How To Break The Negative Thinking Habit On Your Team

Today I’m going to answer a question from one of the coaches in our private Facebook group, who was talking about the negative thinking habit on her team and how to address that negativity.

Hey everybody. I am coach Rebecca Smith. And today I’m talking to the coaches.

So if you are a coach who is on the same train as me wanting to change the culture of youth sports, wanting to put humans first and results second, then please join us in our private Facebook group. It’s called Gymnastics Coaches Who Put Humans First Results Second.

That’s one of the core values at Complete Performance Coaching is that we put humans first. And the really cool thing is that when you put humans first, you get happier athletes who actually get better results, but you can’t be aiming for those great results before you are growing these amazing, incredible humans who work well together, who are coachable, who are kind, who are happy, who are enthusiastic and passionate.

So that’s what I want to help create. Getting away from this emphasis on winning at all costs to humans who are only going to do their sport for so long who can then thrive in not only sport but life as well.

Ok, let’s talk about this negative thinking habit that you might experience on your teams. I’m a fly on the wall in a lot of gymnastics Facebook groups. And I remember a little while back, one of the moms was talking about how her kid was freezing up and getting afraid. And she’s like, we don’t say can’t. In this house we stay positive. And I’m like, that’s actually toxic positivity when you’re like, no, we don’t go negative when really this girl is struggling and suffering. She’s actually feeling like she cannot go backwards. Her body isn’t doing what she wants it to do. And mom’s like, don’t say “can’t.”

That’s not the solution. So I want to talk about how to break that negative thinking habit of saying “can’t” or being negative or “I’m so bad at this.” Then also how you can support athletes in this place.

First thing I want to mention is that negative thinking is a habit.

Negative thinking is a habit that is very natural for humans. To be negative is part of our survival instinct and comes from being hyper-aware of our weaknesses. So if you are a terrible runner and you are being chased by something fast, you’re going to need to hide or need to swim or need to outsmart. Or if running is your strength, then you go to that. If that’s your weakness, then you’ll be very aware of that.

So it’s actually quite important that we are aware of things we’re not good at for our survival. The problem is that we become so good at being aware of our weaknesses, that is all we see. You walk by a mirror, and you’re like “Ugh, that flaw.” Coaches, you look at 90% correct execution of a skill and you’re like, “Ugh, that needs to be better. ” We are tuned into what’s not right. So it’s very normal that there would be even in a very well-meaning team, a lot of negativity, a lot of hyper-focus on what’s wrong instead of what’s right. So it gets compounded by the contagious nature of negativity.

If you’re hanging out with somebody who’s like, “Oh, I hate beam.” You’re like, “Yeah, me too.” Especially young athletes who are in the adolescent teenage age range. They want to fit in. They want to be like ‘me too.’ So if one person is being negative, it’s really easy to have the whole group go, “Oh, us too.” We’re all the same which gives them this feeling of belonging. But it really undermines training because then you have all these people that are like, ‘We hate beam. We hate this skill. We hate this drill.’

So I’m going to give you four exercises that you can actually take and do with your team so that you can start to shift that negative thinking habit.

And with any mental skills that I teach, it’s always critical that you repeat them. So this is not going to be like you spend five minutes with your team and then they have this little “aha!” and then everything’s different. I mean, there is some level of that. Once people get an awareness then they can realize the negative thinking habit they were in. And they can realize how much this was affecting them.

But you have to make a commitment yourself. You, the coach, you set the context. So if you’re negative and you’re walking in like, “Oh, I do not want to be here today,” that’s what’s going to be vibing off of you. That’s what’s going to be rippling through your team. So you have to make a consistent effort to show up with more positive than negative and to be aware of your own negative thinking habits.

And you got to set it up so that you’re doing these things regularly so that the team can actually start to make shifts over time.

Exercise #1: Spend 20 Seconds With Your Most Common Negative Thought

So the first exercise that I’m actually going to have you do with your team to start breaking through this negative thinking habit is to have your athletes sit and kind of close their eyes and focus. I want you to have them come up with their most common negative thought. So what is that thought that when they’re not even thinking about it, it just pops into their head?

For some people it’s like, “Oh, I’m so tired.” Like my husband every morning who says he didn’t sleep well every single morning. I’m like, well, maybe like that is your version of sleeping.

