Overthinking. It’s one of the biggest mental challenges that athletes face in competitive sports. In nearly 20 years of practicing mental skills training, I have seen it happen across all sports, genders, ages, and levels. No matter who you are, at some point, overthinking will show up. It’s simply a matter of time until it happens to you.
On the field (court, course, etc.), overthinking translates to very specific body language. Can you guess what it is?
Think about a time you (or your child) felt overwhelmed and started thinking way too much while playing a sport. What did you notice? What changed?
The tell tale sign of overthinking is…slow feet. When an athlete starts grinding away on thoughts, and then emotions, the feet slow down. Way down.
What Makes Me Overthink?
Why is overthinking such a common occurrence? There are several reasons:
Kids 10-13 (pre-adolescence) go through the second biggest brain development phase of their life. There is a lot of restructuring going on in the brain, and their ability to be self-aware grows tremendously. This is a good thing long-term, but it can cause some short-term stumbling blocks.
Nervousness and anxiety
Competitive sports are filled with pressure, and high achievers tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves. Additional stress may come from parents, coaches, and expectations (I must get a scholarship!!) If an athlete is someone who is prone to stress, all of this pressure can create an overwhelming amount of mental and emotional stimulation.
So many athletes “suffer” from perfectionism. That is, the expectation that anything that isn’t perfect is failure. This mindset leaves athletes feeling frustrated and creates worry about whether or not they will ever be successful. Nervousness and anxiety often follow.
Ironically, kids who struggle with overthinking when they are young potentially gain an advantage over others.
Don’t get me wrong, keeping it simple is key! However, if your first mental challenge happens when you’re 19 playing D1 college sports, that’s a tough environment to learn how to manage overthinking. Kids who struggle when they are younger and learn to manage their thinking are able to build confidence in their ability to overcome future challenges. There’s no shortcut here.
How Do I Stop Overthinking?
Can all of this overthinking be stopped? YES! Here’s how to stop overthinking:
1. Build awareness
Consider the following questions. Become aware of what makes you overthink and how you tend to react to it.
– In what situations do you tend to overthink? Missed shot on goal, (soccer)? Missed block on defense (volleyball)? When a coach/teammate yells at you?
– What do you say to yourself in those situations? “Why did you do that??” “That was dumb!!” “Not again!!”
– Does what you say to yourself help or hurt your performance? If the answer is, “It hurts my performance” proceed to step 2.
2. Create simple, concise, action-based instructions for each situation
Figure out the best ways to process the situations that tend to make you overthink. Try to keep your desired reaction simple; define it in a few short words.
– Missed shot = “Head down, far post”
– Missed block = “Get up!”
– Getting yelled at = “Soft touch, carry.”
3. Affirm success
It’s always important to remind yourself of what your consistent strengths are that hold up in various situations.
– “I’m a good decision maker under pressure.”
– “I play hard in tough games.”
– “I train hard and am in great shape.”
Thinking for excellence takes practice. Most athletes find it relatively easy to manage their thinking when things are going well. The challenge is to manage thinking under pressure and after a mistake or two. Keeping your thoughts simple is mandatory for mental toughness.
Haven’t mastered your mental game yet? Take pride in working through the hard stuff. Dealing with mental challenges is as important as any physical skill you possess. And, it’s guaranteed to pay dividends in your future…both your sport future and beyond.