The psychologist Milton Erickson was a transformative figure in therapy, using stories as ways to motivate, change, or de-hypnotize us from hurtful and limiting patterns of behavior. When I was teaching, I used his and other stories to make a point and engage students when their attention drifted, or when they needed something real but approachable to appear in the classroom.
One example of a story I always loved was how Erickson taught an athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. This version was told by Sidney Rosen in his book My Voice will Go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson.
A high school athlete named in the book as Donald Lawrence had been practicing to set a national high school record for throwing a shot put. But after a year, he could only put the shot 58 feet, way short of the record.
His father brought him in to see Erickson, who at their first meeting helped Donald go into a trance and feel his muscles one by one. On the next visit, after repeating the trance for muscle awareness, Erickson asked Donald if he knew a mile used to be four minutes long. The record had stood for many years until Roger Bannister broke the record. Erickson asked, “Do you know how?”
Bannister had realized you could win a ski jump by a tenth of a second or a race. Since a four-minute mile was 240 seconds, all he had to do to set a new record was run a mile in 239.9 seconds, or 239.5. One tenth or one half a second faster.
“You have already thrown the shot fifty-eight feet…Do you know the difference between fifty-eight feet and fifty-eight feet and one-sixteenth of an inch?” Donald said no. Erickson slowly enlarged the possibility of what Donald could do in his mind until 2 weeks later Donald set the high-school record. He went on to set more records until four years later he brought home the Olympic gold.
Erickson, says Rosen, used obvious truths to plant suggestions for personal growth. He told Donald, “You’re four years older now. It would be all right if you take the gold medal.” The first was true; the second could be true. By juxtaposing them, Erickson made the unrealized realizable, the unknown known. He demonstrated the control Donald had when he moved step by step and eliminated the anxiety that can erupt from the past. Donald was left with each moment being the first and only moment to focus on. And then he, or the real person ‘Donald’ represents, won the gold.
Likewise, each of us can be freed from many of our fears and limitations….
To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.