Van Tharp Back-To-Basics Series

What Does Van Tharp Mean When He Says: "We Only Trade our Beliefs About the Markets"?

If you are a regular student of Van Tharp's work or reader of this newsletter you hear this a lot: You can't trade the markets, you can only trade your beliefs about the market. Let's explore what this really means.

As a long time modeler of what makes great traders great, Van understands that to model effectively you have to find out what highly accomplished people do in common. Once you get the common tasks that produce excellent behavior, you need to get the ingredients of those tasks. Those ingredients include the beliefs, the mental states, and the mental strategies necessary to carry out those tasks.

Let's look at some statements and see what you believe about them:

  • The market is a dangerous place to invest. (You are right.)
  • The market is a safe place to invest. (You are right.)
  • Wall Street controls the markets and it's hard for the little guy. (You are right.)
  • You can easily make money in the markets. (You are right.)
  • It's hard to make money in the markets. (You are right.)
  • You need to have lots of information before you can trade profitably. (You are right.)

Do you notice the theme?

You are right about every one of these beliefs (whether you said yes or no to any of them). If you don't believe in any of these statements, what do you believe instead? You are right about that too! However, there is no real right/wrong answer. Some people will have the same beliefs and agree with you and others won't.

Therefore, whatever your beliefs about the markets are, they will direct your thinking and your subsequent actions.

What is a Belief?

Beliefs are a primary way to filter information from the world. Beliefs are judgments, categorizations, meanings or comparisons. They determine how we perceive reality and relationships in reality. What you expect (i.e. your reality) depends upon your beliefs and they are largely unconscious. Every sentence in this document represents one or two beliefs, including this one.

One of the beliefs that is most productive for good trading is the belief that you are totally responsible for your own results as a trader. When you adopt this belief, then you can learn from your mistakes. However, if you tend to blame someone else (your broker, your spouse, the person giving you tips) or even the market for the results that you get, then you will tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

When traders "own their problems" and assume responsibility for the results produced, then they discover that their results come from some sort of mental state that either allowed them to 1) follow their rules, 2) not follow their rules, or 3) trade without having any rules.

When traders take the time to write down all their beliefs (about themselves, the markets, money, etc.), then they can establish a much better idea of what they want to trade, and how they want to trade. They can also see flaws in their thinking much easier. It is valuable to know which beliefs support you as a trader, and which ones hinder your progress.

What is a Mental State?

Every task has an optimal mental state that will allow you to accomplish it effortlessly. For example, to execute a trade you benefit from courage and total commitment. Fear, in contrast, is a big disadvantage as a mental state for executing trades.

Mental states are primarily what most people call discipline or emotional control. Examples include: being impatient with the markets, being afraid of the markets or being too optimistic about the markets.

Controlling your mental states is just part of the answer, but when you can see that you are the creator of your own results as a trader, then you can really make progress.

What is a Mental Strategy?

To understand mental strategies, you have to understand how people think. People think in their five sensory modalities (that is, in terms of visual images, sounds, feelings, taste and smell).

A mental strategy is the step by step way in which you use these modalities; it is the specific sequence of your thinking. For example, the most effective strategy for the action step of executing a trade is to 1) see the signal, 2) recognize internally that this is the signal you decided you should take, 3) feel good about it, and 4) take action. If you do anything else, you probably won't be able to take action or it will be very slow.

The Psychology of Trading

Once you have a clear understanding of which beliefs, mental states and mental strategies are the core factors in top trading performance, you can then teach the same skills to others and have them perform well too. And when you can see this success duplicated in others, which we have been able to do in most aspects of trading, then you know you have a workable model.

The key psychological traits of top traders are

  1. Personal Responsibility
  2. Commitment
  3. Their psychological "profile"
  4. Working on personal issues (e.g., self sabotage)

Trading fundamentals include the Ten Tasks of Trading.

  1. Self Analysis
  2. Mental Rehearsal
  3. Low-Risk Idea Development
  4. Stalking
  5. Action
  6. Monitoring
  7. Abort
  8. Take Profits
  9. Daily Debriefing
  10. Periodic Review

Traders need to be reminded of these tasks and to eliminate any self-sabotage that keeps them from following the tasks. Van teaches all of these steps in detail in his various products and workshops.

Van Tharp believes that everything revolves around your beliefs, mental states and mental strategies, so with that in mind, everything about trading is 100% psychological, including why and how you trade and which system you will follow or build.

Many traders have a hard time "believing" this and it is almost the antithesis of what people learn in academic finance. So only you can decide whether it is worth the time to learn more about yourself and the psychological aspects of trading.

People get exactly what they want out of the markets. Most people are afraid of success or failure. As a result, they tend to resist change and continue to follow their natural biases and lose in the markets. When you get rid of the fear, you tend to get rid of the biases ~ Van K. Tharp, Ph.D.

Dr. Van K Tharp

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