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Thinking Errors

Mental Toughness and positive psychology come from correct thinking.
By: Roberto Forzoni

Thinking Errors

Imagine the scene…Tom, a gifted and talented player reaches the final of a recent tournament and is expected to win. His opponent, Dave is not as strong, and has lost the two previous encounters when they each played. Everything is going well for Tom until he hits two double faults…and then his game appears to leave him; the game plan has disappeared, his tennis is deteriorating. Tom loses the match. “What happened, what was thinking?”, you may well ask afterward…Tom’s response is “I don’t know – I couldn’t think straight”. There are many matches I’ve watched where a player’s brain appears to disengage from their body and their whole game seems to drift away, slowly and agonisingly. The ability to think clearly, calmly and correctly under adverse conditions is definitely a skill, and one that any elite player should attempt to master.

Mental Toughness and positive psychology come from correct thinking. Sir Clive Woodward developed a mantra with the England Rugby Squad on their successful World Cup campaign: “T-CUP thinking” or “Thinking Correctly Under Pressure”. This is the essence of optimal performance for elite athletes; the ability to stay calm, even when nervous, and think correctly, when under pressure -  sticking to their game plan and trusting their ability to come through.

When athletes speak about wanting to be confident on court, or having a positive mental attitude, I will often ask them what they focus on when they play. What are they thinking? What is their game plan and strategy? I will then simply observe if the player is actually thinking about their strategy during a tough match, or a tough period in a match.  The ability to think correctly under pressure will be the defining factor when two players of similar ability compete – at any level.  If that’s the case, you really need to be able to develop your ability to think correctly and consistently, particularly when the going gets tough.

Sounds easy. So what goes wrong in practice? Players suffer from all sorts of insecurities about their game. It’s important to realise that these insecurities do not come from what actually happens (e.g., a poor shot), the situation you find yourself in (e.g., losing a lead), or the errors you make, they come from the way you think about these things and what you perceive the meaning to be. It is here that you can become quite critical of yourself, and start to think in totally irrational ways. You succumb to these thinking errors and, as a consequence, your performance can deteriorate.

Thinking errors are irrational patterns of thinking that cause you to feel bad, and sometimes to act in self-defeating ways. Whenever you find yourself feeling upset (e.g. anxious, angry, depressed, resentful, guilty, ashamed, etc) look for any of the following thinking errors that might be contributing to the way you feel and challenge yourself by using some of the suggested self-questioning techniques. Many of the thinking errors described will overlap and certain errors may come under more than one heading.

The consequence of this type of error thinking may be that you not only lose focus from your game plan and the match, but you also feel worse about yourself – a double wammy!

Thinking Errors & ways to minimise them.

Here are 10 common thinking errors and ways to challenge them.

1. All or Nothing (Black-and-White) Thinking
When you're thinking in black-and-white, you see everything in terms of extremes. If a situation falls short of perfect you see it as a total failure; things are either good or bad; either you're great, or you're a loser; if you don't play perfect tennis you must be useless; if you do something wrong, like double fault, then you are a completely bad player. You see everything as either good or bad, with no in-betweens. Unfortunately, this type of thinking is very common and usually focuses on the negative side. This can be recognised when you use words like "It was awful when ......", "The worst thing was .....", "It was really terrible when ....."

Challenge yourself: Look for Shades of Grey
It is important to avoid thinking about things in terms of extremes. Most things aren't black-and-white - usually they are somewhere in-between. Just because something isn't completely perfect doesn't mean that it's a complete write-off.

Ask yourself:
· Is it really so bad, or am I seeing things in black-and-white?
· How else can I think about the situation?
· Am I taking an extreme view?
· What good/neutral things that have happened?

When taking a more realistic and rational view of any (potential distressing) situation, ensure that you take into consideration small success, e.g,, did you stick to the game plan even though your opponent was strong? ; did you continue to use that technique you have been working on in training, even though it was an easy match for you? etc.

It can prove really useful to write down all the positive things in a personal journal or log book. Another useful strategy here is to record in the journal a list of major achievements e.g., tournaments you’ve won or where you achieved a certain round. Include everything and then read it every night for a month.
Review these positives and add to them day by day. In this way you will gradually change the focus of your thoughts to a more optimistic viewpoint as well as acknowledging the things you want to improve.

Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?  Winnie the Pooh

2. Unreal Ideal / Unfair to Compare
Another common thinking error is making unfair comparisons between yourself and someone else. When you do this, you might compare yourself with people who may have a specific advantage in some area whilst neglecting areas where you might be stronger. Making unfair comparisons can leave you feeling inadequate and even depressed.  How often have you made yourself feel inferior by comparing yourself to another tennis player who may be in a completely different situation to yourself?

