10 Cognitive Distortions In Athletics – Part 1


Jim Afremow

Dr. Jim Afremow is a much sought-after mental skills coach, licensed professional counselor, co-founder of the Champion’s Mind App, and the author of The Champion’s Mind, The Champion’s Comeback, and The Young Champion’s Mind. For over 20 years, Dr. Afremow has assisted numerous high school, collegiate, recreational, and  professional athletes. Major sports represented include MLB, NBA, WNBA, PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, NHL, NFL, and the UFC. In addition, he has mentally trained several U.S. and international Olympic competitors. He served as the  staff mental coach for two international Olympic teams, the Greek Olympic softball team and India’s Olympic field hockey team. He served as a senior staff member with Counseling Services and Sports Medicine at Arizona State University, and as a Mental Skills Coach and the Peak Performance Coordinator with the San Francisco Giants MLB organization.

// Cognitive distortions are affecting athletes

Psycho-social factors, such as depression and anxiety have been on a rise in the last decade. While this is having a very real impact in our communities it has also impacted the world of athletics. Cognitive distortions can lead to sub-optimal performance and can take a serious toll on your athletes. 

In sports and life, we must face two different opponents in our quest to become champions. The first is the outer opponent. This can include our fellow competitors, playing surface, weather, crowd, clock, and other external factors. The other is the limitations and frailties of our own bodies and minds. Like when injury strikes or you doubt your abilities.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

These can be tricky to navigate, but often our toughest opponent is the inner one that resides between our ears. No matter how well we train the body, it is the mind that ultimately makes the difference. We need to accurately evaluate what is happening in our heads. Put it into proper context. They take the necessary steps to improve our mental game for next time. Unfortunately, due to our inherent negativity bias and tendency to be over critical of ourselves. This often leads to over emotionalizing situations and viewing the world in unrealistic ways. Think about one of those fairground mirrors that makes your body look big, small, or twisted out of proportion. That’s a good illustration for what we allow our minds to do when we let cognitive distortions take hold.

10 Cognitive Distortions In Athletics – Part 1

Wait a second, cognitive what? OK, forgive me for putting on my sports psychologist/counselor hat for a moment. What I mean by cognitive distortions, is patterns of thinking that impact our perception of reality. Often in a negative or self-destructive way. The term was first introduced by Aaron Beck in 1976, and expanded upon by David Burns in the 1980s. When we give into such distortions, we’re allowing our inner opponent to become Serena Williams or Michael Phelps. An unbeatable task. In doing so, we’re giving ourselves little chance of accurately interpreting what actually happened. This sets ourselves up for sub-optimal performance in whatever situation comes next. Let this pattern continue for long enough and suddenly it becomes your default to distort. The tendency to take yourself out of the right mindset will persist and self-defeat will endure.

In this three-part series, we will walk through 10 cognitive distortions that commonly afflict athletes. At the end of this series you’ll be better able to identify when you’re allowing any or all of these cognitive distortions to take hold. You can then make cognitive corrections to get you back to pairing your champion’s body with a champion’s mind. You’ll have defeated the inner opponent and have greater capacity to perform at your peak against the outer one.

Cognitive Distortion # 1: All-or-Nothing Thinking

One of the most common traps that ensnares high performers is talking – to yourself and others – in absolutes. You’re either a complete success or a total failure. You set a PR or you stink. You’re a winner or a loser. In this cognitive distortion you have an all-or-nothing self-image. An image that doesn’t allow for mistakes, even when you win. The basketball player who scores 28 points in a victory, but thinks he’s a bad shooter for missing three shots. Or the softball player whose final run helps win the game, but fixates on a minor error she made. Outside of sports, all-or-nothing thinking could afflict the straight A student whose world falls apart when she gets a B. Or perhaps the prolific writer who loses confidence in his ability when a magazine editor rejects one of his pitches.

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Course Correction

Instead of seeing things in terms of black and white, zeroes and ones, and successes and failures, try to acknowledge nuance and ambiguity. By beginning to think in shades of gray, you’ll add more color to your inner and outer world and begin to have a brighter outlook. When you have a sub-par performance, you’ll expect an above average one to be just around the corner. And even when you don’t measure up to your high standards – which there’s nothing wrong with unless they become impossible to meet – you’ll still enjoy the game.

Cognitive Distortion # 2: Over-Generalizing

This error occurs when you take the result of a specific event and extrapolate it to your entire game, personality, and/or life. You lost the game, so you must be a terrible football player and a worthless human being. You played a bad round and missed the cut. You’ll never make it as a pro golfer and are more likely to end up on the streets than on the PGA Tour. What’s the point anymore? You should probably just quit, right? 

Wrong! The mistake here is selecting something local and making it global. You take one negative event and see it as irrefutable proof that you’re stuck in a never-ending pattern of defeat and failure. If you let such thoughts percolate, it’s all too easy to feel like events and other people are conspiring against you. When you over-generalize you’re blowing things out of all proportion – the classic making a mountain out of a molehill.

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Course Correction

Get specific. If it’s a single loss or below-average performance that triggered you, concentrate on and accurately assess what went right, rather than just zooming in on what went wrong. Check the details of your performance and find a few things to be proud of. Of course you have room for improvement – we all do, even an all-time great like Roger Federer or Simone Biles. In the grand scheme of things, everyone has off days, and this says nothing about you as an athlete or a person. Simply assess yourself objectively, focus on the positives, and resolve to do better next time.

Cognitive Distortion # 3: Mental Filtering

Filters can be very useful – for things like sorting email, improving your water quality, and, my personal favorite, making coffee! But when it comes to your mindset, filtering can be self-destructive if you start relentlessly cataloguing all the perceived negatives while throwing the positives in your trash can. Once you start down this road, you’ll soon be naming, dating, alphabetizing, and color-coding your shortcomings. 

If you start to compile a mental filing cabinet that houses all of your flaws and regularly pull out the folders to pore over every mistake you’ve ever made, you start to lose your regard for the good things in your performances and your life. It’d be like watching the morning and evening news and only ever paying attention to the bad stories – soon you’ll become what you behold and will be miserable. This is no way to live, and it’s certainly not going to make you a better athlete.

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Course Correction

You can keep that mental cabinet, but instead of organizing all your supposed failures and pulling them out to read on a rainy day, begin deliberately misfiling them. Meanwhile, take care to catalog all the successes, and return to them anytime you need a little encouragement and motivation. No matter what life hackers might tell you, this is an even better way to organize things than #zeroinbox!

Check back soon for part 2, in which we’ll cover cognitive distortions # 4 through 7


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