One of the most curial aspects of performance is mentality, or simply, thinking! It is extremely difficult to reach peak performance without clear thinking to help guide decision-making in sports. However, many young athletes fall victim to negative thoughts that impact performance. There are many types of destructive thinking: Catastrophizing, Single Event, Perfectionism, Fairness, Blaming, and Labeling. Here, I discuss what constitutes these types of thinking, how you can spot them in your athlete, and how you can help your athlete overcome them to improve their performance.
This variety of thinking can be thought of simply as "making a mountain out of a molehill." In my recent article, The Secret to Peak Performance: How to Teach Confidence, I discussed a case with a youth athlete who had an “off day” during a special one-on-one training with the high school varsity coach. Although the training session had no connection to tryouts or roster selection, the client catastrophized the event to the point of believing it was a secret tryout that would result in him not making a travel team that year. After spending some time focusing on his mental skills, the athlete was able to bounce back, and he eventually made one of the top local teams after his real tryouts.
Most athletes experience situations like the example outlined above at some point in their athletic careers. Athletes who do not catastrophize might go through the experience thinking nothing of it and therefore won't put added pressure on themselves to perform. Those athletes can approach the event with a much clearer head, which can benefit performance overall. For those athletes who do catastrophize, they will often expect the worst possible outcome. That thinking creates an internal pressure that can directly impact performance and might lead to "the worst" actually coming true.
Catastrophizing is common in many high-pressure situations as well, such as a penalty kick in soccer. The catastrophizing player taking the kick might focus on the outcome that the goalie will block their attempt, rather than focusing on where they want to kick the ball. Since their thinking is directed at what they DON'T want to do, they end up kicking the ball right to the goalie since that was what they were focused on.
If you have an athlete who catastrophizes, help them by discussing the actual situation together and divert their focus from the internal story they are telling themselves. Teach players to focus on the process and be in the moment. This type of coaching will help them avoid catastrophizing.
This type of thinking entails drawing conclusions for the future based on an isolated event or limited experience. Much like catastrophizing, an athlete may wrongly believe that the outcome of an event with similar circumstances will be the same (whether positive or negative) after just one time. Now, if they believe the outcome will be positive for similar events, there is no point in lowering their confidence by discussing the realities. However, if they believe the outcome will be negative, then proper goal setting would be helpful as well as creating realistic practice environments.
For example, you have an athlete that believes they will always strike out when facing a left-handed pitcher because this occurred once in the past. To train against this, have the athlete perform batting practice against a leftie until they improve their confidence and replace their old way of thinking with the new one.
Perfectionism is when an athlete believes that the only acceptable outcome of an attempt is perfection. Total perfection is unrealistic, and athletes that engage in this thought pattern risk lowering their self-efficacy. This pattern often translates into a fear of failure and results in stunted performance.
Imagine if Kobe Bryant (the NBA’s all-time missed shot leader) had believed he needed to be perfect to play basketball and gave into a corresponding fear of failure, the world would have missed out on one of the game’s all-time greatest players. It is key to first help a player understand that perfection is not realistic. From there, work with the athlete towards continuous improvement as a means to perfection (but not a destination). This will allow the athlete to make mistakes and improve their self-confidence as success rate will improve with more attempts.
Another pitfall of perfectionist athletes is to allow their self-worth to be defined by their success in sport. You can help these athletes learn to embrace failures as a part of a process for their long-term success and teach them to define who they are by what they do outside of sport. These efforts will result in them growing as individuals and increasing their self-worth.
Life and sports are unfair. This is very difficult for some athletes to accept. The expectation of fairness can create false expectations, which clouds judgment. These expectations can lead to feelings of being wronged which creates intense frustration for the athlete.
Triggers of unfairness can include calls in the game that may seem to go against the athlete or their team, effort and skill improvement that is not recognized, or access to private instruction. The challenge is to shift the perception away from fair vs. unfair to focus instead on an athlete's effort or attitude. When things do not go an athlete's way, they can say, “I gave it my all, I had fun, and next time the breaks will come my way.”
Another strategy to help an athlete with this distorted thinking is to establish individual or team goals prior to the season. Ensure that all teammates have had the opportunity to provide input and decide on the goal(s) together. That way, when outcomes don't seem fair, athletes can still point to progress towards their goals. Team goals should be a driving force for the choices each athlete makes, moving the mindset from me to we and shifting the focus away from fair vs. unfair.
A common unhelpful thought process prevalent in youth sports is blaming. Blaming can be targeted at others or an athlete themselves. This type of thinking is tricky and can often be traced back to an athlete’s previous coaches or other adults in their life who might use blame to explain negative outcomes. Even though blaming can be intended to make athletes feel better, it takes away from a player's self-confidence and reliance on their own efforts.
One of the most problematic types of blaming is an athlete's blaming of themselves for the result of a whole event in which they only played a part. This self-blame often appears in singular high-stakes moments such as a free throw at the buzzer, bases loaded with 2 outs in the 9th inning, or a penalty kick at the end of the game. If a negative outcome happens in these moments, an athlete could completely disregard the rest of the competition and blame a team failure on these moments alone.
Coaches can give players honest feedback with actionable steps and goals for the future to improve their self-confidence. A coach can also set the example by avoiding starting a sentence with these two blaming statements: “You Always” and “You Never.” It is helpful to interrupt any athlete that starts a sentence with those statements as well. Help the athlete understand the situation from beginning to end, and then have the player acknowledge their part and take responsibility for the actions they are truly responsible for.
Labeling occurs when an athlete assigns a negative label to themselves or others after a negative result, and in turn, internalizes that label. For example, an athlete who drops a pass when wide open and unobstructed might be called "stone hands" or "butterfingers." It is possible for labeling to sometimes be in good humor and not cause harm if it occurs in an isolated incident. However constant labeling can cause an athlete to internalize the label, believe it is true, and start living according to the label. This results in poor performance, confidence, and a lack of enjoyment.
Once this thinking has set in, it is difficult to overcome, but not impossible. Coaches can set a good example by providing honest feedback in a non-judgmental, non-sarcastic, and non-negative manner will help the athlete separate the actions from who they are as a person. It is important to note that the same is true for positive labeling: if over-inflated, labeling can lead to overconfidence or cockiness.
As discussed at the beginning of the article, athletes must be able to think and process information without being hampered or distorted to compete at their peak. It is up to the coaching team to help athletes (especially youth) understand their problematic thinking and challenge them to adapt a growth mindset. Coaches can accomplish this by providing honest feedback with actionable next steps and proper goal setting, challenging irrational thoughts, and helping players develop realistic positive self-talk. The end goal is to help athletes remove distorted thinking which will help improve information processing and lead to high self-confidence.