It is a powerful, yet at times painful gift to think. The mind - a vehicle where thoughts take the wheel and emotions are thrown in the back. Over-thinkers, as they are called, are constantly working to find meaning, understand, make connections, prepare, plan, and draw conclusions - and this is all done with words. Words that are frequently used to protect and defend one from an overwhelming flood of emotion – whether the emotion is positive or negative. With over-thinkers there is no desire to stop and feel because thoughts drive success.
I don’t understand why I am not playing more (defense), I am better than these other players (defense, clarification), I’m going to tell him that I should be playing more (rebuttal), He’ll tell me I don’t deserve to (accusation), I’ll tell him how well I’ve done in practices (rebuttal), I shouldn’t have made that mistake (judgment), I guess I’m not good enough (judgment).
The athlete gets to a point in the thinking process where he devises an action plan to speak to his coach, however with more thinking he arrives at the sad conclusion that he is not good enough. Over-thinkers are unsure of when or how to stop thinking.
Over-thinking is particularly troubling for athletes because of its affect on the body. Imagine that each thought has an associative emotion and thoughts move a mile a minute. That means emotions are moving just as quickly, yet they are being suppressed into the body.
I deserve to be out (humiliation), I suck (depressed), I let my teammates down (guilt), He’s not going to put me back in (sad), What if I don’t have a good season (disappointment), What if I don’t get recruited (disappointment), I can’t believe I made those mistakes (frustration).
Unavoidably, a physiological response will happen immediately upon sensing an emotion. So responses for anger, frustration, sadness, guilt, disappointment, etc. still occur and can have a profound impact on performance outcomes. Athletes need to be somewhat loose and energized in order to perform optimally. Unfortunately when over-thinking, the body experiences a variety of negative emotions as well as their physiological reactions of tense muscles and fatigue.
There is no doubt that over-thinking has plagued talented athletes, especially at the youth level. Young athletes are newly acquainted to the volume and quickness of thought that they are experiencing - while some report feeling little control, others plead for peace of mind. What they have not learned yet is that their quick thoughts are a gift. With the help of mental skills training, athletes can learn to take control by identifying irrational styles of thinking and replacing them with productive positive thoughts. This does not mean that the athlete will think less; rather, it is a way of using quick thought processing to ones advantage.
Another form of irrational thinking can be identified as ‘what if’ statements. In this case, an athlete focuses on the potential for unfavorable future outcomes. For example:
What if I lose the ball?
What if I let a goal in?
What if I don’t make the team?
What if I lose?
At the most basic level, ‘what if’ statements are centered on knowing the likelihood of an unfavorable future outcome, yet there is no real way of making such a prediction. So why bother? Over-thinkers like to use this style because it helps them to feel emotionally prepared for failure. By exploring the worst possible outcomes – and their associative emotions – the disappointment or frustration or guilt will be slightly more manageable if such outcomes actually happen.
The control in ‘what if’ statements are given to the environment – “if” represents the environmental circumstances that would have to exist in order for an outcome to happen. So although you may hear one or two what if statements, each is unconsciously attached to various scenarios as well as outcomes. For instance, take a look at the preceding scenarios as well as potential outcomes for each what if statement:
If the opponent is good, I could lose the ball If I lose the ball, I will be subbed
If they take a hard shot, I could let a goal in If I let a goal in, my teammates will hate me
If the coach doesn’t like me, I may not make If I don’t make the team, my parents will be
the team disappointed in me
If the other kids are better, I may lose If I lose, I won’t get recruitedOn a deeper level ‘what if’ statements communicate a question of capability. One’s self-esteem is dependent on knowing and believing that a task can be accomplished, however when you constantly ask ‘what if’, you are telling your body that it most likely will not. Athletes who struggle with this style of thinking must remember that there is no way of predicting the future. Instead of thinking ‘what if,’ try to predict three outcomes: the worst possible, the best possible, and the most likely. In doing so, you can break out of a pessimistic view and see the bigger picture.
Additionally, you want to change ‘what if’s’ into goals so that you can exert greater control over performance outcomes. Instead of ‘what if’ it is now ‘I will.’ Here is the basic outline to follow:
1. Determine what you want to achieve (long term)
- I will get recruited to college
2. Identify what you need to improve in order to accomplish that achievement (ongoing)
- I will improve my strength
3. Outline what you will do in order to make those improvements (weekly)
- I will lift 3x this week and increase my weight.
By setting goals an athlete’s focus is concentrated on the process of development, as opposed to uncontrollable outcomes. As a result, an over-thinker has the opportunity to feel more pride and accomplishment when weekly goals are achieved, which translates to more optimal performances.