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The Effects of Cogntive Distortions on a Championship Run!

Mindset Made Simple Tip #199 –  Watch or listen HERE.

Before we start this week, do you have athletes who could use a mental game tune-up this summer? Please share this 4-week program with them. I am certain it will help them improve their performance and be ready to face the season with new tools to help them be their best when you need them the most!

What an exciting weekend! I had the pleasure of watching many of my teams compete for a chance to move on to the NCAA tournament and I felt like I was back on the field. What a flurry of emotion - excitement, stress, joy, disappointment and above all, PRIDE! I am so proud of the coaches and athletes I get to work with each week. They all do it right and it is so fun to watch!

Between all the excitement on the field, I got to sneak in a few card games with my son. He was grounded from electronics this week, so every toy in the house found new life…including the good old deck of cards!

We played "war"! It’s a simple game. But even in this game that seems to be ruled by chance, there were lessons to learn connected to situations I have seen in performance situations.

In the first round of “war”, I kicked my son’s butt. He was ready to throw in the towel when I told him we would keep going until there were no more battles to win.

We moved on to round two. Our hands began to even out. He was sneaking in.

Granted, the game has no strategy other than throw down the next card, but that’s not the point…you’ll see where I am going!

We went to round three. We had a few double battles and he won more of those than I did.

Again, by chance. It was still anyone’s game. He said I had more. I wasn’t so sure. We played on.

All of a sudden I had a hand full of cards with no faces. The outlook was grim. We played on.

Eventually, I lost my last face card in a double battle, and I was as good as toast.

We went one more round. He had a big stack. I had a few battles in me. And then it was over!

He lost the first-round game. This happened to a lot of teams this week. But for most, it was not the end of the road. What happened next depended a lot on how they responded to the setback.

Was it a setback or the start of a comeback?

The “war” game got me thinking. Just because we are down, doesn’t mean we are out. This is best explained in this tale of two teams.

Team 1 loses game one of a double-elimination tournament. They are picked to win, but it doesn’t work out that way. During the game, they get testy. They feel pressure. They aren’t the group that got them to this point. They start to talk about the impending weather and that “It’s over.”

“We are going to get washed and the top seed without a loss will go.” Let the storytelling begin!

Team 2 loses game one. They, too, are disappointed, knowing the road ahead just got harder. They stick to their guns and use their strengths saying, “We live in the fire. We are built for this.”

More, but different story-telling!

Team 1’s stories fall into the cognitive distortion trap – that we call “messed up thinking” to make the term less technical.

What are cognitive distortions or “messed up thinking” and how do they hurt us? We, you…me…and the guy next door all distort our experiences, and usually not in helpful ways.

According to author and psychiatrist Dr. David Burns, cognitive distortions are like "mind traps" that can hijack our thinking and sabotage our performance. From catastrophizing every setback to jumping to conclusions without evidence, these distortions can wreak havoc on our confidence and decision-making abilities.

Dr. Burns mentions two of the most common distortions we allow in, usually at inopportune times. We like to minimize – usually our options or opportunities and maximize – usually our obstacles or what look like opportunities for others – and above all, we catastrophize…like “It’s going to rain and no matter what we do, we won’t get the bid!” We see things as dramatically more or less important than they are and when we are in this mindset, we are not evaluating. We are judging and allowing the emotions of the moment to cloud our thinking!

We are jumping to conclusions each time we mind-read or fortune tell by making up results short of facts! “Coach is so disappointed in me because we didn’t win” is a common mind-reading incident that builds tension and can impede performance as is “I didn’t get a hit off of her in the regular season, so getting one today is a long shot.”

Other cognitive distortions include “all or nothing” thinking or seeing things as black or white with nothing in between. In this mode, we are essentially thinking, “If I’m not perfect, then I’m a failure.” Or, like Team 1 may have thought, “We lost one, so we will lose out.”

Ever say something like, “We always…”? That’s messed up thinking! Overgeneralizations can negatively affect our performance, too. “I always…” and “I never…” thoughts constrict us by taking a singular past event or experience and deciding before the next that the result will be the same.

Very little in life is “always” the same and saying “never” is an opportunity killer…because if we don’t think there are options, we aren’t looking for them!

Dr. Carlin Anderson, director of Sports Psychology at the University of Minnesota, highlights the impact of cognitive distortions on athlete performance. "When athletes fall into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking or overgeneralization, it can impair their ability to stay focused and resilient under pressure," Dr. Anderson explains. "It's like wearing invisible blinders that narrow their field of vision and limit their options on the field or court."

These distortions are like looking through a vintage stained-glass window. You know there is something on the other side, but you can’t make out the details. It’s messed up!

I am certain Team 2 had doubts slip in. We all do. But avoiding the trap of messed up thinking set them up to take advantage of opportunities and allowed for more energy and hope!

Dr. Burns aptly puts it, "It's not about eradicating negative thoughts altogether—it's about learning to dance with them and not letting them call the shots."

Had my son fallen into the “I lost the first round, so it’s over” mindset, he would have walked away a loser. Instead, he laid down the next card. Then the next one. And the next one. He played the game as it came to him. Just like Team 2. They lost. They regrouped. They played the next pitch which led to FIVE MORE games instead of one!

We are cognitive distortion specialists. Since we are so good at them, we need to understand what they are so that when they show up, we learn to manage them and get back to playing the cards we are dealt. We don’t control the cards, but we do control how we play them. Are we going to short-sight ourselves or keep our eyes open and move forward one hand at a time?

We get to choose. Do we fall prey to "messed up thinking" and believe the forecast or the emotions we feel when the unexpected happens or do we play it out just in case they are both wrong – and they are wrong a lot 😊!

Managing moments gives us a fighting chance!


P.S. I'd love to follow your team to the championship, too! Reach out and get your team the tools they need to make a run in 2024-25! Shoot me a text at 234-206-0946 or an email at and get scheduled today!

Julie Jones

Mental Performance Coach

SSB Performance • 234-206-0946 

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