Psyched Online

FEATURE: Cognitive Style AND Athletic Performance Part I: Distortions

by Paul Schienberg, Ph.D.
The pressures of competitive sport offer ideal situations for creating irrational or distorted cognitive styles. What athletes say to themselves may not positively contribute to success. It may, in fact, lead to failure. Some athletes and their coaches believe that the best performance comes from No conscious thinking (automatic performance). However, it is unreasonable to expect an athlete to shut off all cognitive activity while in competition or training. Thinking should not be blamed for reduced performance. Instead, inappropriate or misguided thinking should be the focus of concern. This is the focus of this article – the assessment, identification and modifications of cognitive styles that negatively impact performance.

Irrational and Distorted Thinking

Four general irrational beliefs may interfere with athletes reaching their potential. These four beliefs are: I must do well in sport and if I don’t I am an incompetent, worthless person; I must do well to gain the love and approval of others and if I don’t it is horrible; Everyone must treat me with respect and fairness of all times; and The conditions of my life must be arranged so that I get what I want easily and quickly. These general beliefs can contribute to emotional distress for athletes and contribute to the pressure already present in achievement situations.

Distorted thinking styles interfere with performance by providing the athlete with faulty information about the competitive environment, resulting in misdirected attention, emotional distress such as excessive anxiety and lowered self-concept. The following is a list of distorted thinking styles have been employed by athletes:

  1. Perfectionism. This unrealistic expectation leads to excessive pressure, unavoidable failure, and undermining of effective coping. Perfectionist desires may lead to successful performance. But, perfectionist demands and commands destroy athletic careers. It also leads to negative self-concepts and a fear-of-failure syndrome supported by extreme negative consequences tied to less than perfect performance.
  2. Catastrophizing. Exaggerating potential consequences of imagined or real negative events comes along with perfectionism. Those suffering with this distortion expect the worst in every situation – most often worse than reality or previous experience suggest. This can contribute to actual negative outcomes.
  3. Self-worth Depends Upon Achievement. Athletes see their self-worth as directly related to their performance and success. This idea is particularly concerning to the young athlete who looks to their parents, coaches and peers for their sense of self. The result is even more stress related to performance, low and unstable self-worth, and interference with fun while participating in sports.
  4. Personalization. When this distortion is employed by an athlete, there is a tendency to overestimate their personal responsibility for every failure and mistake. “If I only made that last free throw, we would have won the game.” Repeated usage of this type of thinking can result in low self-esteem, high performance anxiety and decrease in desire to participate and take chances.
  5. Fallacy of Fairness. The concept of fairness often translates into “wanting one’s own way versus what someone else thinks is fair or best for the group.” Unfairness often results in interpersonal problems, inappropriate focus of attention, and coping with adversity.
  6. Blaming. Some athletes excessively attribute failure externally. They get to not experience any responsibility. This gets in the way of improving performance.
  7. Polarized Thinking. Athletes are tempted to view things in black and white terms. Labels are employed that simplify self and others into unidimensional terms (i.e., losers, cheaters, unbeatable opponents). They provide a weak mental perspective to learn from and improve performance.
  8. One-trial Generalizations. Athletes often use a single event to define expectancies for future performances. After the first few games of this season, a New York Knick basketball player was heard to say, “We are a three quarters basketball team.” The result of such thinking can be self-defeating prophecy, lack of focus and preparation for the first three quarters of a game, and lack of attention.

Identifying and Modifying Irrational & Distorted Thinking

Identifying these cognitive distortions is the first step toward modifying disturbed thinking styles and enjoying the benefits of rational thinking. Athletes are most available to learn immediately following a competition. Coaches should review with the player, the performance and related thinking, especially when there has been a negative result. Memory fades with time passed. Distorted thinking styles are often learned from coaches. Therefore, coaches should become aware of their own irrational beliefs and the way they model distorted thinking for the athletes.

Three phases for implementing cognitive restructuring interventions with athletes have been identified. In the Identification phase, the boundaries of the effected behavior and the irrational beliefs or self-defeating verbalization present in the situation are defined. The identifications can be helped by journal writing and conversations. During the Restructuring phase, the athlete is convinced of the inappropriateness of the thoughts and more effective replacements of new thinking patterns are created. The effectiveness of the intervention depends on getting an athlete to recognize the need to change, In the Pairing Stage, the athlete uses self-instructional imagery and verbal cues to facilitate the application of new thinking patterns into actual performance. The athletes should practice the imagery several times a day to make the new thoughts automatic.

It is important to emphasize the importance of underlying beliefs in maintaining automatic thoughts. Challenging underlying beliefs is a vehicle for long-term change in thinking patterns. Purposefully acting counter to identified, irrational beliefs is a way of experiencing new thinking and feeling. For example, an athlete who employs excessive criticism and self-abuse after every mistake may try to smile and be overly complementary after a few mistakes to experience the positive consequences (thoughts, feelings and performances) associated with the new behavior.

Athletes and their coaches must make an effort to substitute rational for irrational thinking during all phases of training and competition. If athletes have a particular difficult irrational belief to rid themselves of, they may benefit from daily affirmation statements counter to the belief. Physically relaxing may also increase the effectiveness of attempts to counter irrational beliefs. Most irrational beliefs create anxiety and tension, thus decreasing receptivity to more effective, rational thoughts. If doubts exist whether a belief is irrational or ineffective, the following questions can be employed to make the assessment of the belief: Is the belief based on objective reality? Are they helpful to you? Are they useful in reducing interpersonal conflicts? Do they help you reach your goals? Do they reduce emotional conflict? If the athlete answers “no” to any of the questions, the belief is likely to irrational or counterproductive, and the individual will benefit from modification.


Irrational beliefs are well entrenched in our culture and sports in particular. Examples include “No pain, no gain.” And “Practice makes perfect.” And “Winning Isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Many important figures (coaches, parents, athletes) believe that modify some of the thinking can lead to less competitiveness or drive to win. It is more likely that the modification in thinking styles recommended in this article would lead to better performance because athletes would be more relaxed, more focused and motivated during competition and training. In our next article, we will turn our attention to “self-talk” as another approach to cognitive change in the service of improved athletic performance.