Have you ever stepped into the gym and felt like your workout would destroy you? Did a coach or a teammate ever load on more plates than you thought you could handle? These and other feelings of self doubt can get in the way of accomplishing your goals during workouts, which could later impact your performance in competition. I always say self-doubt has caused more poor performances than lack of ability.
Thoughts of failure can strike any athlete regardless of ability or level of competition. The deciding factor is how you let those thoughts affect you. Imagine you're about to attempt your Squat max. Going into the lift, you think to yourself, "I'm too tired" or "I don't think I can do this much weight." Those sentiments set the tone for a poor performance—and it goes deeper than lack of confidence. There are neurophysiological implications on how self-doubt can influence physical performance.
Is It ALL in Your Head?
Many people don't realize that before any muscle can contract, whether to kick a soccer ball, do a Push-Up or even brush your teeth, an electrical impulse from the brain must first signal the muscle to do so. A part of our brain stem called the Reticular Activation System (RAS) controls consciousness and attention and helps regulate energy toward a certain task. When we put a lot of focus on what we can't do, we signal our RAS to conserve energy by putting attention to things that have a higher priority for us. So if missing your free throws or being unable to do a final set of Deadlifts is what you have in your mind, all factors associated with those negative thoughts will be heightened. Since our brains are plastic (i.e., they can be reshaped on how they work), constant thoughts of self-doubt can become routine and prime the body for sub-par performance.
In a general sense, the brain doesn't know reality from thoughts. It just knows to react to a stimulus, whether it's an actual missed lift or the constant thought of one. Have you ever waked up from a nightmare with your heart racing and your breath panting as if you just ran a marathon. These physical manifestations were caused by mental stimuli from your dream. That lion chasing you was thought to be real, so your body went into fight or flight mode to help you handle the stress.
Think of it like practicing a physical skill. Imagine a hurdler who intentionally hits every hurdle during practice. His body adapts to running races in this unorthodox manner. When the actual race comes, he struggles to break away from this form. That's exactly how your mind works with negative thoughts and self doubt.
What you Should Do
1. Recognize negative beliefs
Don't ignore your negative thoughts; address them. Research shows that suppressing thoughts causes us to focus on them more, so if pesky thoughts are hindering your performance, write them down and then reframe them as positive thoughts. For example "I can't lift 200 pounds; I'll be stuck at 195 forever" can be altered to "I've worked hard these past few weeks and now it is time for me to dominate!"
2. Remember past accomplishments
It's easy to focus on shortcomings and sweep past achievements under the rug. Most people remember the missed kick but not the time they overcame a 2-point deficit to win the game. Make a list of all your accomplishments, whether or not they are sports-related—to remind yourself that you were successful before, and you can do it again.
3. Fake it to make it
Just like negative thinking primes your brain and body to fail, positive thoughts prime your body to succeed. When you give attention to the positive outcomes, your RAS shifts energy and attention to the things needed to accomplish your goal. Your form will be cleaner, your focus will be on the relevant cues and you will set yourself up for a better performance. Even if you don't fully believe it, keep visualizing and speaking positive thoughts into existence.
4. Take risk
Just do it! Plain and simple, take a chance. If you're having self-doubts, just push through them. There will always be a chance that you might fail, but you make that chance even greater when you question yourself. Think positively, imagine success, do what needs to be done after you've prepared for it and watch success happen.
The next time you attempt a max lift or run your last set of sprints, think twice (pun intended) about failing or falling short, because you will prepare your body to just that. Instead, direct your attention to more positive thoughts, behaviors and outcomes. See yourself making the lift, repeat to yourself that your legs aren't tired and you've got this!
I can't guarantee that positive thinking and belief will always yield a great result, but I can guarantee you that negative thinking and self doubt will always cause trouble.
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