In Becoming a Champion, Peak Performance Strategies

“You just have to THINK POSITIVE and BE CONFIDENT! Don’t let that negative thinking and self doubts come knocking on your door!” NEWSFLASH!! This advice for athletes is like the end of a fairtale, where they say, “AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER!” It’s not connected to the REAL world! The problem with “happily ever after” is that LIFE gets in the way! The problem with “Just be positive” is very simple! IT DOESN’T WORK! And the problem with not letting negatives come a knocking at your door is that most often they’re not that polite! They simply break your door down, storm your castle and pillage your self-confidence and skills!

In my field, we talk a lot about the need for having a positive attitude and the precept that “NOTHING GOOD COMES FROM NEGATIVITY!” No doubt there’s an element of truth to this and I’m kind of a terminal optimist myself. We also have techniques for stopping negative thinking and turning those pesky, annoying negatives to positives. Then there’s the idea of regularly using POSITIVE AFFIRMATIONS to create an “I CAN DO THIS” headset! You write down on a 3×5 card how you want to feel, as if it were true right now and you post those cards everywhere! These affirmations are supposed to form a bridge between how you feel right now and how you want to feel in the future.

I want to let you in on a little secret. You can religiously practice “thought stopping.” You can over-practice turning all your negatives to positives. You can fight your self-doubts with the latest kung fu affirmation techniques! However, when push comes to shove and the pressure of competition is turned up high and your back is up against the wall, your negative thoughts and self-doubts will still pop up, alive, well and stronger than ever! I don’t want to be a “negative Nancy” here, but the reality is that YOU CAN’T CONSCIOUSLY CONTROL YOUR NEGATIVE THINKING AND SELF-DOUBTS!!!

Whenever athletes try to change their last minute negatives and doubts to positives, a predictable battle ensues in their head. It goes something like this. You’re getting ready to take that clucth free throw and you hear upstairs, “You’re going to blow it!” and that positive part of you goes, “NO I’m not! I’m a good free throw shooter! I shoot 90% in practice and I’ll make these two!” Then you immediately hear from that nasty little voice inside, “Newsflash Lebron! This isn’t practice and you usually choke in these situations! In fact, now that I think about it, didn’t you blow your team’s chance to win the last game when you air-balled both of your shots?!” It’s usually at this point that your confidence does an “exit, stage left” disappearing act and self-doubts completely overwhelm you.

Here’s the truth about trying to “be positive” in the face of last minute negative thinking and doubts. Not only does it NOT work, it tends to make the negatives louder and stronger! Why is that? That’s because of the fact that when you try to push something out of your head or “not think about it,” you end up thinking about it even more. It’s the concept of “that which you resist, PERSISTS!” The fact of the matter is that trying to control your last minutes doubts is like trying to lassoo the wind! GOOD LUCK WITH THAT!

Instead, you must learn to change your relationship with those last minute negatives and doubts. First of all, you must understand that they are NORMAL and that even the best athletes in the world have them. Second, you need to know that these negatives are NOT the voice of God speaking to you, predicting the future. Negative thinking, like positive thinking is just an artficial construction of reality. They are just words. MOST IMPORTANT: You can still perform to your potential, EVEN with negative thinking and doubts going on. The trick is to stay calm in the face of them and immediately refocus on the task at hand. You don’t want to waste your valuable concentration on an inner dialogue between good and evil. You want, instead, to notice the negative thinking and calmly and quickly refocus your concentration on what you’re doing in the moment.

Most often it’s our reaction to these last minute doubts that gets us into the most trouble performance-wise. When you hear them singing in your head, do not start harmonizing. No need to panic either! Just accept them as normal, remain calm and immediately return your focus to what you are DOING in the moment.


This will sound much easier said than done, so you need to understand that mastering your negatives involves patience and practice.

  1. When the negative “voices” start, recognize that they are normal and won’t affect your performance, unless you give them power
  2.  Stay calm and accept that they will always come under pressure
  3. PRE-PERFORMANCE – Immediately refocus your concentration on DOING, NOT THINKING. That is, put your concentration back on what YOU are doing, in your pre-game/pre-performance ritual. Usually this involves focusing on the feel of what you’re doing or keeping your focus on what is directly in front of you. Example, If I’m a swimmer, and I’m behind the blocks, I’d focus on the feel of my stretching and my breathing. If I’m a basketball player, I’d shift my concentration to what I am doing in warm-ups. If I’m a golfer, I’d focus on my pre-shot ritual, and the feel of it, one practice swing at a time.
  4. DURING PERFORMANCE – Swimmers: Focus back on the feel of stretching the stroke out, one stroke at a time. Soccer players: Refocus on the field in front of you and the ball, or making a run and moving without the ball. Golfers, focus on the feel of “soft hands” or a smooth swing.
  5. Every time the negative thinking pops up, stay calm and immediately bring your concentration back to the feel of what you’re doing, as often as you need to.

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