Cognitive Distortions: How Perfectionism Can Harm Your Performance
Perfectionism can become a problem because of the underlying beliefs associated with perfectionism. These underlying beliefs can get athletes stuck in a cycle of self-critical, linear thinking that can ultimately hinder performance.
Perfectionists often rely on linear thinking, goal-oriented approach, but rarely do athletes recognize its hindrance. Linear thinking includes ways of thinking that are dichotomous (black or white), absolutist, catastrophic, and pessimistic (highly critical). In order to cultivate a healthier thinking process, it is important to help athletes understand the disadvantages of perfectionism and uncover the beliefs and behaviors that support perfectionism. These behaviors ultimately hurt an athlete’s confidence.
Dichotomous thinking is one of the most common forms of linear thinking. This is also known as black and white thinking. It’s either perfect or it was a complete failure. If an athlete is stuck in absolutist thinking, cultivate awareness around the use of words like “ought,” “should,” “need to,” and “supposed to” is the first step. The goal is to replace these words with “can,” “is okay,” and “may.” If the absolutist belief: “If I don’t skate clean, I should give up because I can’t do anything right,” then we would want to replace it with “If I don’t skate clean, I may feel discouraged and those feelings are valid but that doesn’t mean I have to give up.”
Catastrophic thinking can cause an athlete to feel miserable about themselves and compensate by extreme behaviors. It is important to take a step back and recognize what is actually accurate. For example, if the catastrophic thought is, “If I eat an unhealthy dinner, I will gain weight and lose my jump,” then we would want to replace it with, “If I eat an unhealthy dinner, I may not have as much energy while training tomorrow. Eating unhealthy will not make me suddenly gain ten pounds and lose all my jumps.”
Pessimistic thinking leads to highly critical and blameful thoughts. For example, if the thought is, “I can’t land my double lutz,” then it would be important to make the cup half full and replace the thought with “There are many jumps I can land, double lutz may not be one of them right now.” Another good replacement would be, “It’s okay if I can’t land it right now, but I can progress by working on exercises that I know are forming good technique.”
The issue with linear thinking is that it causes cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that are believed to perpetuate the effects of psychological states. Cognitive distortions can lead to mentally weak athletes that self-sabotage or self-destruct under pressure, have poor self-esteem, and that overtrain and under fuel.
A better alternative for athletes is process thinking. Process thinking focuses on continual change and learning rather than just the end result. This takes lots of time and practice.
Shifting your thinking process takes time and practice. It’s important to cultivate self-compassion, regardless if you are an athlete or not. We are human and every one of us will make mistakes. Its with self-awareness that athletes will be able to recognize their false beliefs and replace them with accurate, realistic statements. When athletes shift away from perfectionism, they continue to be highly motivated and committed to goals with a strong desire to improve. The difference is that these athletes will not lose confidence and dwell on mistakes. When athletes can focus on their current training and performance, rather than past failures, they will be happier, more successful athletes.
So, what can you do when you notice linear thinking?
Take a personal break to process. Take 2-5 minutes to journal on the side of the ice about what’s going on in the moment. Write down your thought process and what is going on in your brain.
If an athlete is out of control and escalated, it give them a self-alternative to being distractive, self-destructing and taking hard falls.
Coaches, remind your athletes that this isn’t a punishment, it’s to help process training & performance to make them better athletes.
Additionally, it’s so important that athletes practice self-compassion. It’s important to remind them to talk to themselves like they’d talk to their teammate who had a rough day. It’s important to accept their limitations of the human body and recognize that “success” is subjective.
Another thing that can help reduce linear thinking in the moment is cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is a technique that helps to identify and challenge irrational or maladaptive thoughts. It consists of identifying the thought, and them reframing it in a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts, and emotions to find a more positive alternative.
Coaches, how can you help your athletes with cognitive restructuring?
1. Ask the athlete to identify the feeling or fear.
2. Ask the athlete to consider whether the fears are rational or not.
3. Develop positive coping statement with your athletes.
4. Incorporate the positive coping statement into your training.
Last but not least, we have cognitive diffusion. Cognitive diffusion looking at thoughts rather than from thoughts. It’s all about letting thoughts come and go rather than holding onto them. It’s about noticing thoughts rather than getting caught up in your thoughts.
Coaches, how can you help your athletes with cognitive diffusion?
1. Ask the athlete to identify the thought or feeling.
2. Ask the athlete if this is a fact or a feeling.
3. Ask the athlete to distance themselves from the thought by restating their sentence with the phrase, “I notice that I am feeling the thought that…”
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