Today”s Topic: 10 Ways to Deal with Negative Thoughts
Welcome to Q and A with Coach Rebecca. I’m Coach Rebecca Smith, founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching. We are a group of sports psychology experts and online training facility for athletes.
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Live Training Update
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Today’s question comes from a swimmer. She’s around 13 years old. She asked:
Q: I have a competition next month, and whenever I think of the competition I’m already becoming scared and it’s like I’m crawling into a shell and not wanting to do it almost. Any advice on how to stop myself from thinking so far ahead with a negative mind?
Such a good question. I gave her a response individually, but I want to go in depth here because so many people do this. Even if you’re a parent and you’re not competing actively, you’re thinking about your kid’s competition in a month and wondering how it’s going to go and how it’s going to turn out.
I’m also thinking about my big performance. I’m going to be having a baby, so I’m thinking how it’s going to go and getting myself ready.
A lot of the figure skaters I work with are in season right now. I was just working with one the other day who she said she realized she has images of worst-case scenarios popping into her mind.
Worst Case Scenario
She sees herself not going for jumps, falling, and falling again. Obviously this is not a good mental strategy; it’s not something that she’s doing on purpose, but it’s something athletes do – they have flashes of what could go wrong – seeing themselves falling, getting injured, seeing the time up on the board (for swimmers) and it’s the wrong time; they see themselves losing or making big mistakes.
These are things that come up naturally that also make us nervous. If you’re going into a big important competition and you’re seeing images of yourself failing, of course your brain is going to want to abort the mission, and you’ll tell yourself not to do it. You’ll want to crawl under the covers and convince yourself you don’t really want to compete. But then there’s this expectation of everybody else wanting you to do it. So, how do you handle it?
10 Ways to Deal with Negative Thoughts
I’m going to give you 10 ways to deal with those negative thoughts or those “what if” thoughts that continually build grooves in your brain, just like a record. There’s this little needle that goes into the record, and it has this groove that goes in the same groove over and over and over. Until you actively pick it up and move it somewhere else, it won’t find a new place to go.
I’m going to give you some ways to move that needle out of the negativity groove and into a good one.
1. Find Something Else to Think About
The first strategy for stopping a negative thought spiral is to find something else to think about. I’ve talked about this in many different ways, but something that one of my athletes told me she does is she thinks about the recipe for chocolate chip cookies. She imagines how to make it, then how much to measure out, what goes in first, how to stir it, and how to know when it’s ready – she goes through all the steps.
Something else I’ve also heard is to imagine yourself at the grocery store. Obviously you’re not doing your own grocery shopping, but it’s something that’s mundane and not negatively charged. Shopping requires some concentration where you go through a list of what you need: I’m going to start with the produce. I always get the broccoli first, and then I get the green beans, then I go back and get carrots. You think through each of the things you would do.
Another idea is thinking about the order of your books on a bookshelf. Do you have them in order by color, height, author name? This is something that requires little concentration and is totally neutral. You can use this tool to get your mind out of the negative groove.
2. Spend Time Around Positive People
You can get yourself out of a negative nerves spiral before a competition by spending time with positive people. You might notice that even if you’re showing up at practice in a good mood and you had a great day, all it takes is a little bit of negativity to bring you down. Someone might say, “Oh my gosh, we have a meet in a month. Can you believe it? It’s going to be so terrible. We haven’t been training enough.” That’s going to plant seeds of self-doubt, making you wonder if in fact you haven’t been training enough and thinking you aren’t ready, which isn’t going to be useful.
Imagine you walk into practice and see a group of people that tend to be the downers, then another group of people that tend to be the ones that just work hard and keep a smile on their face. Which group are you going to pick?
Pick the group that’s more likely to bring you up (or at least not bring you down). It makes a huge difference.
3. Seek and Destroy
This is the active practice of figuring out what your negative thoughts are, what your worries are, and getting them out. You can write them down (which I do) or you can put them in a little note in your phone. Once you have a place to put your negative thoughts, as you continue to ask yourself if you have more, you know what to do with them. Actively seek them out and destroy them.
If you are an eco-conscious person who doesn’t want to destroy paper, you can do it on your phone or you can do it on your computer and drag it to the garbage can. I personally like the tactile experience of crushing a ball of paper and throwing it away because you get this release when letting go of all that negativity.
