Stop "Shoulding" All Over Yourself

Imagine this scenario (if you really want to get into this exercise, close your eyes and REALLY see it): It's the most important game or race of the year. It's close....and you make a mistake a crucial point just before the end of competition, resulting in a loss. Stop and notice what goes through your head after it's finished?

If you're like a lot of athletes, what's running through is what you "should" have done.

"I should have played better defense."

"I should have passed the ball (or puck)."

"I should have made that shot." 

"I should have pushed harder at the end."

"I should have sprinted sooner."

The list goes on and on. I'm sure you can come up with many more examples. Losing is generally crappy and is never fun. But the competition is over. Done. Finished. So what do you do? Keep replaying it over in your mind? Criticize yourself for what you did?  No, you need to stop "shoulding" all over yourself.

"Should" statements are one of several thinking errors that get in the way of effective performance. Essentially, according to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), by managing these thinking errors (or faulty perceptions) more effectively, we can influence our behaviors and emotions positively. The model in its most basic form is this:

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How we interpret (beliefs) our experience (adversity) influences what we feel and do (consequences). 

In this example, you define each like this:

Adversity = the mistake you made (or any other "activating" event)

Belief = "I should have [insert statement here]." (or any other thinking error)

Consequence = low mood, self-doubt, withdrawing from teammates, etc.

You have many thoughts run through your head throughout the day, whether you realize it or not. It's very possible you don't realize your thoughts but notice the consequence. You don't think this happens to you? How many times have you noticed getting really upset but weren't sure why? That's a sure sign an emotional response was triggered by a belief. It's not just a strong emotional reaction out of nowhere.

A large component of cognitive-behavioral work is slowing down this process and learning to modify the beliefs, which will lead to better consequences (or outcomes). Think about it this way. If you're telling yourself you suck or that you "should" be doing things differently without learning from it, you're probably going to feel crappy about yourself.

There are also times we need to move on and give minimal weight to our self-talk. Don't believe everything that you think. Just because you think it, doesn't mean it's true. In fact, emotional reasoning (another thinking error) means you FEEL something so strongly that you BELIEVE it's true. But it's not. 

You can't learn from things if you are being judgmental of what you did (and thinking errors are FULL of judgment). Cut yourself some slack; you weren't TRYING to make the mistake. Be curious about it and learn from it. Granted, it won't fix the mistake (because you can't change the past), but it will certainly help you be in a more calm, rational space to learn from it. And you have control over that!

If you learn to think about things from a more balanced and productive perspective, you're going to feel more balanced. Telling yourself something more productive, such as, "I took that shot because [insert reason]. I didn't try to make the mistake, and I will learn from it by doing [insert behavior]." will certainly result in better outcomes for you.

Keep in mind, I'm not telling you to only think positively. That's equally as distorted as only thinking negatively. Neither extreme perspective is going to be helpful. It's about thinking more realistically or in a manner that is more HELPFUL for us.

Finding this balance can be hard for some athletes, so I recommend working with a professional who is trained in CBT who can help you master this technique if this really speaks to you. It's also helpful to have a trained professional available to help you navigate any road bumps you encounter along the way. Because, trust me, we all encounter bumps when working with our mindset! 

There are numerous other types of thinking errors in sports. I'm sending out email tips next Wednesday that address these additional thinking errors as well as some bonus self-talk material. Until then, be awesome!

Dr. Erin Haugen is a licensed clinical psychologist and sport/performance psychologist located in Grand Forks, ND. She specializes in helping college student-athletes excel in sports and in life. She is a former basketball player, current triathlete, and LOVES dogs.


Disclaimer: You should consult an appropriate professional for specific advice tailored to your situation. If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, you should call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.