In this article, I discuss how to improve your performance by identifying and changing negative thoughts which may enter your mind before, during and after your performances.
One of the most important psychological skills for athletes and other performers is addressing negative self-talk. This self-talk typically takes the form of negative ‘automatic thoughts’ which intrude on the performer’s consciousness before, during and after their performance. Negative automatic thoughts before the performance such as “You’re going to blow it today” can lead to anxiety being so high as to interfere with concentration and, in turn, performance. Negative automatic thoughts during a performance can result in you performing below your capabilities. For example, thoughts you have following a mistake such as, “You don’t belong out here” and “You might as well give up” can get you off your game for the rest of your performance. Negative automatic thoughts following a performance such as “You’re a loser” following a subpar performance can detract from motivation and confidence to the point that you may have difficulty regrouping or even want to give up your sport.
Two common strategies to deal with negative automatic thoughts along with their limitations
Two commonly used strategies to deal with negative automatic thoughts are to ‘park’ them (put them aside) while focusing on something else and to substitute positive self-talk in place of the negative self-talk stemming from the negative automatic thoughts. Although these strategies can be helpful to some degree, they are limited in their effectiveness. One problem with both strategies is that they require the performer to expend a certain amount of cognitive effort and energy. Doing so can detract from being able to focus on important information leading up to and during the performance. This extra expenditure of cognitive effort and energy also results in the performer having increased physical arousal leading them to go beyond their optimal level of arousal—the level of physical arousal associated with the best performance. In addition, these strategies are only partially effective in challenging the negative automatic thoughts so keeping them at bay with these techniques is difficult. Because of these disadvantages, addressing negative automatic thoughts through parking/refocusing and substituting positive self-talk are not the best ways to try to achieve this goal.
Cognitive restructuring: The best way to address negative automatic thoughts
The best way to address negative automatic thoughts which enter your mind before, during and after your performances is to use cognitive restructuring tools to change these thoughts at times other than when you are performing. One of the most effective tools to change negative automatic thoughts is a thought record. Thought records help the performer identify negative automatic thoughts—called ‘hot thoughts’–which contribute to negative emotions the individual experiences leading up to, during and after their performances. I have helped athletes and other performers use thought records to their benefit in my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist.
The thought record: A tool to change hot thoughts into balanced thoughts
Thought records allow the performer to change their hot thoughts into less negative thoughts called ‘balanced thoughts’ by examining the evidence which supports and does not support the hot thoughts. For example, a hot thought a performer has before an event like “You don’t belong here” can be changed to a more positive thought by helping the performer gather evidence against it. Once the performer has identified a balanced thought based on the evidence, they can practice countering the negative automatic thought that may enter their mind with the balanced thought. Practicing in this manner before the performance will decrease the likelihood that the negative automatic thought will enter their mind before and during their next performance as it will have been replaced by the balanced thought. In turn, having the balanced thought enter their mind will have less negative impact on their mood and will be less likely to disrupt their concentration leading up to and during the performance.
Using cognitive restructuring to achieve your optimal level of arousal while performing
Addressing negative automatic thoughts at times other than before and during your performance will save you having to address them at those times. Doing so will spare you much-needed cognitive effort and energy which you can instead use to focus on the key elements of your performance which you need to keep in mind to excel. In addition, because expending cognitive effort leads to greater physical arousal, saving yourself from having to expend this effort will help to keep your physical arousal at a level which will be closer to your optimal level of arousal.
A Calgary sports psychologist or a Cochrane sports psychologist who is skilled in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) will be able to help you implement the skills discussed in this article.
May you replace your hot thoughts with balanced thoughts to give great performances,