I have recommended a lot of swimmers to do that practice regularly as they walk into a competition. They’re pulling up in the car, writing down every negative thought, and then crumble it up and drop it in the garbage. This way, on the way to the meet venue they walk in with a clean slate.
4. Find a Silver Lining
Strategy number four for stopping that negative thought spiral is to find the silver lining. Let’s say you have a competition in one month and your times are not as fast as you would like them to be. What’s the silver lining? What’s the thing that’s going to make you a better person? What’s the thing that is going to make this a worthwhile experience for you?
Instead of thinking, “What if? This is going to be awful. I’m going to fail. I’m going to disappoint people,” think, “I still have a month. I have many opportunities at practice where I can go in and get better.”
Instead of the glass half empty, the glass is half full. Set challenges for yourself – in a month, how fast can you get? I always like to aim it at the facts instead of the judgments because if you’re just thinking it’s going to be awful and you’re not ready, that’s not a fact. You don’t know that unless you have a crystal ball.
What do you know? Right now, this is what needs improvement, this is how many practices you have, this is what you’ll focus on. Go make the most of it.
If it’s something really scary and challenging, look at it as an opportunity to get better at something that is difficult. Look at it as something that can also make you stronger. See if you can get totally positive about it.
5. The Bad Day is Over
This is a really simple strategy I use all of the time – start your day over. People love to use having a bad day as an excuse – they had a bad backstroke day or a bad jumping day, or whatever relates to their sport, and then they let that spiral take off. If you’ve already decided it’s a bad day and it won’t get better, start a new day. If it’s four o’clock on a Tuesday, start the new day from four on Tuesday to four on Wednesday. Tell yourself this day is going to be a good day because the bad day is over. Start fresh.
Also, it doesn’t have to be a bad day. It can be a disappointing moment or a not so good practice where you’ve identified a lot of room for improvement. You have to play games with your mind, telling yourself that even though the day was horrible, it’s over. It’s time to start a brand new day full of brand new possibilities and a clean slate.
Numbers six – meditate. This is also something that I really, really encourage people to do. If you’ve taken my mental toughness boot camp course, I teach a lot about the connection between meditation and focus. Here’s a really simple application for negative nerves.
If you catch yourself thinking negatively, take a second. That’s the key. If you can catch it you’re going to be fine. Most people don’t catch it. They’re down the toilet and they don’t know why. The second you catch yourself getting nervous, starting to overthink, and seeing negative images of things going wrong, stop and check in with your body. Ask yourself where you’re feeling the sensation.
Where is the Sensation?
Is it in your throat, your chest, your stomach? Those are the main ones. When I get anxious, it’s my throat. Just check in, acknowledge it, and start to breathe into it. What we typically do in those situations is panic. We realize it’s a problem and we want it to stop. At that point, you’re wrestling with it, and the negative thoughts are getting their claws into your physical body. Now your mind and your body are affected. You’re running out of energy, you feel horrible, and it just accelerates the negative spiral.
What you do to stop it is don’t try to stop it. I know that sounds strange, but when you get into that sensation and you go, “Huh, what does that feel like?” Just go at it with curiosity. You breathe and you notice what happens. When you pay attention to it, does it get worse or does it get better? There’s no right or wrong way to do it.
I know you’re thinking now you don’t want to do that if it might make it worse. Nobody does. Nobody’s ever wondering how they can make things worse, but if you just check in with it, you can identify the energy. With that thought, pay attention to it and let it be. Hang out with it with a sense of curiosity. You’re not avoiding it, you’re not judging it, you’re just realizing it’s there. It will pass and it will pass more quickly if you’re not trying to get it to pass.
If you’re just letting it be there, you’re coexisting with it. If you notice yourself feeling nervous, take a breath. The longer you do that, it will lift. It will completely lift and it won’t come back as strong next time because you’re not so afraid of it and you know you’re not going to feel that way forever.
Sometimes you get in those nervous, anxious, negative spaces where you feel like it will last forever. Well, it’s not possible to feel like that forever. Avoiding it doesn’t make it go away. It actually makes it dig its claws into you. If you just go into it then it will process through and lift.
7. Get Into Your Body
Checking in is one way to get into your body. You have five senses, though, and any of those senses will work out great. Different people have different senses that work better for them to get grounded in the moment. I know athletes who need to look around and see the colors, name the colors, and see what’s in their environment.
