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MENTAL TRAINING: Stop Those Unwanted Thoughts, Quick!

By Paul Schienberg, PhD

You’re on the 18th green and playing the best round of golf that you have ever played. It looks like you are about to break the magical mark of 80 for the first time ever. It is not uncommon to have a thought like “I’m going to miss this putt.” Usually, when you have thoughts similar to this, the wish comes true and you end up missing the putt. This is a fairly typical problem not just in golf but in all sports. Basketball players go through it at the free-throw line; and, so do baseball players at the plate. It might even happen for a period of time prior to a big tournament or match. “I know I can beat John but he always seems to come through in the crunch and beats me.”

It is fair to say that human beings have a tendency to have repetitive thoughts and that this is specially true about events or situations that provoke anxiety such as athletic competition. These thoughts can become so repetitive that they interfere with our ability to complete certain tasks. This in turn causes us more anxiety which further interferes with our ability to perform at optimal levels. It becomes a vicious cycle that an individual can find difficult to break. Fortunately, human beings have a great deal of control over the thoughts that they have and these repetitive thoughts can be stopped through a technique that is called thought stopping.

The basic premise behind thought stopping is that if anxiety provoking thoughts are paired with relaxation, their repetitiveness can be reduced exponentially which results in anxiety reduction. In other words, if the thoughts that make you nervous become associated with relaxation, they will be reduced. While initially you may have a repetitive thought that interferes with your athletic performance 600 times a day, using this technique you can usually cut it in half on a daily basis. This means that you can reduce these recurrent thoughts to just 5 times a day in seven days’ time. The method by which thought stopping is achieved is quite simple.

  1. When experiencing a recurring thought that causes anxiety, you should first say “Stop.” This introduces the idea to yourself to stop having these thoughts. You can say it out loud or to yourself but this is a necessary first step.
  2. Negate the thought that you are having on a recurrent basis. “I will not . . .” or “I can not . . .” is how this statement usually starts.
  3. Make a positive self statement about a feeling which instills confidence should be made. “I will . . .” or “I can . . .” is how this statement usually starts.
  4. Take a cleansing, relaxing breath. For more information on this see the article on diaphragmatic breathing. It is important to note that thought stopping will work best if you have mastered the breathing technique since this is a key in pairing the anxiety provoking thought with relaxation.
  5. In order to achieve maximum benefit from this technique in the shortest time period possible, you should do steps 1 to 4 EVERY time you have the recurrent thought. Failure to do this is likely to result in thought stopping not being effective.

Confused? The example below of a patient treated with thought stopping should help to clarify how to incorporate this technique into your athletic training.

    Bill played basketball in an over forty basketball league at his local community center. Although he had initially joined just to get some exercise, he had been fortunate to get teamed up with a group of individuals that worked very well together and was in second place just before the playoffs. On the last game of the regular season, he came to the foul line with his team down by one point. He needed to make both shots but was unable to do so. Despite encouragement from his team, he began having thoughts that he had let his team down. As the first playoff game approached, he began having the recurrent thought “I am unable to hit the clutch shot when it counts” with increasing frequency. It got to the point that it was all he could think about it. He was able to reduce the frequency of these thoughts by using thought stopping. Every time he had the thought he would say to himself, “Stop. I will not miss the clutch shot. I can make the shot with the game on the line just like I have when I practiced so many other times,” and he would then take a deep breath in through his nose and out through his mouth. As the end of the first playoff game approached and his team huddled trying to come up with a plan, the thought popped into his head again. He went through his routine just like he had every time the thought came into his head in the days leading up to the game and felt surprisingly calm. He knew that he was capable of hitting the shot just like he had all season long.

While initially these thoughts can be quite intrusive with practice, the frequency of these thoughts will be reduced by incorporating this technique into your daily routine. Again, practice makes perfect. However, in this case, it is important that you use this technique each and every time that you are having an intrusive thought that you would like to get rid of. Failure to do this will reduce the effectiveness of the technique.