‘No’ to Negativity: From unconscious thinking to unstoppable thinking

Athletes ready… lift.

Your 20 seconds begins. Standing on the competition floor at the CrossFit Regionals you try to block out everything except the barbell in front of you. It’s loaded with more weight than you’ve ever lifted. You have just a small window of time to lift it. You approach the bar.

17 seconds remaining. Your legs feel heavy from the previous workouts. ‘I hope I’m not too tired to go for a PB lift’ you think as you squat behind the bar.

15 seconds. You wrap your left hand around the bar. ‘It feels slippery. I don’t think I put on enough chalk…’ No time to fix it though. You grab the bar with your right hand.

12 seconds. A small testing pull and the bar feels heavy. Heavier than normal. Heavier than training. ‘What if I miss?’ your brain screams at you, demanding your attention. ‘Everyone is watching. My coach will be so disappointed. All my friends came to watch…’

10 seconds. ‘Time is running out. I have to go now.’ You force yourself to focus. A barbell crashes to the floor nearby as a competitor either makes a lift or fails, you can’t tell but it breaks your pre-lift routine. You bounce in the bottom of the squat. You don’t feel ready.

8 seconds. ‘Don’t miss, don’t miss, don’t miss.’ The chant is in your brain.

7 seconds. ‘Hurry up,’ you yell at yourself mentally. You squat, brace, and pull the barbell off the floor to start your lift.

Did you make it? What do you think?

Every athlete has experienced negative self-talk at a critical moment. Every person has. Our minds are a running sound track of chatter that sometimes helps us, and sometimes hurts us.


Negative self-talk – How does it work?

It’s a curious fact of the mind that it is only silent when you are immersed in the present moment. That’s pretty rare though. Think about moments when you have experienced flow or the zone. Were you thinking about what might happen? Or what just happened? No. You are completely engrossed in the present.

Negative self-talk (and positive for that matter) happens when you are focused on the past, or projecting into the future.

“Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” ~ James Thurber

If you are focused on the future and what might happen, you could experience:

  • Anxiousness about what might happen
  • Concern over problems
  • Worry about possible consequences
  • Distress over how people will react

If you are focused on the past and what has already happened, you could experience:

  • Reliving criticism (both from yourself and others)
  • Regret over what you did or didn’t do
  • Guilt regarding your past actions
  • A feeling of not being enough (not good enough, not strong enough, not prepared enough etc)

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened”. ~ Michel de Montaigne


Combat your inner chatterbox

Negative thinking is normal. It’s going to happen, but that doesn’t mean you need to let it affect your performance. The best athletes recognise negative thinking, and they act immediately to ensure it doesn’t snowball and derail their physical efforts. Here are a few strategies that elite thinkers use to move away from negative thinking.

1. De-identify from your thoughts

Your thoughts are not you. And they are not true. If you have ever tried to meditate you’ve probably noticed you can reach a state where a part of your mind is thinking, and a part of your mind is watching you thinking. The first step in combating negative thinking is to become the ‘watcher’, not the ‘thinker’. The watcher stands a step removed from your internal dialogue and because of that doesn’t experience the same emotional reaction to negative thoughts.

Observe your negative thoughts. Let them flow through your mind. Watch them pass by. Hold yourself separate to them. They will have far less effect on you and your performance.

2. Remember that thoughts are fictional stories

When something happens your brain first receives the sensory input. What you see, hear, touch, taste and smell. However, your brain is only capable of processing a small fraction of the sensory data you receive each day. Your mind is a super computer but there is still a limit on what it can process. It chooses what to see based on what has been important to pay attention to in the past.

Then your brain takes that small selection of sensory input that it’s decided on your behalf is important, and interprets it. It creates a story about what happened and why. And attaches an emotion to that story. That story and emotion might be positive or negative.

What you need to remember is that your mind invented it. None of it is actually true. Remind yourself of that next time your negative chatterbox starts telling you made-up stories.

3. Recognise that you choose your thoughts.

In the middle of the competition floor, as you square up to that barbell it may feel like you have no control over your thoughts. But who is really in charge up there? Recognising that you create your own thoughts diminishes their power – they aren’t an external force that you are trying to fight, they are just the less confident part of yourself wanting a bit of the limelight.

If you create your thoughts, then don’t you also have the power to choose new ones?

4. Change your body to change your thoughts

Your thoughts are linked to your physiology. When you watch athletes on TV you can tell when they feel dejected, when they feel elated, and when they feel focused. How can you tell? Their physiology, or body language.

The secret to this step is to realise that the link between thoughts and physiology is a two-way street. Yes, your thoughts are reflected in your body language, but your body can also lead your thoughts.

Right now, sit up straight, pull your shoulders back, take a deep breath, and smile. Notice how your thoughts change? Now do the opposite. Slump, breathe shallowly, look down, and tense your shoulders. How do you feel?

The most immediate way to turn-around negative self-talk is to make your body positive – your thoughts will follow.

5. Remind yourself of your why, and refocus on your actions

Once you interrupt the runaway train of negative thoughts, you need to replace them with something else. It is near impossible to maintain an empty mind. It’s also difficult to jump all the way from negative to upbeat positive in just a few seconds. That’s why you can use the following two cues to avoid more negative thoughts seeping in, bring you back to a neutral mind-set, and set you on the right path to positive self-talk.

Firstly, take a moment to remind yourself of your why. Why are you doing this? What is important to you about this? Who are you trying to make proud?

Secondly, refocus on actions. What is the next step in your routine? What technique cues can you remind yourself of? What does it feel like when you perform that action perfectly? This technique brings your mindset from negative to neutral.

The first 4 steps were about interrupting, and eliminating negative thoughts. This fifth step is about replacing them with something else.


Back to the barbell

7 seconds. You watch your thoughts flow through your mind and let go of the stress. You remind yourself that your fears are just stories, and you choose not to immerse yourself in them. Chin up. Back straight. Legs loaded. Eyes forward. Strong. You love this sport. You love pushing yourself. You love the moments when you surprise everyone with your ability – even yourself.

You lift.

Did you make it this time? What do you think?

January 30, 2017