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6 tips to reduce overthinking in sport

6 tips to reduce overthinking in sport

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

Sometimes, as an athlete, you can get caught up overthinking your next big competition or what training you need to get through next. It is easy to worry about the future and what you have coming up.

But staying focused on the present moment is a key factor in performance success. Tennis star Emma Raducanu, when asked how she made it to the final of the US Open, surprising everyone including herself, said: “I’ve just been taking care of each day and, before you know it, I’m in the final and I can’t believe it”. This is a great example of why this is important – she wasn’t focusing on the final or what was to come, she was just taking each day as it came. In the end, she won the tournament.

What happens when athletes look too far ahead?

It is common for athletes to overthink, especially in those high-pressure moments where you just want it to go right. Overthinking and thinking too far in advance can affect your performance. It can cloud your judgments and lead your brain to send too many signals to your body at one time.

Some athletes overthink their decisions and become indecisive with their plan, leading to mistakes. Another way athletes overthink is when they focus too much on “how” to do the skill when performing. You may get lost in trying to have perfect form and lose sight of the intended goal, for example, just hitting a good shot. Or, you may overthink in the form of spending too much time focusing on the outcome. For example, have you ever worried so much about losing that you lost focus and performed even worse? This is why it is so important to not get lost thinking too far ahead and to focus on the present moment.

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7 tips to help you take it day-by-day in sport

1. Stay in the now

Athletes can get lost focusing on the past or what’s to come, but the focus should be on being in the moment. This doesn’t mean completely ignoring the past; you should still learn from it and you should be motivated by the future. But during a competition, you need to focus on the now. Remember to “be where your feet are”. 

2. Focus on yourself

It can be easy to look at your competitors and compare yourself to others in competition. When this happens, your confidence can drop and it is no longer within your control, leading to an increase in fear of failure. Stay focused on what you are doing to increase your confidence and ensure you can perform to the best of your ability. To help focus on yourself, you should think about the process; which leads onto the next tip…

3. Focus on process rather than outcome

As an athlete, you should think about the process and what you want to achieve when you are performing. Getting emotional and focusing on the outcome can throw you off and lead to a drop in performance. An easy way to stay focused on the process is to ask yourself:

  • What do I want to achieve today?
  • What three things do I need to do to achieve that?

4. Have fun with it

You have put in the work, now you need to go and have fun. Enjoy the competition and think of it as a good challenge rather than a threat. Having fun will help control your nerves and you will perform better.

5. Focus but don’t overthink

Overthinking well-rehearsed and learned skills under pressure leads to underperforming at the big event. It means you’re using the conscious part of the brain, rather than the stored memories of how to execute the skill, causing an increase in arousal and anxiety, leading to a fear of failure and, ultimately, choking.

One way to help stop overthinking is to talk to yourself. