The Role of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Student Athletes

I just spent some time with athletic coaches from the Southeastern Conference. These are stellar people, many of whom have coached for decades. And they are coaching at the Division One level, the highest tier for student-athletes. So, I was a bit surprised when three of them spoke to me about how quickly these talented athletes tend to give up in practice.

One baseball coach said he was recently working with a ballplayer on hitting a breaking pitch. The student athlete tried his advice three times, then threw down the bat and said, “It’s not working.”

Another women’s soccer coach told me a few of his players confronted him after practice one day saying they didn’t see any use for the drills he had them doing. The players felt he was “wasting their time.”

What’s Happening Inside of Today’s Athletes?

Some may conclude this is a signal that athletes don’t have the same grit of former generations of athletes. Others may say the problem is the parents; they’ve coddled their kids, making them unready for the rigors of adult life. While both may be true—I believe at least part of the answer is understanding what is going on inside the brain of a student athlete in our day. They can easily embrace an unhealthy narrative about their reality:

  • “School is too much work.”
  • “Coaches are unrealistic.”
  • “Nobody understands me.”
  • “This is not relevant to my life.”
  • “Life is too hard.”
  • “I can’t do this anymore.”

The fact is, athletes today are as talented as they’ve ever been. They experience better training; better nutrition advice; more scientific workouts, you name it. They have every reason to outperform past generations of athletes.

Except for that doggone narrative going on inside of them.

The Narrative Students Carry with Them Today

Aaron Beck is professor emeritus in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He is regarded as the father of cognitive therapy, and his pioneering theories are widely used in the treatment of clinical depression.

He notes there is a close connection between the thoughts a person has and the feelings that come with them. Humans often catch themselves in a “feedback loop” in which irrational negative beliefs cause powerful negative feelings which in turn seems to drive people’s reasoning motivating them to find evidence to support their negative beliefs: I’m no good. My world is bleak. I can’t keep up. My future’s hopeless.”

These are what Dr. Beck referred to as “cognitive distortions.”

Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves. Common distortions are:

  1. Catastrophizing (expecting disaster to strike and magnifying it greatly).
  2. Personalizing (believing everything others say is a personal reaction to them).
  3. Jumping to Conclusions (before the facts are in, assuming how a person feels).
  4. Overgeneralizing (coming to a general conclusion based on a single incident).
  5. Polarized thinking (black and white thinking: you’re either for or against me).
  6. Emotional reasoning (if I feel a certain way, then it must be true).

Helping Athletes Change Their Narrative

What coaches must do is empower their student athletes to change their cognitive distortions. To stop believing the “lies” that defeat them and speak what is potentially feasible. I remember hearing Jon Gordon talk about an athlete who achieved a huge goal. When asked how he did it, his reply was simple:

“I stopped listening to myself and started talking to myself.”

Bingo. At the risk of over-simplifying the solution, too many of us are listening to the loop going on inside our heads that tells us we can’t do it. In simple terms, cognitive behavioral therapy for the common person is affirming what we know is true and speaking that truth to ourselves.

Leveraging Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Healthy Self-Talk

Every morning I begin my day with four affirmations I say to myself. What if you encouraged your student athletes to come up with their own? Let me get the ball rolling with some ideas:

  • This is hard but, it’s worth it.
  • I’ve done this before. I can do it again.
  • I have it in me to go further faster.
  • I got this.

Let’s begin a healthy narrative inside our minds and watch how it affects us.

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The Role of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Student Athletes