Even after a success, comparison can make you feel poor; “It was a nothing win, anyone could have beaten them today”

Challenge yourself: Stop Making Unfair Comparisons

Ask yourself:
· Am I comparing myself with people who have a particular advantage in general?
· Am I comparing just one aspect of their game or everything equally?
· Am I making fair comparisons?
· Why am I comparing myself at all?
· Can I compare myself to how I was some time ago (self-referencing)?

By making self-comparisons, you will enhance your own confidence and self-esteem by seeing how much you have (and are) improving over time.

3. Mental Filtering
When you mentally filter you do two things: First you pick out a single negative detail of your situation (or performance) and dwell on it exclusively, secondly, you ignore, forget or dismiss anything that was good or positive, “that performance was terrible..I can’t do anything right”. Another example would be reaching a final in a particular event (say a 75k) for the first time, playing a long, hard fought match against a strong opponent, going five sets, losing the last set 4-6 and focusing on a return that you deemed to have played poorly. Your whole focus might go to that poor return (isolated incident) and you gain no confidence or enjoyment out of having achieved a personal high, and possibly an all best career achievement (which in turn would help you progress even further). This type of thinking error may not be as extreme as black-and-white thinking (above), but it still focuses disproportionately on the negative factors of your performance and as a consequence may reduce your level of confidence. 

Challenge yourself: Consider the whole picture

Ask yourself:
· Am I looking at the negatives, while ignoring the positives?
· Is there a more balanced way to look at this?
· What did I actually do well in the match?
· Where do I need to improve?

By focusing in this way, you again will increase your levels of self-confidence (general), self-efficacy (specific confidence on a task) and self-esteem.

4. Personalising and Blame
When you personalise, you feel responsible for anything that goes wrong, even when it's not your fault or responsibility, and something that may not even be under your control, e.g., you may blame yourself for not performing well in a particular tournament when your coach may have asked you to play when you were not ready, or on you might have played three back-to-back tournaments and be not 100% physically. You might blame yourself for the fact your coach shouts at you or gets upset, “If I won more matches he’d be more pleased with me”. Another ‘personalising’ thinking error that is easy to make, particularly when you’re feeling low, is the assumption that you are the centre of everyone’s attention and everybody sees you when you mess up. The reality is of course that most people are as self-preoccupied as you and so are caught up with their own concerns rather than bothering thinking critically about you. Even if people do notice your mistakes you are often much harsher critics than they are! Personalisation leads to guilt, shame and feelings of inadequacy.

Some people do the opposite. They blame other people or circumstances for their problems, and they overlook ways that they might be contributing to the problem’ “The reason I lost is because you [coach] told me to return to their forehand’. Blame usually doesn’t work very well for a number of reasons. Apart from the fact the person you blame will feel resentful, when blaming you do not take personal responsibility and thus you give yourself less opportunity to improve.

Challenge yourself: Don't personalise
It's important to consider that not everything is your fault or your responsibility. Most things have more than one cause.

Ask yourself:
· Am I really to blame? Is this all about me?
· What other explanations might there be for this situation?
· Am I’m to blame (as a person) or is there one aspect of my game I need to focus on to improve?
· Am I taking responsibility for something which is not my fault?
· Am I taking something personally which may have little or nothing to do with me?
· Am I expecting myself to be perfect?
· Am I blaming someone else for not taking responsibility myself?

5. Jumping to Conclusions, Mind-Reading & Fortune Telling
In this type of thinking you interpret things negatively when there are no facts to support your conclusion; for example, because your coach says something in one way, you feel he’s upset with you, when the fact is he may have had a disagreement with someone else before your session.

In ‘mind reading’ you often think you know what other people are thinking, especially when things appear to be going wrong for you on court! You assume that others are focused on your faults and weaknesses - but this is often wrong. Seeing spectators watching your match and chatting could lead you to think “I know what you are thinking..I know that you are talking about me…How bad I am” etc.

In ‘fortune telling’ you start to predict things will turn out badly. Before the match you may tell yourself “I’m going to blow it today” or when the match starts going against you, you tell yourself “Now I’ve blown it, I’m going to lose”. Similarly a couple of double faults becomes “My serve will let me down for the rest of the match”

Challenge yourself: Don't assume that you know what others are thinking

Ask Yourself:
· What is the evidence? How do I know what other people are thinking?
· Just because I assume something, does that mean I'm right?
· Does it matter what they are saying? Who cares anyway?
· What should I be focussing on that will help my game now?

