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Negative Self Talk: Why It Happens and How To Defeat It

It happens to all of us. It doesn’t matter if you play tennis, golf or football. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. It doesn’t matter if you play youth sports or are playing senior golf. We are all guilty of thinking negative thoughts while we are participating in sports. Whether it is the thought that you can’t make that four foot putt, hit the winning serve or catch the touchdown pass, everyone thinks negative thoughts at some time during their athletic event. One of the important keys to overcoming them is to not let them control you and take over your thought process.

Over the 27 years I have worked as a sport psychologist, I have dealt with Olympic athletes, professional athletes and national champion collegiate athletes, all of whom have had negative thoughts and negative self talk overtake them during their athletic careers. You would think that athletes at those levels would be immune to such thinking, but they are no different than the weekend warrier. During our lives we all have to learn how to handle negativity, whether it is in school, work, sports or relationships.

I vividly recall one of the 1984 Olympic cyclists who won a medal, who constantly fought his negative thoughts while he road, even when he was in the lead. He would often think of reasons why he wasn’t strong enough or fast enough to win the race. Even though he had been through a superior training program, was in the best shape of his life and had one of the fastest times in the world in his event, he still came up with reasons why he would not win. He thought this way because he had grown up in a world of constant criticism from both parents about why he wasn’t good enough and why he would not succeed. We worked together on getting him to identify these thoughts and come up with a game plan to overcome them while he competed.

Another national champion swimmer used to tell me why she wasn’t going to win. Even though she had the fastest times in her events in the country, she was very good at telling me why her opponents would beat her in the big races. For her, it all centered around self-doubt. She had a youth level coach who rarely complimented her and usually told her she needed to and could do better, even when she would set personal best records.

For both of these athletes, as for yourself, there usually is a reason related to past performances why you will think negative thoughts. It may have come from statements others may have made about you, from personal expectations you have set for yourself, or from the dreams you may have to be a champion. The key to overcoming these thoughts is to identify when you think them and why you think them. Start keeping a journal of the negative and positive thoughts you think about during competition. You will find a pattern that exists for each. For each negative thought, write down the opposite positive thought. Start identifying the situations you think these thoughts and become aware of when you think them. Train yourself to change these thoughts from negative to positive. Remind yourself about how hard you have trained, and about your personal goals. The more aware you become of the negatives you are thinking, the more aware you will become of changing them.

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