Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
The Pitfalls of Positive Thinking
It goes without saying that negative thinking is unhelpful, particularly from a performance perspective. Thinking in a negative way undermines the five targets of mental toughness – Confidence, concentration, communication, motivation, and managing emotions. But have you ever considered that the opposite of negative thinking may also be unhelpful? How often do we hear people say that to overcome stressful situations we just need to “think positive?” In this edition of Mental Toughness Digest, we explore thinking styles and consider whether positive thinking is as effective as popular culture would lead us to believe…
Let’s start with a story about how our thoughts influence the way we feel and act. Imagine three soccer players taking a penalty kick in a shoot out. They all miss the goal. The first player thinks: “I’ve let the whole team down. I’ll never get selected again.” They get upset and feel really sad about missing the goal. The second player thinks: “It’s not fair that we had to go to a penalty shoot out! This is all because the referee disallowed our goal in the 90th minute!” They kick the ground on their way back to the team and feel angry about missing the goal. The third player thinks: “Well, that didn’t work out the way I had hoped, but overall I had a pretty good game today. I’ll have to practice those spot kicks a bit more in training.” They remain calm on their way back to the team, and even though they feel a bit disappointed about missing the goal, they also feel determined to improve their performance.
So why did three people who were in the same situation experience different reactions? They all missed the goal, but only the third player coped effectively with this stressful situation. As you may have noticed, these three players all had different thoughts going through their minds after they missed the goal – and their thoughts influenced their emotions (i.e. how they felt) and their behaviour (i.e. how they acted). This story highlights two important points for athletes and coaches to understand:
- Our thoughts influence how we feel and act; and
- We can’t change the outcome of our performance once it’s in the past, but we can certainly control how we react to this outcome.
Over time, our thoughts become more consistent or habitual. In other words, we develop our own unique way of making sense of situations – This is called our thinking style. There are three distinct styles of thinking, and two of them were mentioned in the opening paragraph – “Negative thinking” and “positive thinking.” Negative and positive thinking sit at either end of a continuum. They are both extremes, like the colours black and white. As a result of being extreme thinking styles, they both have the potential to be unhelpful when it comes to coping with stressful situations. Negative thinking can lead to self-doubt, being critical, blaming others, feeling guilty, and catastrophising about the future. Likewise, positive thinking that isn’t grounded in reality can be equally unhelpful and lead to over-confidence and under-preparation in some athletes and coaches.
This leaves us with the third (and most helpful) thinking style… “Realistic thinking” is characterised by the shades of grey that fall between the extremes of negative and positive thinking. As the name suggests, realistic thinking is based on real life – and for most people, life consists of ups and downs rather than “all good” or “all bad” situations. Realistic thinking is a balanced way of thinking that acknowledges limitations or setbacks whilst developing and maximising strengths. Here are a few tips to help you develop a more realistic thinking style:
- Evaluate the validity of your thoughts. Don’t just treat them as facts. Try to find supporting evidence for thoughts that enhance your confidence and motivation and refuting evidence for thoughts that undermine your confidence and motivation.
- Be careful not to over-generalise after a setback. Just because one shot, tackle, or game wasn’t your best, doesn’t mean that every performance in the future will be the same.
- Focus on the controllables – What you are thinking and doing in the present moment. You can’t change the past, and the only way you can influence your future is by how you manage the present.
- If your mind starts focusing on a worst case scenario, ask yourself “How likely is it that this scenario will actually come true?” and “Will the consequences be as bad as I’m predicting?”
- Try not to use extreme words in your thinking, such as “should,” “must,” “always,” and “never.” These words lead to athletes and coaches putting unnecessary pressure on themselves. Think about what is reasonable rather than ideal.
- Work with supportive people around you (i.e. coach, family, team mates, psychologist) to develop realistic performance goals. Expectations need to be in line with capabilities and logistics in order for goals to be achievable.
- Accept that things sometimes don’t go according to plan and sport can be unpredictable and unfair. Use these stressful experiences as an opportunity to learn and build resilience for the future.