December 5, 2022

Why Negative Self-Talk can be so Detrimental to Sport Performance

By Zachariah Seifert
Mental Health & Wellbeing

A habit of negative thinking over a prolonged period of time [RNT or repetitive negative thinking] can have a harmful effect on the brain’s capacity to think, reason and form memories.”Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease

What is negative-self talk in sport?

Negative self-talk involves dialogue focused at the negative aspects of sport performance, including: criticism in failure, extended time focusing on failure, lacking belief that success is possible, avoidance of skill recognition, etc. When an athlete engages in negative self-talk they tend to be disconnected from the moment and can find it difficult to perform at previously proven standards. Ultimately, negative self-talk explains how cycles and patterns develop in sport and can impact our ability to interpret and process our direct environments. Research has shown that prolonged negative thinking can diminish your brain’s ability to think, reason and even form memories, which is an increasingly intimidating proposition. Do we really have that much control over our ability to keep and form memories? Our mood? Success and failure? 

Why do we need to recognize its presence?

I spoke about negativity bias in a previous post on positive-self talk, the concept of the brain’s tendency to register negative stimulus more actively than positive stimulus. It is the evolutionary adaptation that we have developed to “get better” and push to change for better and more acceptable outcomes when we fail. Ultimately, fighting the discrepancy in the brain’s ability to recognize the things we do that are positive and overwhelming our attention, which leans toward the negative. While recognizing failure is a great skill to help instigate learning, dwelling in a negative mind-space is extremely ineffective in motivating people to change, improve, overcome, etc. on the field or court of their choosing in sporting avenues.

Recognizing it

It is crucial to recognize when the mind is leaning toward a more negative mindset/posture, in doing so, having the ability to consciously alter these ineffective mindsets. Filtering this information is the most important step, but this requires active engagement in the thoughts we have. If you have ever heard the term “mindfulness”; this is what I am describing above. To be mindful is to be consciously aware of active thought processes in present moments. After identifying these thought processes, it is simple in concept, regarding what the next steps are. More difficult in practice is filtering through the information and getting rid of what is unhelpful. Unhelpful stimulus in this context is the negativity of thought that can turn into negative self-talk. Negative self-talk that we ultimately want to shift and mold into positive self-talk. 

Shifting focus

Brains become extremely efficient at developing and processing, as well as progressively consistent at what is being filtered through them. If your brain is focusing heavily on negative stimulus, it will develop neural pathways that become familiar with the negativity that is being provided. In turn, the brain becomes comfortable producing negative thoughts, because that is what it finds most familiar. When these thoughts occupy our brains, the thoughts can turn into internal dialogue that we have explored as negative self-talk. This self-talk can in turn create adverse outcomes in sport and competition by posturing one’s cognitions and physiology toward negativity. 

Welcome the challenge

Challenging negative thoughts is an extremely important skill to develop for athletes as it supports the active engagement in the thoughts that lead to talk. To get better or more efficient at a sports related skill (i.e. developing a jump shot, increasing pitching accuracy or speed, improving the golf swing to hit more greens, etc.) it can be argued that you need to fail; without failure, what dictates what we work on? However, when that failure is escalated to and directly associated with negative thought patterns it becomes detrimental to the development of the skill, especially when we reinforce the thought with negative talk. When we engage in and hold a negative thought, challenging its relevance, we can shift the tendency to focus on negativity. By challenging the negativity of thought one can retrain the brain to focus on positive thoughts, in turn improving the ability to think, reason, and form helpful memories affecting your sport performance. Creating more positive narratives is key in self-talk especially by using positive self-talk that supports more positive outcomes and increases enjoyment. 

If you are struggling to manage thoughts that lead to negative self-talk, I would welcome the opportunity to discuss how to combat this pattern and improve overall enjoyment in sport while increasing outcomes. You are closer than you think to conquering these thoughts that lead to self-talk. Reach out to us here today, I would love to get started!

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Zachariah Seifert

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