Being in the Moment
I’ve had moments where I was traveling in an airport, really frustrated, and I started counting the tiles on the wall. I started noticing the patterns on the carpet, and doing that took the emotion down and got me in the moment. I realized, “Okay, here I am in this airport. How am I going to make the best of it?” It snapped me out of the emotional thing.
You can also listen. Listen to the sounds. Any time you can hum or put in your earbuds and listen to a song that makes you feel good, that can bring you into the moment.
Using Essential Oils
Essential oils are something I don’t have a lot of experience with personally, but I have athletes that like to use them. Smell a little lavender or have something that smells nice in your bag. You can tap into this sense of smell which gets you out of your thinking brain and into your present brain.
Taking a drink of water can give you a sense of taste and you can feel the coolness. That’s the physical feeling.
Anytime you’re in panic mode and you want to just snap out of it and get in the moment, pick a sense and go with it.
8. Have a Backup Plan
Have a plan for when the thought comes up. In a couple of my courses, I talk about negativity and we like to figure out what your common negative thoughts are. What are those culprits that are always coming back? Is it that you’re going to fail or let someone down? Is it someone laughing at you? Whatever that core negative thought is, know your plan for it.
For example, whatever your thought is, just decide that when that thought comes up, you will ignore it. Or, if you doubt yourself, you will remember the last five successes you’ve had.
If you think about a past injury, you’ll think to a time when you finally got your skills back and were 100% back in action and it didn’t stop you.
If you know your main trigger negative thought, have a plan, so when it pops up, you know exactly what to go to. Go in and bake those cookies or whatever it is that works for you best.
9. Legalize Failure
I’m going to say this one might be the most important. You have to legalize failure. The common thread with so many athletes that I work with is they are terrified to fail. They’re so terrified to fail that they would rather completely bail than have the experience of trying, going full out, and falling short; they’d rather set the bar low and give up. They’d rather decide it’s going to be awful than risk failing.
Figure skaters, you’re allowed to fall 50 times in a program. Swimmers, you’re allowed to have the slowest time you’ve ever had. You’re allowed to. If you legalize failure, then you go into competition saying, “I’m allowed to fail, I’m allowed to do awful, and I’m allowed to bomb it.”
Now you’re wondering, “How is that helpful?” Here’s the thing – if you’re going into a competition thinking you need to be perfect, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, which puts your brain on high alert. Your brain is focusing on risk, disappointment, and failure.
Instead, you can accept failure as an option, and do what’s in front of you – see what happens. If you make a mistake, you get to practice coming back from that mistake. If you have a poor performance, you get to practice coming back from that. It’s really just a check in – how well are you competing? What needs work?
10. Think of it as Practice
Our last strategy for stopping that negative nerve spiral is to think of it as a practice. You’re practicing competing, you’re practicing racing, you’re practicing failing. You’re practicing succeeding and you’re practicing helping your teammates on. You’re also checking in going, “How well has my training set me up to compete? What is my thinking process when I’m competing? What’s working? What’s not working and what do I need to do at practice?” That’s it.
I got the best advice when I first started dating my husband because I was so nervous. I knew I had messed up relationships before and I wanted to be perfect. I wanted him to think I was the best thing ever and never see a flaw. A friend of mine told me to go on a practice date. I thought to myself, “Oh, I can do that.”
So I went on a practice date and it went great. Then I went on another practice date. I practiced living with him, then I practiced being engaged, then I practiced getting married and being married, and now we’re practicing parenting. Really, that’s all it is. It doesn’t have to be perfect. We’re doing the best we can.
Don’t Let Yourself Bring Yourself Down
If you’re thinking you’re going to do it wrong, it’s just going to tense you up and give you more chances of letting yourself down.
To recap, here are our 10 strategies to get you back in your body and just letting the training happen for the next month if you have your competition coming up:
- Find something else to think about that requires concentration
- Stick with positive people
- Seek and destroy
- Find the silver lining
- Start your day over again
- Get into your body
- Plan for the negative thoughts
- Legalize failure
- Just practice
Do your best to stay in the moment as much as you possibly can during training. One stroke at a time, one lap at a time, one day at a time, one practice at a time. That’s how you become a better athlete. Not by being out in the future tripping out and missing the chance you have right now to train well.
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Send questions to Rebecca@performhappy.com and we will get them answered for you. Thanks for being here. See you soon!