“COGITO, Ergo Sum,” or “I think therefore I am.” A phrase first popularised by French philosopher René Descartes in his writings Discourse on Method. Or perhaps a phrase more familiar, to the younger readership, as a line from the famous pop singer, Billie Eilish’s latest song. I sense I’m showing my age at this point citing French philosophy before popular culture, nevertheless the phrase holds an innate relevance to this week’s article.
When Descartes first coined this phrase, he was suggesting that the ability to think and engage in that internal monologue was so powerful it was valuable enough to prove one’s entire existence. But without wading too deeply into a potential existential crisis, what does Descartes’ writings and pop songs have to do with sport? Well…everything.
In the latest research hailing from Queen’s University, Canada, neuroscientists have determined that we as human beings have roughly 6,200 thoughts per day. Indeed, thoughts analyse and dictate our entire life from what we should have for breakfast or what lucky t-shirt we should wear to training, to how we go about executing a medalling performance.
Thoughts take various shapes and forms: they can be positive, negative, or neutral. They can incite helpful or harmful feelings and emotions. Thoughts can stop abruptly or lead from one idea to the next. Indeed, thoughts are the simple yet incredibly impactful drivers that enable or inhibit us as athletes.
During my time as a practitioner I have heard many coaches and parents say, “he’s an overthinker,” “she needs to get out of her head,” “they let their opponents get inside their minds.” What they are ultimately saying is that the thought patterns or self-talk in which the athlete is engaging is not helpful to their performance if anything it’s debilitating.
In fact, negative self-talk and negative thoughts are among the biggest contributors to pre-competition anxiety and performance anxiety (commonly known as choking). Take a moment to do some quick math with me: imagine if of the 6,200 thoughts per day an athlete may have let’s say 50% are sport-related so that equates to 3,100 thoughts per day related to sport.
If of those 3,100 thoughts 10% were negative, critical, and disparaging that gives us 310 negative thoughts per day, 2,170 negative thoughts per week, 8,680 negative thoughts per month, 104, 160 negative thoughts per year. Can you see where I’m going with this…
Self-talk can feed either positively or negatively into our beliefs around our ability, preparedness, confidence, our self-esteem, body language, and eventually how we perform physically.
So how might we go about controlling or altering our thoughts/self-talk to help instead of hamper our performance? Is this even possible? Controlling, no…altering, yes.
Like anything else mental skills related, helpful self-talk comes with a great deal of intentional and purposeful practice to try to change it. It can also be a fairly lengthy and complicated process for some athletes to endure alone and the support/guidance of a qualified sport psychologist is always recommended. Athletes, however, might begin to take simple steps by using the three D’s, Detect (thought awareness): oftentimes, negative thoughts are unconscious and automatic particularly when we have allowed the negative self-talk practice to develop over time. Bringing awareness to when we as athletes might have negative thoughts allows us to then attempt to stop them. This then leads to Disrupt (thought stopping). Once we have become aware of the negative thought we can attempt to disrupt or stop it from finishing or continuing any further negative dialogue in our minds. We can thought stop using mental or physical cues. Finally, we might Dispute (rephrase). Sometimes our thoughts can be overly critical or negative and there may be a more neutral way to phrase it, for example, we might rephrase, “I can’t do this,” to “this may be challenging but I will give my best effort.” And sometimes our negative thoughts have no factual basis and we can try to dispute or counterargue them. An example might be: a decorated young sprinter loses a race and thinks, “I am the worst 100m sprinter, I should just give up now.”
The counterargument for the thought might be, “if that were true I would not have been successful in so many other races and perhaps there are just a few things I can work on to make the next performance better.”
Feel free to submit any questions you might have about this topic or sport psychology to firstname.lastname@example.org