High performance athletes spend countless hours in the gym and on the field, but competing and succeeding at the top level of sports requires your mind to be just as fit. Getting stuck in negative thoughts and self-talk in sports can paralyze you with anxiety and doubt, but overcoming negativity can help unlock your athletic potential.
Recognizing Negative Thoughts and Self-Talk
What Is Self-Talk?
Many people recognize their own internal monologue, which is a normal cognitive function called “self-talk.” Sports psychology defines self-talk as your inner voice or the way you talk to yourself. This internal monologue represents the various internalized beliefs and biases you have about yourself and the world, and it can have a significant effect on your conscious thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Differentiating Between Negative and Positive Self-Talk
Self-talk is either positive, neutral, or negative.
Positive self-talk doesn’t necessarily mean you think you’re invincible or superior, but rather represents healthy self-esteem and optimism with motivation, support, and confidence.
Negative self-talk, however, is often categorized by pessimistic and critical thoughts. If you struggle with negative self-talk, you may find yourself frequently blaming yourself for poor performance in training or competitions, being overly critical of yourself and those around you, and catastrophizing athletic failures. It’s also common to polarize circumstances or events as good or bad and fail to perceive and process failures, successes, opportunities as nuanced experiences.
Consider the following examples of negative vs. positive self-talk:
- Negative: “I’m not as experienced or strong as my opponent and can’t win.”
- Positive: “I trust that my training has prepared me to perform my best against my opponent.”
Where Do Negative Thoughts and Self-Talk Come From?
There are many reasons why athletes suffer from negative thoughts and self-talk. Some common causes include:
- Anxiety or depression: Athletes with anxiety or depression are more likely to have poor self-esteem and negative thoughts about themselves. Social anxiety can also highlight performance anxiety when competing in spectator and team sports.
- Unfamiliar environments: Competing in unfamiliar locations, new venues, or with different people can rattle your confidence.
- Pressure to perform: Internal pressure as well as pressure from peers, coaches, and others can cause you to conflate your athletic performance with your personal value, leading to low self-worth when you don’t succeed.
- Less experience: As an amateur or relatively less experienced athlete, you may feel anxious and insecure about your performance against experienced competitors.
- Individual sports: Studies suggest that individual athletes are more likely to suffer from anxiety and negative self-talk when compared to athletes in team sports.
The Impact of Negative Self-Talk and Thoughts on Sports Performance
Negative self-talk isn’t innately bad—in fact, some studies show that some self-criticism can lead to increased motivation to train and improve physical performance. Excessive negative self-talk, however, can be detrimental to sports performance.
Focusing on negative self-talk can cause athletes to feel afraid of failure and unwilling to train to meet their goals, which in turn can lead to decreased motivation and feelings of hopelessness. Athletes who engage with excessive negative self-talk are not only at higher risk for anxiety and depression, but are less likely to perceive and act on opportunities.
Athlete Strategies for Managing Negative Self-Talk
There are many ways recreational, amateur, and elite athletes can manage and reduce self-talk. Some strategies work better than others, depending on your individual needs. Learn about the strategies below to get started.
Rephrasing Negative Thoughts Into Positive Ones
One of the most challenging but beneficial strategies is to recognize and subvert negative self-talk. Pay close attention to your inner dialogue throughout the day, and see how many negative thoughts you catch yourself having.
Whether you’re stuck on a challenge, setback, or failure, reframing it in a positive way can improve your outlook and help you find meaningful successes and opportunities. Practice challenging those thoughts with positive self-talk that’s optimistic, affirming, and motivating.
Consider the following examples:
- Example A: Negative – “I’m not fast enough to win this race.” Positive – “Racing with people faster than me is a great training and development opportunity.”
- Example B: Negative – “I don’t look like an athlete.” Positive – “Athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and looks don’t determine performance.”
- Example C: Negative – “I messed up that fight, and I’ll never be a great fighter.” Positive – “This loss is an opportunity to identify and analyze weaknesses I can work on for my next match.”
Accepting Pre-Competition Nervousness
The jitters that you feel before a game or competition are completely normal and often helpful, but they can negatively impact your performance if you don’t know how to manage them. Pre-game jitters come from your body’s natural adrenaline response when it anticipates a challenge.
Fighting adrenaline and letting negative emotions take over can cause you to feel shaky or even to freeze up. Embracing adrenaline and practicing how it feels in training or competition can allow you to take advantage of it instead. When you’re ready for it, an adrenaline rush activates your sympathetic nervous system, increases your heart rate, and can temporarily boost your strength and performance.
Using Visualization and Mental Rehearsal
Visualization is a powerful training technique that allows you to mentally rehearse for games and competitions. Top athletes in ultimate fighting and other combat sports, for example, imagine themselves fighting at their peak potential or recall an experience in training or competition when they felt their best.
When implemented correctly, visualization and mental rehearsal can teach your brain how to respond to a situation before it even happens. This can help mitigate negative self-talk related to high pressure or unfamiliar situations, such as anxious thoughts if you’re competing at a new venue or against challenging opponents.
Focusing on the Present Moment and Task at Hand
It’s easy to fixate on game day outcomes and goals, but thinking too far ahead can cause you to put undue pressure on yourself and take away from your mental and physical performance.
Instead of worrying about winning, losing, or personal bests, focus on the exact task at hand. That can mean thinking about your individual steps as you run, looking for your opponent’s movements in a fight, or simply focusing on your breathing rhythm. Remember that the outcome isn’t as important as other factors, such as your personal satisfaction, athletic development, and experience value.
Practicing Mindfulness, Meditation, and Positive Affirmation
Mindfulness, as a habit cultivated over time, can help you reframe negative self-talk. In addition to paying attention to your thoughts throughout the day, meditating regularly can help you gain greater awareness of negative self-talk.
During mindfulness meditation, you can practice recognizing and stopping negative thoughts. You can also explore how you felt when you’ve previously performed your best and create positive affirmation statements that reflect those feelings. Your positive affirmations will likely reflect your unique experiences, but some examples include:
- I get to show off my training progress in competition
- Competing is exciting and rewarding
- I’ve earned my confidence through dedicated training
Seeking Support From Coaches, Sports Psychologists, and Other Professionals
Seeking support both socially and professionally can help you reduce your negative self-talk. Whether asking friends and family to cheer for you during competitions or sharing your insecurities with teammates and coaches, a social support system can boost your confidence. Coaches are also great to reach out to as they often know your training best and can provide meaningful support and affirmations.
Just as you may work with a trainer for your strength and conditioning, you may also choose to work with a sports psychologist or similar professional to hone your mental strength. These professionals can help you identify and manage underlying causes of negative self-talk.
Incorporating Relaxation Techniques
When your mind is racing with anxious and negative thoughts, it can be difficult to show up on the field at your best. Various mental and physical relaxation techniques can calm your reactions and improve your focus on the task at hand.
Some examples include:
- Breathing exercises such as diaphragmatic and rhythmic breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation
Never underestimate the power of positive self-talk to reinvigorate your mental health and take your athletic performance to the next level. These practices can help you get there.