6. Catastrophising and Magnification
When you catastrophise, you exaggerate the consequences when things go wrong, and you imagine that things are or will be disastrous or you minimise the importance of your good qualities. After losing a tight first set and the first two games in the second, you might tell yourself “this is a disaster, I’m never going to win now”; even worse, after making one mistake (e.g., a double fault) you might say to yourself “here we go again, this is disastrous, I’m going to lose again.”

Challenge yourself: Decatastrophise

Ask Yourself:
· What's the worst thing that can happen?
· What's the best thing that can happen?
· What's the most likely thing to happen?
· Will this matter in five years time? Next week?
· Is there anything good about the situation?
· Is there any way to fix the situation?

By putting the situation in perspective, you will do yourself a really good service. By understanding, for example, that in your previous 3 matches you lost on average 70 points per match and still won, one or two errors early in a match might prove insignificant to you, in as far as you know you do not need to panic.

You and I are not what we eat; we are what we think
Walter Anderson

7. Over-generalising – magnification and minimisation
Similar to catastrophising, which may exaggerate one thing, when you over-generalise you exaggerate the frequency of negative things in your life, like mistakes, disapproval and failures. When thinking in this way, you see a single negative event (or even 2 or 3 events out of 10) as a never ending pattern. When you are feeling low (and this could be following one poor shot in a match), it's easy to see a single incident as a sign that a great deal more is wrong. One thing happening becomes “this always happens”. Over-generalisation can often be detected in the use of words such as 'never', 'always', 'everyone', 'no-one', 'the universe', 'all', 'nobody' etc. e.g., 'all the other players are much better than me.' Typically you might think to yourself: 'I always make mistakes', ‘I never win at that venue’, or 'Everyone thinks I'm stupid' or “this happens every time”.  Another thing you might say is ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ statement; e.g., “I should win this match” . This is not confident thinking (especially when playing in a tough competition), it is irrational thinking. Better would be “I could win this match if I stick to game plan and stay mentally tough” for example or “I have the ability and skill to be able to win this match if I work really hard and stay calm”. Your “if’s” can be personal to what you do well.

If you find ourselves thinking these things then you are assuming that you are the centre of the universe and everyone is focused on you. You might think this way despite no real evidence to substantiate it. Conclusions are drawn from one unpleasant situation and applied to all similar situations and people. Over-generalising can help you to feel depressed because it makes everything seem so dreadful.

Challenge yourself: Be specific - don't over-generalise

Ask yourself:
· Am I over-generalising?
· What are the facts, and what are my interpretations?
· What has actually happened and how can I improve things from now on?
· What are the exceptions to the generalisation? (e.g. "I might have lost a lead but this has happened before and I’ve still won the match”)
· Why should I win this match

8. Fact versus Feeling/Thinking or Emotional Reasoning
Sometimes you might confuse your thought or feelings with reality. You might assume, 'If I think or feel this way then my thoughts/feelings must be correct', for example “I’m feeling poorly so I will lose today” or “I’m felling guilty so I must be a bad person”

Challenge yourself: Stick to the Facts

Ask yourself:
· Am I confusing my feelings with the facts?
· Just because I am feeling this way, does that mean my perceptions are correct?
· Am I thinking this way just because I am feeling bad right now?

Your attitude may be along the lines of: “Even though I am feeling tired, I can still perform well today”

“People are disturbed not by things, but by their views of things”
Epictetus (Roman Philospher)

9. Labelling
Labelling is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. Instead of saying “I made a mistake” you attach a negative label to yourself like “I’m a loser”. So when you use labelling you might call yourself, or other people, names. Instead of being specific (e.g. 'I did not put enough top spin on that shot’) you make negative generalisations about yourself or other people (e.g., 'I am rubbish', I'm a loser'; she’s an idiot'; 'He's a creep' etc.). Labelling is quite irrational because you are not the same as what you do. Like the self-fulfilling prophecy, labelling yourself is more likely to turn you into that label when the going gets tough – so choose your label carefully!

Challenge yourself: Stick to the Facts

Ask yourself:
· What are the facts and what are my interpretations?
· Just because there is something that I'm not happy with, does that mean that I'm totally no good?

