by Mitchell Greene, PhD

Most of us started out playing sports for fun. Practices and games were a chance to meet up with friends (old and new), to get away from our work-a-day lives, and take on an athletic challenge that got our hearts pumping and our endorphins firing.  

For many competitors, however, there’s a point at which the fun-dial gets turned down, and the pressure to perform makes our heads spin, our hands sweat, and we start fearing mistakes rather than embracing opportunities to improve.   

“Mind Chatter” is the term I use to describe the conversation we have with ourselves when we feel the weight of performance expectations. “Mind Chatter” gets us focused on all that might be at stake if we don’t perform as we (and/or others) expect. It’s a conversation that is full of doubt, second-guessing, and negativity, and when our chatter goes unchecked, athletes can find themselves anxiously playing a game that they used to play fearlessly and enjoyed endlessly.  

In order to manage the chatter, here are a few strategies worth considering:    

Mind Chatter is Often Part of the Competition Picture: One of the keys to managing “mind chatter” is to appreciate that it is often going to show up whether we like it or not. Despite our hopes of just enjoying the moment, our “minds” seem to drum up possible worst-case scenarios time and time again. Think of “Mind Chatter” as actually a normal (yet disconcerting) part of competitive sports, and know that even the best around, like tennis champion Rafael Nadal and Olympian Mikaela Shiffrin, have minds that pump out messages that create doubt and fear of making mistakes. As Nadal says, “Doubt is good for me.” He goes on to say it helps him stay motivated, and hungry to get better. If you don’t have doubts, says Nadal, you are probably “arrogant.”  

Acknowledge and Refocus: Once you recognize that it is chatter that is rummaging through your head, looking for what can go wrong (and that you aren’t a wimp or coward for thinking such things), your in-game goal should be to quickly shift your focus towards aspects of your game that you can control. Since you can’t control the final results of your game (no one can), it’s best to put your attention on areas that you want to improve on, and the more specific you can make your in-game goals the better. For instance, instead of trying to perform “good turns” in your swim race, break down your goals even further and focus on “pushing hard off the wall” and/or “staying under water longer” – two even more concrete goals that can occupy your mind during the race. The mind wants to think big, and in generalities. Your job as an athlete is to “think small.”  

Courage Over Confidence: With all that “Mind Chatter” has to say, it’s hard to feel confident sometimes. The good news is you don’t need to be confident to perform well. I would much rather you be focused than be confident. Focus you do need. Confidence, not so much. Trying to be confident when you really are feeling insecure is like trying to throw yourself your own surprise party. It just doesn’t work. Instead, ask yourself how courageous you want to be each and every day you compete, because, by definition, you can’t be courageous except in the presence of fear. So let’s work to turn the nerves and doubts into opportunities for you to act courageously. #courageoverconfidence  

Watch Dr. Greene's accompanying on-demand ADAA Webinar: Managing Stress in Sports: Quieting the Mind and the Body

About the Author

Dr. Mitchell Greene is the owner of Greenepsych Clinical and Sport Psychology, a boutique private practice located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Dr. Greene is a leading licensed clinical and sport psychologist, whose success over the past 15 plus years is his ability to tailor personalized solutions to his client’s problems. Dr. Greene works primarily with athletes pursuing high performance goals, or coaches and athletic departments looking to educate their student-athletes on mental health and performance enhancement strategies.

Dr. Greene speaks nationally and internationally on topics ranging from peak performance strategies to anxiety management skill development for student-athletes.  The American Psychological Association recently featured Dr. Greene's sport psychology consulting work in an issue of the APA Monitor.

For more information on Dr. Greene, and the services he provides, click here.