One of the most common culprits to anxiety in sports (well nearly anything) is overthinking. It kills action. Ever stayed up late until the wee hours of the night replaying your mistake over and over? This obsessive thinking locks on to the blunder by ‘what if’ing’ what you could have done different. Negative feelings of anger, disappointment, and jealously creep in since teammates did not make such a mistake. You get mad at self for the novice error, ‘How could I do such a thing?’
This rumination is exhausting! You even may feel physical ill from thinking. Is that logical? Yes, it happens.
Similarly, your mind locks attention into the future by ‘what if’ing’ your next performance. This equates to an unhealthy thinking pattern typically creating more stress, anxiety, and concern than the original experience demands.
Overthinking is normal
Look, it is easy to get caught up when we blow it, and it costs us in some way like a score, the game winner, or rank. Our biggest problem is not the mistake but replaying it to the point of killing our action. Everyone does it depending on the situation.
It is also normal to experience nervousness prior to and during performance especially ones you consider ‘higher pressure’ situations. There is nothing wrong with you if you experience this.
Overthinking, however, tends to be a habitual focus on the negative, dwelling on the past, and/or considering the possible mishaps of future performance.
Overthinking focuses on potential problems rather than problem solving
When you overthink, instead of problem-solving, you concentrate on nearly every possible thing that went wrong or could go wrong even if it has never happened before. Some of you take it to catastrophic proportions imagining the worst possible scenarios and humiliation. This is when overthinking becomes debilitating, killing action.
Most of the time your thoughts are inaccurate. And, while the blunders are possible, the majority of the things you are contemplating are NOT probable. Yet you choose to keep chewing on these improbable things directing your body to react with stress. This puts you in your head where nothing good is happening rather than taking action to improve and master your skills or routines.
What leads to overthinking
Nearly every Braincode (16 of them) has the capacity to get trapped into this negative thought cycle. Introverts (8 of them) tend to struggle given their natural tendency to reflect inward and delay outward decisive action. Many Introverts post-pone sharing and keep things hidden until trust is developed with a friend or teammate. This internal focus tends to be passive rather than assertive.
Extroverts are steadily more enthusiastic and action-oriented than Introverts. Generally, they have a quicker response time and take initiative even if it is unsuccessful. Extroverts, however, can grapple needing to process their thoughts by talking rather than performing. They get energized by their focus on the outer world of people and activity. Their batteries amp up by talking and interacting. When that is not available, it can lead to difficulty overthinking since they tend to struggle with self-reflection and internal dialogue.
Athletes who make decisions more based on mood tend to fall into overthinking. They tend to defer to their emotional state rather than an aggressive discovery to challenge self through action and competition. They often say ‘I’m not feeling it’ then fall into rumination wondering why they are not progressing or comparing themselves to others who are getting better.
Athletes who tend to pursue an aggressive competitive outcome, overthink things with a focus on competency and adequacy rather than their progress towards desired results. The lack of achieving outcomes tends to dump them into this stuck overthinking cycle.
Coaches who lead by power and control through yelling tend to foster athletes who are afraid to make mistakes. This leads to a culture of fear with athletes who overthink worrying about slip-ups and getting benched.
How to control overthinking
First, question your thoughts. When you catch yourself overthinking, ask if your thoughts are accurate. Consider if your thoughts are based on reality or are you making assumptions, ‘Is that really true?; What evidence do I have this is happening?.’ Consider alternatives to your perspective. Focus on improving rather than condemning.
Second, talk to someone you trust. Sharing your concerns and feelings with a teammate, coach, or family member who won’t judge you yet offer another perspective. This can reduce overthinking.
Own your mistakes. This remains the quickest way to move past guilt. Identify what you did wrong. Put in the work to improve. Quit condemning or complaining about it. Move past yourself and get focused back on mastery of skills and sport.
Next, be intentional about your mindset. Wake up each day put your attention to the present moment using journaling, meditation, a devotional, or other reading. Prayer is also a strong option for gratitude. End your day using similar mindset methods to stay in the ‘here and now.’ Honestly, get in the habit of giving thanks for the mistakes as it teaches you how to be better. Focus on developing and problem-solving rather than criticizing and slamming yourself.
Set boundaries for yourself. Overthinking halts action due to this lack of boundaries. Set a 10-minute timer for example. Yell, cry, and scream all you want, but then stop and move forward when the 10 minutes is over. Do not allow yourself to keep thinking about your problems and misfortunes. Also set time to problem-solve your challenges and put those action items on your calendar.
Finally, keep a distraction list of activities you enjoy. Once you realize you are caught in your overthinking loop, then turn to your distraction list and pick an activity such as working out, listening to music, hanging out with friends, watching a movie, or reading.
Be patient with yourself. Training your brain to NOT overthink requires consistency of action. It takes time and practice just like you do with your physical, technical, and tactical skills.