How to Break the Habit of Negative Thinking | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: How to Break the Habit of Negative Thinking


About Me

Welcome to Q&A with coach Rebecca.  I am here for our weekly talk on all things sports psychology and mental toughness training for young athletes.  I’m Rebecca Smith, founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching, a group of highly skilled sports psychology experts, who specialize in working with athletes age 8 to 18 on overcoming fear, building confidence, and developing the mental edge that will get you far and above your competitors in sport.

We do this through one-on-one coaching, through FaceTime or Skype, or through the online Do It Yourself Mental Toughness Training community, the Perform Happy community.  Hopefully you will join us there.  You can find out more about that at

Our question of the day comes from one of the members.  I reached out to the Facebook group and asked, “How’s back to school going?”  Of course, plenty of people are going through the stress of going back to school, on top of going back to sports.  It is already starting to weigh on these kids, even the kids who don’t compete until the winter like in this kid’s example.

Here’s her question.  She says,

Q:  We start classes next week, but I’m already starting to see signs of school anxiety, plus, I’m starting to hear fears about not getting next level skills in time for competition season this year, even though we don’t start until December.  She’s worried she’ll have to repeat and does not want to.



Last week, we talked about mindset and getting mentally tough for competition by focusing on your mindset as far as getting excited instead of getting nervous, and focusing on the challenge instead of the pressure.  Those were a couple of quick ways to get yourself ready for competition, or at least address the oncoming anxiety, even though you’re not even there yet.

Today, we’re going to talk more about the bad habit of negative thinking because that’s essentially the problem here.  This athlete is thinking, “Uh oh … what if?”  Those negative thoughts start to come up, which then makes the body start to react in a certain way that actually reduces your ability to get those skills and to train well.

I’m going to give you guys a little crash course on how to break the habit of negative thinking.

Break the Habit of Negative Thinking

Think about the negative thought that comes to you often.  Some of you guys might be thinking you don’t have one.  I always ask in big group settings.  I ask everyone to think of a common negative thought – that one negative thought that comes more often than any other thought all day long.  I imagine you can come up with something. What is it that, when you’re laying in bed, you are worrying about?  What are you thinking about?  Just start to think about it a little bit.

I feel it in my throat, I feel it in my chest, I start to tense up just thinking about that thought.  Not even necessarily having anything going wrong or anything change in this moment other than the thought of, “Oh, I just switched my focus to something negative, something that scares me, something that I’m worried about.”

That’s all you have to do to get your body reacting.  What we need to do to break a habit is, first, know that we have this habit, then figure out a way to catch ourselves in the act, then start to replace it.

How to Break the Habit of Negative ThinkingWhat are you Worrying About?

I was thinking about how I used to be a nail-biter.  I had the worst, lowest nails.  I was so stressed and would chew my nails all the time.  At the gym, driving home from practice, I would chew my nails, and it was disgusting.  My mom would say, “Ew.  Stop doing that.  Stop doing that!”  Wouldn’t it be nice if “stop doing that” was enough to make a habit break?  It’s not.  “Stop doing that bad thing.”  “Oh, great.  I’ll stop.  Thanks for the suggestion.”  But then I catch myself with my fingers in my mouth again.

Acknowledgement is the First Step

First, you have to realize that you have the issue.  Of course, my mom is letting me know I have the issues.  My teachers saying, “Get your hands out of your mouth.” They’re letting me know that the issue is present.  That yucky tasting nail polish, that was the next step.

I put on the yucky tasting nail polish, and every time my fingers would go in my mouth, I’d go, “Ew,” and I’d have a negative reaction, which is something that helps the brain start making a new connection or a new path.  Then, what I also started doing was carrying a nail file with me.  What used to get me was these little hang-ups on my nails that would bother me so much I had to get them off.  Instead of biting, I would file them.  I think it was a couple of weeks of the yucky tasting polish, which let me know that the habit was there, and then the nail file, which was the new solution, and I was no longer a nail-biter.

That’s the model for how we’re going to break the habit of negative thinking.  First, you have to realize it’s an issue, which, let me tell you, if you’re human, you have negative thinking.  It’s our job to focus on our flaws.  It’s something that we have to do to stay alive from an evolutionary standpoint.  Don’t worry.  We all think negatively, but the people who are more successful in life and happier are the ones who can catch it and do something different instead.

4 Ways to Identify Your Negativity

Here are some ideas of what kind of negative thinking you want to be looking for and then how we can catch it in the act.  There are four main types of negative thinking that are going to create the anxiety snowball effect.  Number one is worry.

1. Worry

That’s that “what if”.  What could go wrong?  You have this thought, What if.  What if I go bankrupt?  What if I go broke?  And then your brain starts thinking, “Oh, my gosh. My kids won’t have rooms, and we won’t be able to drive cars anywhere.”  You create this whole scenario in your head that isn’t real, but your brain sees it happening, and then your body starts to react as if it is really happening.

If you’re thought is, “What if I fall off the beam?”  What do you think about?  Falling off the beam.  Your body gets tense, you’re not able to do your skills in this nice fluid trained way.  You’re choppy and stiff, and jumpy and jittery, and then guess what happens?  You fall off the beam.

That’s “what if “.  That’s one thought process you want to completely eliminate, or at least start cutting back.  Unless you’re thinking, “What if this goes awesome?  What if I rise to the occasion?”  That’s the what if we want to use.

2. Playing the Victim

The next negative thought that we want to break the habit of is the victim mentality. That’s the, “Oh, this always happens to me,” or “It’s not fair.”  Basically, those two types of thoughts.

