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Stop the Thinking: How Coaches Can Help their Athletes Overcome Negative Thoughts

Coach gives speech

All athletes at any level of competition can have unrealistic expectations at times. How often do we see youth athletes act too hard on themselves if things don't play out their way in games or practices? Typically, a coach's instinct in the moment is to tell the athlete to “forget about it”, “move on”, or “focus." Or parents will yell “good try” or “you’ll do better next time” from the sidelines.

Those phrases are often intended to help a player get back on track and not feel too down on themselves so as not to negatively impact their play or the team’s attitude. However, when players' emotions are impacting their thought process and play mid-game, it is nearly impossible to stop the negative spiral from happening in the athlete’s head. These situations can be avoided by helping athletes learn some simple strategies to employ in these moments to stop their overthinking.

Practice what you fear

"Practice what you fear" is exactly as it sounds: the practice of putting your athlete in a situation that causes them fear or anxiety within the safety/comfort of practice. This allows them to normalize those experiences and reduce the negative impact they might have. By reducing your athlete's arousal to those situations, they can learn to maintain a high level of performance despite the challenge.

With older athletes, you will be able to openly discuss this strategy and practice scenarios. With younger athletes, you will need to help identify the fear and anxiety triggers by taking notes during a game about their reactions to events (e.g. missing a free throw, not having a foul called, etc.). You may find that many of the athletes react poorly to the same or similar events. Add the situation to practice using the following guidelines:

  1. 1. Implement the situation into practice in small doses
  2. 2. Repeat the activity
  3. 3. Gradually increase the challenge


Perhaps you have heard the phrase by Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t - you’re right.” What we tell ourselves affects how we interpret events and what the impact on our performance will be. 

There has been much research into the impact of "self-talk" on performance. We believe what we tell ourselves, whether it is true or not and regardless of whether it is positive or negative. Helping your athletes develop positive self-talk will help improve their individual performance, the team’s energy, and overall outcomes. Use the following formula to help guide your athletes. 

  1. Athlete encounters an event or situation 
  2. Athlete begins negative self-talk
  3. STOP
  4. Guide athlete towards rephrased/rehearsed positive self-talk

For example: If an athlete steps to the free-throw line and starts to immediately think about missing the shot, get them to STOP and change their thinking to using their legs, spreading their fingers, snapping their wrist, and hitting nothing but net!

Through regular practice, athletes can change their automatic negative self-talk into realistic and desired outcomes.