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How to control your negative thoughts and self doubt

By Greg Chertok, Director of Mental Training at CourtSense, a high performance junior tennis academy in Bergen County, NJ, as well as private consultant with Telos Sport Psychology in the greater NY area. Greg has a Masters of Education in Counseling/Sport Psychology from Boston University and is a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. He has worked with athletes from the junior to Olympic level.

A college baseball player stepped into my office the other day and proclaimed, “I want to block out all this negativity and just play.”

On the surface, his desire may seem realistically achievable. Why, aren’t the minds of the most mentally tough athletes devoid of anything negative and unhelpful?

For now, let’s accept this as truth. If we were to liken the mentally tough athlete’s cognitive pathway to a cylindrical tube, all thoughts that enter the tube would, then, be positive. Once a negative thought dares enter the tube, a barrier would emerge, preventing it from coming through. It would effectively be blocked.

myth

Let’s take Olympic athletes; they compete at the ultimate global stage and require peak mental training if they have any shot at ‘podium status’. Allow me to make an assertion: There has not been a single Olympic athlete, even at the apex of mental conditioning, able to prepare and perform without at least a shred of negativity or doubt entering the conscious mind. In other words, negativity and doubt are present in all athletes. “That self-doubt is going to come back in,” says sport psychologist Nicole Detling Miller of the Olympic athletes with whom she’s worked. I heard Nicole speak at the 2011 AASP conference. “I don’t care how mentally tough you are. I don’t care how good you are. It will happen. Absolutely, it will happen for everyone.”

How’s about that. A mental skills coach, right on the front lines, guaranteeing self-doubt. It’s apparently not even a question that doubt will trickle in, regardless of the amount and quality of mental skills work.

fact

There are advantages to the presence of doubt in an athlete. For instance, recognizing self-doubt may prompt an athlete to shift his awareness back into the present moment, a place where he must be in order to excel. Without the doubt (“I’ll never get a hit off this guy”), and subsequent awareness of that doubt, the athlete would not have been provoked to return to the ‘now’.

How about the athlete who is mired in a mid-season slump. For some – perhaps this particular athlete – wouldn’t negativity in the form of an emotion (anger), a thought (“What the hell’s wrong with me, I suck!”), or an action (slamming the baseball bat back into the rack after a strikeout) motivate him to get out of it, to overcome the slump? The negativity may even act as a wake-up call, inducing a drastic change in attitude/behavior. I’m certainly not condoning the presence of negativity as a requirement in an athlete’s mind. I’ve worked with athletes who needn’t be fully positive to make positive changes. (Optimism, yes, that’s required to make change, but that’s separate from positivity) Some people are biologically wired towards heightened anxiety, some people wired towards greater optimism, others wired towards greater emotional resiliency. Perhaps those with greater emotional resiliency are the ones who adapt more easily and more naturally to self-negativity in the athletic arena, from a young age onward.

We all have negative thoughts; it’s a part of the human condition. Some of us may be able to use them advantageously. For the remaining athletes who may not be predisposed in such a way, with mental skills training they are able to accept such thoughts as part of their existence and let them pass through the tube, in one end and out the other, without expending unnecessary energy or frustration. The college ballplayer with whom I’m working is experiencing the problem of letting negative thoughts in one end and allowing them to remain contained in the tube. His response to the negativity, an ever-dangerous accompanying thought, “Oh man, I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” only makes it more difficult for the thoughts to pass through, and his performance suffers.

Negative thoughts and doubts will inevitably inhabit the minds of even the mentally toughest of athletes. It doesn’t have to inhibit them. If one’s goal is to completely block out all such thoughts, I predict that this athlete will end up feeling frustrated and inadequate. Mental training may alter the athlete’s relationship to those thoughts, helping him to control them – through awareness, acceptance, and self-compassion – rather than the other way around.

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