“It’s not fair that she’s better than me.  Not fair that I didn’t get to go first.  It’s not fair that I had to go first.  Why do I always hurt myself, why does this always happen to me?  Why do my coaches always pick on me?”  Whatever that is, what’s going on when you’re thinking that way is you’re putting the finger out, and you’re going, “It’s their fault.  It’s their fault.  It’s their fault.  If she wasn’t so good, I would have won.  If he wasn’t so mean to me, I would have done great.”

The problem with that is if you give your power to other people, you have no control. Then you think, “Well, it’s not really up to me or my effort.  It’s just who do I show up and compete against.  That’s what really matters.”  If you give all the power to other people, your effort isn’t going to be where it needs to be.  You’re not going to be focused on the right things that you need to focus on to make sure that you’re actually putting in the work that will get you to where you want to be results-wise.

If you can instead say, “All right, I got injured.  What can I do?  How can I prevent it? How can I talk to this coach who’s being mean?”  Focusing on the solution instead of the problem and not playing the victim is really important, but again, it’s a habit.  It’s something that we do without thinking.

3. Perfectionism

You find yourself using words like should.  “Oh, I should have made this.  I should win this.  I should have.”  Anything should, that’s perfectionism, and it’s not supporting you.  It’s something that can get the worry and the anxiety in.

4. Self-Criticism

This is the fourth type of negative thinking that we really want to break.  Self-criticism, basically focusing on your flaws.

Now, who here steps in front of a mirror and says, “Oh, wow.  That looks nice,” or do you immediately zero in on, “I don’t like that.  I don’t like this part of me.  I don’t like that part of me?”  Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but it’s a bad habit that I’ve been working on breaking for a long time.

Coming from a sport where I’m supposed to wear a leotard, those of you who are swimmers or figure skaters or gymnasts, of course, you feel like your body is just out there being picked on.  If you’re picking on yourself, physically, mentally, athletically, then you’re putting out those thoughts that, again, drain your energy, and really take your power and your confidence away.

Break the Pattern

If you have any of those thoughts, we want to break that pattern of continually going to those thoughts and bringing you down.  That’s what brings on a lot of the anxiety, the feeling of not having control.  You start thinking, “This always happens to me.  I’m a victim.  I’m not perfect but I should be.”  Those thoughts build and build and take your power away.

The first thing we have to know is it’s there.  Hopefully, as I’ve been explaining this, you’ve been thinking back to times and thoughts and things that you often have crossing your mind.  Now, how do we start to catch it?

Catch Yourself

There are a couple of cool ways you can do it.  The first way that I ever caught my negative thoughts was by putting a rubber band on my wrist.  I would snap it every time I caught myself thinking a negative thought.  I don’t necessarily recommend this. Let me tell you why. When I did it, it was like I was punishing myself for thinking these bad thoughts.  I would snap it hard, but was that actually improving the problem?  No. It was just giving me another outlet for criticizing myself or punishing myself.  So that’s not the point.

If you want to try something like that, please, be so nice to yourself and just give it, like, a little, even a little touch. Like, “Oh. Yeah. That was a negative thought.” Like you’re just checking in and being aware.

The Paper Clip Method

Another trick I’ve heard of is putting a bunch of paper clips in your pocket, let’s say your left pocket, at the beginning of the day.  Every time you think something negative and you catch it, you take a paper clip out, and put it in your other pocket.  Then you can watch the flow of negativity crossing your body all day long.  You’ll probably run out of paper clips pretty soon.


I’ll give you one more idea.  I’ve also heard of a study where every time you hear a negative thought in your head, you jump.  You actually jump up and down.  It connects the physical to the mental.

Write them Down

What I recommend you do is start writing them down.  Now, for the most part, everybody has a phone, or some device that you can type a little note in throughout the day, casually, without much extra effort.  Anytime you notice a thought that’s negative, you just jot it down.

You don’t have to write it word for word or obsess about that.  It’s just a little note about what it was.  You write it down, and you write it down, and you write it down, and you spend a week trying to catch as many negative thoughts as you can, and then, at the end of that week, you will have a pretty good idea of your pattern.

Mental Toughness Log

Of course, if you are in the middle of practice, you might not be able to actually pull your phone out and write down your negative thoughts.  I have a template that you can download that helps you structure how to remember your negatives throughout the day, the thoughts and the feelings, and then also reflect on your practice.  You can download that for free at, for mental toughness log.

Grab one of those, print it out, fill it out for a week.  You can also write on the back of it.  You can use your phone.  It doesn’t really matter how you do it, but track your thoughts for a week and start to notice your patterns.

It’s going to be time to start replacing those with something else.  That’s the nail file. You’re going to start doing something different than the negative thoughts.  I have a whole training on this in the Perform Happy Community called Neutralizing Negativity.  Those of you members who haven’t checked that out yet, please, do.

Neutralizing Negativity

It talks about how to turn those thoughts from negative to positive.  Instead of just thhinking, “Everything’s great,” which your brain isn’t necessarily going to believe right away, we talk about the logical way of starting to talk some sense into your thinking, and going, “Is that actually real?  Is that a fact?”  Maybe not.  What is true? What can we get behind that’s neutral, or at least sort of positive, or at least not negative?

Check that out.  If you’re not already a member of the Perform Happy Community, please, join us as soon as you can.  We have a whole bunch of amazing families and athletes of all kinds.  It’s not just for gymnasts.  It’s for athletes age 8 to 18 of all sports who want to improve confidence.

For those of you who have more questions, please, come on down, send me an email., and I will see you again next week.  Thanks for joining me.

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.