What’s that one negative thought? ‘I’m not good enough. This is too hard.’ And then I want you to have them spend 20 seconds with that thought. And I do this with my athletes and the PerformHappy community. I do this when I do group trainings because it’s a really great exercise just to create awareness.

So take that thought. And for 20 seconds, I want you to have your athletes close their eyes and think that thought over and over.

Ready? Get set. Go.

So if you’re going through this exercise yourself right now, coaches, I want you to notice how it feels to you. Does it feel natural or normal to think that way? Notice if it feels uncomfortable or bad.

And stop.

Now what typically happens is that, especially if you do this in a room full of athletes, I see them sort of shrink. They all kind of cave in, as they think this thought. It’s usually like, “I can’t. But it’s too hard. I can’t do it.” They just shrink. Their energy starts to drain out of them. And they’re bummed out. Their body language changes and their energy goes down and they feel bad.

And so then I point out that was just thinking for 20 seconds. And it completely changed their energy level. So if you were getting up on a beam, getting ready to do your hardest skill and you felt like that, would that be ideal?


And that’s typically when those thoughts will come up. It’s like, “I can’t do it.” And then you’re trying to do a handspring series, but that amount of energy that’s not safe, it’s not ideal. And then it creates this downward spiral of confidence where you’re like, “Ooh, that’s hard. I’m not good at this.” So then all the negative thoughts bring you down, down, down, down, down. And then you’re like, “This is a bad day. I don’t know what’s wrong.”

When really what was the first domino in the domino effect? That one thought that comes to you naturally, because we’re supposed to be negative in order to stay alive. So it’s just like this thing that you’re like, “Why did I have this bad day? I’m not sure.” But it’s always that thought that starts. The thought is the first thing that starts a fear. The thought is the first thing that starts the negative confidence reduction, so to speak. So that’s the first thing you can do. Just be like “That didn’t feel good.”

Do we want to be thinking that way regularly? No, we don’t.

Exercise #2 – Write Down 3-5 Of Your Common Negative Thoughts & Crumple Them Up

Then the second exercise that I like to do with my athletes, which you can either do in conjunction with the first exercise or separately, is to actually have them get out a piece of paper and write down their common negative thoughts. Write down like three to five thoughts. So you’ve got – ‘I can’t do it. It’s too hard. I’m scared. My coach doesn’t like me.’ However many thoughts they can come up with; just have them dump them all on the page.

Sometimes we leave it at that or I’m just like, “Okay, you got it all out. Now we’re going to crumble it up and we are going to chuck it and we’re going to let it go. And we’re not going to think those thoughts anymore. Like a clean slate.”

Then another version of that is taking that list and then neutralizing it. So you’ve got your negative thoughts on one side. Trying to jump all the way to positive can be very challenging for kids who are very rooted in negativity. Like if we were to go switch, ‘I can do that back handspring series.’ Well then they’re going to be like, ‘No, I can’t, that’s a lie.’ And then they start having an internal battle with themselves.

So you take those negative thoughts and instead of shifting all the way to positive, which creates this internal battle, you actually just shift them to neutral. So if you have a thought that’s, ‘I can’t’ you might go to ‘I’ve done it before.’ So you might not feel like I can today, but you can look back at the facts. The facts you cannot argue with. Go, ‘I’ve done this before. Or my coach thinks I can or my body is getting stronger or I can do it on the low beam.’ So you want to take all of the judgments out and just rely on facts.

What are the actual facts that you cannot argue with? “I have legs. And I can breathe. I am okay.” It doesn’t have to be like, “I feel amazing” but you’re getting yourself to that neutral place. So at this point, once they’ve neutralized their thoughts, I actually will bring them back and have them feel that neutral thought.

Exercise #3 – Think About Your Neutral Thought For 20 Seconds

So let’s say you take your negative thought. You’ve neutralized it. You go from, ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can do it on the low beam.’ So then I have them do it again where you do 20 seconds of just like closing your eyes and feeling that thought ‘I can do it on the low beam. I can do it on the low beam.’ You do it for 20 seconds. And then I check in with them and I go, “How do you feel?” And they’re like, “Fine. I feel fine.”

Maybe you don’t feel like a superhero, but you feel kind of lighter. You feel like there is some hope. Some people feel great. Some people feel so normal with the negative thought that it actually feels uncomfortable to go to the neutral.

