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  • David Lang

Is Problem Thinking Ruining Performance


Thinking is one of the most crucial aspects of performance. Without clear thinking, the brain’s ability to process incoming information accurately and correctly will be hampered and peak performance for your athlete will not occur. There are many types of distorted thinking: Catastrophizing, Single Event, Perfectionism, Fairness, Blaming, and Labeling will be addressed here. In my recent article, I gave an example to illustrate catastrophizing and perfectionism. Following, I will revisit both of those types of distorted thinking and discuss the other types listed above in more detail as well.

Catastrophizing. This variety of distorted thinking can be thought of as making a mountain out of a mole hill. In my recent article ( The Secret to Peak Performance: How to Teach Confidence ) I discussed the case I had with a youth athlete client who had an “off day” during a special 1:1 training with the High School Varsity Coach. Although the training session had no connection to tryouts or any other ramifications, the client catastrophized it to the point of believing the workout was, in fact, a secret tryout that would result in him not making a travel team that year. After some work on their mental skills, I am happy to report the client did go on to do very well at tryouts making one of the local top teams.

Many athletes experience thoughts and situations like the example recapped above. For some athletes who do not experience catastrophizing they would go through the same event and learn from it, forget about it and move on to the next day. For those who catastrophize, often before they even attempt something again, they will believe the worst will happen which often leads to that very thing happening.

This phenomenon happens in other high-pressure situations as well, such as a penalty kick in soccer. The player kicking the ball will believe the goalie will block their attempt rather than focusing on where they want to kick the ball and sure enough, they kick the ball right to the goalie since that was what they were focused on. If you have an athlete who catastrophizes, help them by discussing the actual situation and not the story they are telling themselves in their head. Also, helping players learn to focus on the process and be in the moment will help them to not be impacted by catastrophizing.

Single Event. This phenomenon is drawing conclusions for the future based on an isolated event or limited experience. Much like catastrophizing, the athlete will wrongly believe that the outcome of an event with similar circumstances will be the same (positively or negatively) after just one time (Now if they believe the outcome will be positive for similar events there is no point in lowering their confidence by discussing the realities). However, if they believe the outcome will be negative, then proper goal setting would be helpful as well as creating realistic practice environments. For example, you have an athlete that believes they will always strikeout when facing a left-handed pitcher because this occurred one time. To train against this, have the athlete perform batting practice against a leftie until they improve their confidence and replace their old beliefs with the new beliefs.

Perfectionism. Perfectionism is when an athlete believes that the only acceptable outcome of an attempt is perfection. Perfection in everything attempted is unrealistic and athletes that engage in this thought pattern risk lowering their self-efficacy. This pattern often then translates into a fear of failure and results in stunted performance. Imagine, if Kobe Bryant (the NBA’s all-time missed shot leader) had believed he needed to be perfect to play and gave into a corresponding fear of failure, the world would have missed out on one of the game’s all-time greatest players. It is key to first help a player understand that perfection is not realistic. From there, work with the athlete towards continuous improvement as a path to perfection. This will allow the athlete to make mistakes and improve their self-confidence as success rate will improve with more attempts. Another pitfall of perfectionist athletes is to allow their self-worth to be defined by their success in sport. You can help these athletes learn to embrace failures as a part of a process for their long-term success as well as learn to define who they are by what they do outside of sport. These efforts will result in them growing as individuals and leaders and increase their self-worth.

Fairness. Life and sports are unfair. This is very difficult for some athletes to accept. They believe that all things should be fair which clouds their judgement by creating false expectations. These expectations lead to feelings of being wronged which creates intense frustration for the athlete. As much as some coaches try to avoid treating players differently, at the end of the day they do for a lot of different reasons. Other triggers for unfairness can include: calls in the game that may seem to go against the athlete/team, effort and skill improvement that is not recognized, and/or time spent practicing, or access to private instruction. The challenge for everyone involved is to shift the focus from the fairness to their effort, attitude, and an optimistic outlook. That way when things do not go their way, they can say, “I gave it my all, I had fun, and next time the breaks will come my way.” Another strategy to help an athlete with this distorted way of thinking, prior to the season beginning establish team/group goals. Ensure that all teammates have had the opportunity to provide input and make the final goal(s) a group decision. That way, they will see or the coach can help them understand that everything everyone does is aligned with the team goal(s) and that should be a driving force for the choices they make, moving the mindset from me to we.

Blaming. Blaming is a common unhelpful thought process especially prevalent in youth sports. This can manifest as the blaming others or the athlete’s own self for negative outcomes at practice or in a game. This thinking can often be traced back to the athlete’s previous coaches or other adults in their life, who blame away the negative to make the player feel better. Even though this was likely well intended, it takes away from the players self-confidence and reliance on their own effort. Additionally, the athlete lacks development of the skill of accountability for their actions. Even the illogical blaming of oneself for a negative outcome that they in fact had no part of, rather than others or an external source must be addressed. This type of distorted thinking can often show up in a singular high-stakes moments such as a free throw at the buzzer, bases loaded with 2 outs in the 9th inning, a penalty kick at the end of the game. If a negative outcome happens in these moments, an athlete will blame themselves or others, completely disregarding the entire rest of the competition. Coaches can give the player honest feedback with actionable steps and goals for the future to improve their self-confidence by creating a road map for future success. As the coach you can also set the example by no long starting a sentence with these two blaming statements “You Always” and “You Never” and interrupt any athlete that starts a sentence with those statements. Do this by remaining calm and help the athlete understand the situation from beginning to end and then have the player acknowledge their part and take the responsibility for their behavior.

Labeling. Labeling is where an athlete will internalize how they or others will assign a negative label to themselves after a negative result. For example, dropping a pass when wide open, youth athletes may refer to that player as stone hands or butter fingers. This can sometimes be in good humor and go relatively unnoticed if an isolated incident. However, should this continue, the athlete will internalize the label, believe it is true and start living down to the label. This results in poor performance, confidence, and a lack of enjoyment. Once this thinking has set in it is difficult to overcome but not impossible. Having the coach set a good example by providing honest feedback in a non-judgmental, non-sarcastic, or negative manor will help the athlete separate the actions from who they are as a person. One thing to note: the same is true for positive self-thoughts, if over-inflated this can lead to over confidence or cockiness.

As discussed at the beginning of the article, athlete’s must be able to think and process information without being hampered or distorted to compete at their peak. It is up to the coaching team to help athlete’s (especially youth) understand their problematic thinking and challenge them to adapt a growth mindset. Coaches can accomplish this by providing honest feedback with actionable next steps, proper goal setting, challenge the irrational thoughts, and help the player develop realistic positive self-talk. The end goal is to help the athlete remove distorted thinking which will help improve information processing and lead to high self-confiedence.

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