence are more likely to experience intrinsic motivation for whatever it is that they are doing, including sport (Ryan & Deci, 2000). If a young athlete feels as though he or she has control over their development, then they are more likely to be self-motivated. If a young athlete feels as though he or she is getting better, then they are more likely to continue on in their sport. The long-term impacts are potentially life-changing.

Unfortunately, young athletes don’t always perceive themselves to have control over their development. Controlling behaviors by adults, such as coaches, teachers, or parents, may be one reason why young athletes might feel this way (Moreno-Murcia et al., 2019). Adults may use commands, rewards, and threats of punishment to get an athlete to do what he or she wants. However, doing so can lead to frustration and fear of failure because the young person is made to feel as though mistakes are unacceptable (Moreno-Murcia et al.). 

Mistakes, particularly physical mistakes, should be a vehicle for learning, not punishment. The information learned from making a mistake can be applied going forward to fuel improvement. Further, praising what is controllable, such as effort, attitude, and willingness to improve will often lead to more sustainable motivation.

So, this brings us back to “what if…” How can one little question possibly have a significant impact on a young person’s development?

Parents often ask me for advice on how to engage their children in a conversation about sports. My answer is almost always, “ask more questions.” Specifically, I suggest asking questions that start with “what” and “how” to allow them the opportunity to explain things in their own voice, rather than instinctively offering criticism or asking them “why?” which will almost certainly lead them to get defensive. I know I get defensive when someone asks me why I do something.

Last week, I was conducting an individual mental performance coaching session with a high school baseball player. We were working in the batting cage for the first time. I assisted and observed him as he was going through hitting drills. I didn’t say much for the first 20-30 minutes of the session. He was visibly unhappy with his performance due to displays of frustration. Finally, he slammed down his bat. He asked me what we were doing and if I was going to say something.

This was probably the most uncomfortable situation I’ve ever experienced in working with an athlete. My silence and lack of explanation made him uncomfortable. I acknowledged to him that perhaps I could have done a better job of explaining the purpose upfront, but the data I collected in this situation was priceless. The silver lining was that it made me think, what if I ask him the question, what if…?

Asking a question such as, “what if you tried it THIS way?” could help to create the conditions for a young athlete to perceive both autonomy and competence. The athlete can choose to embrace the suggestion and try something different to see if it works for them. The athlete can also turn down the suggestion and continue with the status quo. However, if they choose to stick with the old way of doing things and continue to get the same results, now they have the opportunity to revisit the what if suggestion and adopt it as their own. No one is forcing them to try something new and criticizing them if they don’t do it the right way.

In my estimation, asking “what if” is what I’d call an autonomy-supportive behavior. A research study on autonomy supportive teaching practices suggests that having a “student focused attitude is to be curious about what students are thinking and wanting, open to students’ input and engagement signals” (Reeve & Cheon, 2021, p. 55). 

Many times, it can be more convenient simply to tell a young athlete what to do and how to do it. My instinct as a parent is often to give commands rather than ask questions. Further complicating things, I find that young people seem uncomfortable responding to questions that require them to engage and think critically. As a result, I often experience silence when putting the ball in their court, which makes everyone uncomfortable.

Notwithstanding, I believe my job as a mental performance coach is to challenge my young athletes to think critically and solve their own problems even if it makes them uncomfortable. Creating the conditions for them to own their athletic development is my responsibility. Therefore, I must ask questions like “what if…” in order to facilitate the perception of autonomy and competence. Me telling them how to solve their own problem isn’t the best answer long-term. Emphasizing their strengths and giving them the opportunity to capitalize on these strengths on their own is much more likely to give them the best chance at long-term success.

What if… you as a parent, coach, or teacher took one of these three suggestions?

    1. Ask more questions. Resist the urge to tell a young athlete what they should be doing. Give them a chance to formulate their own solutions.
    2. Put yourself in their shoes. How many times has someone at work tell you how to do your job? Do you like it? Most young athletes know what they need to do. Create the conditions for them to do it.
    3. Focus on their strengths. Rather than focusing on fixing their problems, focus on the possibilities if the young person leverages his or her unique strengths and talents.

References

Moreno-Murcia, J.A., Hernández, E.H., Marin, L.C., & Nuñez, J.L. (2019). Coaches’ motivational style and athletes’ fear of failure. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16, 1-11.

Reeve, J., & Cheon, S.H. (2021). Autonomy-supportive teaching: Its malleability, benefits, and potential to improve educational practice. Educational Psychologist, 56(1), 54-77.

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.