So there’s a lot of different elements of awareness that a different athlete can find from that exercise. And then what I love to do is a good crumble up and chuck. So you take those negative thoughts and you crumble them up and you throw them away. And you’re left with that list of neutral thoughts. So you’re not looking at the negatives anymore. You’re only left with this list of neutrals. ‘I can do it on the low beam. My coach thinks I can do it. I love gymnastics.’ Whatever those neutral thoughts are. ‘I can take a deep breath. It’s just one day. I can do anything for 10 minutes.’ Whatever your list is left with and you put that where you can see it. And you read those thoughts to yourself multiple times a day.

So maybe every single one of your athletes post their little list of neutral thoughts on their locker. And everybody, each time they go to get their grips, they’re reading it each time. And when they put their grips back, they’re reading it. If there’s some kind of way that you can post these so that they’re constantly seeing them, at least once or twice per practice, they start to get those thoughts worked into their subconscious. So that then those become the knee-jerk reaction thoughts over time. And once the athletes have had an opportunity to do that exercise and then you hear a negative, you can all hold each other accountable.

As long as there’s sort of a social contract in place that you agree on. Like, “All right. Are we willing to try to find neutral together? Yes or no, raise your hand.” And then they were like, “Yes, we are.” And then anytime somebody hears a negative thought we neutralize. So you can come up with some kind of a cue to turn it around and neutralize it. What’s a better thought and have a cue that your team uses. Or you can just be like “butterfly” whatever, just so that you have an inside thing where you’re like, ‘Oh, time to neutralize it.’

So if they’re like, I can’t do it, then you’re like neutralize it. And they’re like, I can do it with a spot or I haven’t done it yet so that they’re shifting to that. And then you want to repeat that a couple of times, two or three times.

So if you go from, “I can’t” to “I can do it on the low beam.”

If they’re like, “I can’t do it,” you’re like neutralize. If they’re like “I can do it on the low beam. I can do it on the low beam. I can do it on the low beam” and they get up and they go that’s great. So that way you’re starting to outnumber the negative thoughts with the neutral. And you’re starting to allow that energy to start flowing again so they’re not shutting down on you.

Exercise #4 – Write An Affirmation

Then the final exercise to break through the negative thinking habit is more of an advanced technique which is something that people talk about all the time. This is one you don’t want to dive into until you’ve already got a good grasp on neutral. It is that you start moving them into the positive.

People are like, “Write an affirmation. Say I can do it.”  Mom is like, “You can do it. We don’t say can’t.”

You have to have a foundation. First of all, awareness.

And some experience around, ‘Hey, neutral thoughts feel better and work better.’ They have to be bought in before. They’re going to be able to be positive. Then maybe a month later, everyone comes together. They sit down, they write out all of their affirmations. Like “Who do I want to be? How do I want to feel?” And they write out all the thoughts that they wish they could have if they were a really positive person. So they’ll say things like, “I have an amazing series on beam. I am an Olympian or I am hardworking. Or I love myself.” You know, they go all the way to the positive, which for a lot of athletes, they’re going to feel awkward. It’s going to feel uncomfortable. It’s going to feel like those are not my thoughts. Those are not my words.

But you write out that list and you put it on their lockers and then they’re seeing it over and over and over. And it’s starting to sink in. They’re going to start to believe it the more that they see it. So the keys with any of those exercises or any variation is repetition, reminders, consistency. So you want them to see it. You want them to hear it. We want to remind them. And we want to talk about it. We want to check in. And we want to have it be very specific. Like this month we are working on turning our thoughts to neutral. This month we’re working on getting our thoughts to positive.

And that way you can start to really have that conversation permeate every single workout. Have every coach on board, have everybody in on it. So that way you can start to shift the culture and start to teach these kids that thinking better makes you perform better. And then they’re going to be bought in and then they’re going to do it.

But you got to do your part first. So start with neutralizing your own thoughts and then come up with a way to apply this to your athletes. So I want you to tell me in the comments below, what are you committed to doing? Maybe it’s a five minute team meeting. Or maybe you’re going to actually do the neutralizing negativity experience. Maybe you’re going to post some affirmations. I want you to tell me how are you going to apply this to your team in the next week so you can start making these shifts.

If you have questions or want to learn more about how I can work with your team, you can schedule a free consultation call with me or email me at

How To Break The Negative Thinking Habit On Your Team

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