If you’re going to use a label for yourself, make it a positive one such as ‘I’m a tough player’ or ‘I always deal with tie breaks well’ etc. and better still, add a proviso so “I always deal with tie breaks well” becomes “I always deal with tie breaks well when I relax, breathe deeply and focus on the process”

10. 'Can't Standitis'
Some people get very intolerant when they have to do things they don't enjoy. They tell themselves that they can't stand certain things instead of just acknowledging that whilst they don't enjoy them, they do them for a reason – to achieve their ultimate goal. Thinking that you can’t stand something you need to do can easily result in you becoming frustrated and angry.

Challenge yourself: Accept that frustration is a normal part of life, and that you can't always get what you want, and do the things you really like!

Remind yourself:
· I don't enjoy it, but I can stand it.
· This is a hassle, and that's OK! Life is full of hassles.
· This is why I am progressing in my tennis
· This is why I am going to achieve my ultimate goal

How to challenge thinking errors and negative thoughts
So, one way to challenge your thinking errors is to ask yourself the questions associated with each error (above).

Remember to ask yourself what evidence do you have to support any negative thoughts? And then what evidence do you have against them?  e.g., If you feel sure that you will lose a match that goes to five sets then ask yourself how many matches you have won when going to five sets.

Ask yourself these additional questions:

· What would I say to a friend who was thinking in such a way?
· What alternative views are there?
· How might someone else view my situation?
· What thinking error am I making?
· Am I thinking in all-or-nothing terms?
· Am I condemning myself as a total person on the basis of a single event?
· Am I concentrating on my weaknesses and forgetting my strengths?
· Am I overestimating the chances of disaster?
· Am I more critical of myself than I am of others?
· Am I putting myself down?
· Am I assuming that everyone else can cope, when I don’t know how others are thinking and feeling?
· Am I exaggerating the importance of events?
· Am I worrying about the way things ought to be instead of accepting and dealing with them as they come?
· Am I assuming I can do nothing to change my situation?
· Am I predicting the future with certainty when I can only guess about what may happen?
· Am I overlooking solutions to problems on the assumption they don’t work?

My thoughts before a big race are usually pretty simple. I tell myself: Get out of the blocks, run your race, stay relaxed. If you run your race, you'll win... Channel your energy. Focus.
Carl Lewis

Generating Positive Thoughts
For any given situation, write down your negative thoughts; then generate some alternative positive thoughts about the same situation. Now move onto another situation and repeat the process.

The Effect of Challenging Thinking Errors
What is the effect of challenging your thinking errors? Does it make you feel better? Does it encourage you to change some of your behaviour?  Certainly if actions follow thoughts, then by changing the way you think to a more optimistic, realistic viewpoint, your feelings will tend to follow and you will feel better. Feeling better helps you play better tennis, which in turn makes you feel even better. And so the cycle continues.  Also, the self-fulfilling prophecy is a powerful thing – if you think you can or you think you can’t, then you’re normally right!

While you are learning to identify and challenge your negative self-talk it's a good idea to write it all down. Recording negative and positive thoughts can be a helpful way of becoming more aware of our thought and writing down your thoughts and disputing statements in a diary or notebook helps you to develop your skills.  You might also write down the changes that occur after you have challenged your thinking, as this helps you to see the advantages of working on your thoughts, and motivates you to keep doing so. In a similar way, learn to develop a plan for your match, consider different scenarios that might happen (good and not so good) and consider how you might handle these situations; what and how will you think in different situations. Plan your thinking beforehand!

REMEMBER!! Whenever you are feeling bad, try to become aware of your thoughts. If they are negative or critical, have a go at challenging them. Once you get into the habit of disputing your negative self-talk you'll find it easier to handle difficult situations, and as a result, you'll feel less stressed and more confident and in control. This will encourage even more challenging of any future thinking errors.

It will take time to change negative thinking habits, but with practice you will be able to challenge your negative thoughts effectively. As you begin to think less negatively you will begin to notice the good things in your tennis and in your life in general, and you will begin to feel better.

Try it Out
An American Football coach once used the phrase, W.I.N. standing for “What’s Important Now” That’s where your thinking needs to be..everytime. So if it’s not important, why would you waste time to think about it? The top players such as Federer and Nadal, Sharapova and the Williams sisters, who choose the way they think about things, can use all their energy on court to think about their game plan and to really focus on the things that are important in order to achieve their objectives. No thinking time is wasted on thinking errors!

Now that you know a few common thinking errors and how to challenge them, why don't you try it out? It might not be easy at first, and it may take some time. However, the rewards could be huge!

The Ten Common Thinking Errors are derived from the work of David D. Burns MD, author of Feeling Good Hanbook; Plume Publishers.

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