There are times in all of our lives where our thoughts manage to get the best of us. Most of these times, I think we’d all agree, the imagined outcome of our given situation is not nearly as problematic as our earlier thoughts made them out to be. Yet, we continue to have these self-defeating thoughts as if somehow, this time, our preconception of how things are going to be is accurate. But it never really is. This can be particularly true for competitive athletes in crucial situations. One technique in the sport psychologist’s bag of tricks is the concept of thought stopping. When employed successfully, it can significantly reduce our anxiety, and free us up to be at our best. But how do we know when our anxious thoughts are appropriate, and when they are not?
Suppose you are driving down the highway in a brand new Cadillac, with brand new tires, and going 100 mph on the open highway. Chances are you’re going to get to your destination in good shape. Anxious thoughts about this circumstance might be somewhat appropriate, but probably unfounded. If, on the other hand, your car is 20 years old and the tires are bald, at the same speed a high level of anxiety is most likely a healthy response and you’re going to ask the driver to slow down, or let you out immediately. Once we are able to recognize whether or not our thoughts are rational and appropriate, we can take steps to manage them. One specific technique is called thought stopping. It works like this;
- Ask yourself if your worries are legitimate or simply unproductive noise.
- Ask yourself if these thoughts are in any way helpful to your circumstance.
- If not, then challenge these thoughts in a rational way; “ not now”……“ these ideas don’t run my life”…..” I can let go of these right now”…..” I’m in control of my thoughts”….. Ok thought, you can stay, but you’re going to have to accompany me on this task because I’m not letting you slow me down.”
The idea with the suggestions above is to disrupt the thought, then change your emotional response. Other helpful responses might include the following;
- Breathe….. One deep breath and hold for a 3 count, then relax your body……three inhales with 3 exhales in one minute…….
- Visualize a giant stop sign or red light.
- Shift your focus to what is immediately in front of you.
Sometimes postponing a wasteful thought for some time in the future can be helpful. You might try to listen and acknowledge your worries, but perhaps decide to return to the worry in an hour or two. You might then begin to challenge your assumptions about how things were in that moment, or about how your worry was simply a senseless imagining. Awareness is the key here. Write them down, acknowledge them ( anxiety happens ), develop a plan for support, and then rationally and systematically plan for a successful response.
A thought is just a thought. It does not define who we are. What does define us is our response to difficulty and challenge. When negative thoughts or difficult circumstances get the best of you, make it a point to accept what is, and go forward anyway. This is, after all, the definition of courage.
Balance…….Some thoughts as the Summer months draw near
By taking time to renew ourselves in order to lead a balanced life we provide ourselves a positive environment for success and more importantly, embark on a lifelong skill for health and happiness. In developing a mind-set for physical, emotional and spiritual balance, we provide ourselves with the impetus to continue evolving as athletes and people. This will, in turn, enable continued dedication in pursuit of our dreams. Rest and work go hand in hand, as does the need for fun and laughter. Make it a point to set aside some time for yourself every day, and also schedule blocks of down time in your athletic pursuits. Then return with a renewed sense of purpose and dedication.