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A Beginner's Guide to Thought Stopping in Sport

It is so easy to let negative thoughts affect your sporting performance. That moment in baseball when the batter hits the ball high in the air and you are underneath it. You’ve practiced this, you know what to do, you’ve done it 100 times before.

“I’m going to drop this,” you think before the pitcher throws. The ball soars toward you – an easy catch – but you drop the ball.

Next time the ball goes in the air you are praying it doesn’t come to you because your confidence is now shot and that negative thought has been confirmed and is front and center. It feels like you will never catch a ball again. It’s self-fulfilling.

So, what’s happening?


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Stopping Negative Thoughts

These negative thoughts are coming up at the worst moments, throwing your confidence and making it less likely that you’ll succeed. Once one negative thought is found to be true, more follow it, and they often become self-fulfilling prophecies.

How do you get out of this loop of negativity? How do you turn things around? Through something called “thought stopping.”

What is Thought Stopping?

At its simplest, thought stopping is literally saying “Stop!” the moment you recognize a negative thought, often while simultaneously imagining a stop sign. The idea originated among sports psychologists in the 1950s trying to help athletes nullify negative “I can’t do it; I’m going to fail” thoughts and prevent those negativities dominating their cognitive processes and adversely affecting their performance.

It is an approach to negativity not limited to the sporting arena and many people use it to help control panic attacks and anxiety, created by exactly the same negative spiral that athletes experience. Thought stopping acts to break this spiral.

Of course, you don’t have to say anything allowed, it is simply the process of identifying harmful thoughts and dismissing them. Ideally, you’ll also replace them with a positive thought.

How Can I Use Thought Stopping in Training?

Thought stopping is a necessary skill and is best practiced in training when pressures to perform are comparatively low. Learning the process in the relative calm of a training situation will enable an athlete to begin to use the technique under the pressures of competition.

Step 1: Identify the Negative Thought

The first step, and the most difficult, is to recognize the negative thoughts as soon as they occur. We have an internal dialogue going on in our heads all the time and if you consciously take note of it, you may be surprised to realize how many negative thoughts you have throughout the day. That’s normal for most people, we just have to get better at managing them.

This will take practice and time, and is best worked on with a coach who can help you learn this process.

Step 2: Put a Stop to the Thought

So, the next step involves literally stopping your thought. Don’t dwell on it or analyze it, stop it. You can do this in a few ways depending on which works best for you and where you are when you identify a negative thought. You can stop negative thought by literally saying “Stop!” aloud and, if it helps, imagining a stop sign or red light. You can use another image if you prefer – whatever works for you. Just stop the thought in its tracks and don’t give it any more energy.

Step 3: Challenge the Thought (if You’re in a Training Situation)

If you’re in a training situation, challenge the thought. Analyze it and see how it distorts reality, usually through generalizations, absolutes and exaggerations. These thoughts are not reality. If you’re in a competition situation, you haven’t got time to analyze the thought now (though you can do so later if it will be of help), so stop the thought and move on to the next step.

Step 4: Replace the Negative Thought

Lastly, replace the negative thought with one that is positive and affirming. It can be helpful to actually write out your negative thoughts and then write down alternative constructive ones. So “I am going to drop the ball” can become “I am going to catch the ball”. Instead of “I always miss cross-court volleys” think “I have mastered many tennis shots and I will master this one”, or “I’ve practiced for this cross-court volley and am ready for it.”

Step 5: Practice

Your ability to use thought stopping effectively depends on your ability to learn how to do it quickly, so practice it with your coach, alone while training, and in your day-to-day life. The better you get at this, the easier it will be to implement when you most need it.

How Can I Use Thought Stopping in Competition?

When you’re taking part in competition the whole process is sped up. The negative thoughts can be very damaging and thought stopping will be harder because of your heightened mental and physical state. This is why thought stopping in training is so important. So you simply follow the steps quickly:

Step 1: Identify the Thought

Step 2: Stop the Thought

Step 3: Replace the Thought With a Positive Affirmation

Just like physical training, mental training is successful when proper techniques are repeated many, many times. The well-known rule of 10,000 repetitions is just as true for mental memory as it is for muscle memory.

By practicing thought stopping during training you are conditioning your mind to recognize negative thoughts almost before they have formed, dismissing those thoughts and replacing them with positive ones. It should become almost subconscious. Then, when under competition conditions, the negative thoughts will be banished before they can do harm despite the increased stress.

How Can I Get Better at Thought Stopping?

To begin with, as with any new technique, mental or physical, progress may be slow. Saying “stop” will pause the thought sequence but that negative thought will likely reappear and have to be turned away again, and again. It will take many repetitions before that “Stop” genuinely halts that negative thought. But you have to start somewhere and thought stopping is a vital and essential tool in any sport.

Listen to what works for you. It is your mind being trained and your negative thoughts we are attempting to get rid of. So if you find a better word than “Stop”, use it. If another image instead of a stop sign helps you, use it.

Another variation that some athletes find helpful is to use a rubber band on their wrist to halt the thought instead of saying “Stop”. On recognition of a negative thought, you snap the rubber band to sting your wrist and tell yourself to ignore the thought.

Thought stopping is a tried-and-true method but you have to find the best way to utilize it.

Practice is the Key to Thought Stopping

You are not on your own; Restoic is here to help with its team of Certified Mental Performance Consultants and customizable, on-demand one-to-one coaching giving you the tools to train your mind and for your mind to train your body. If you’re struggling to master thought stopping alone, we can give you the tools to succeed.


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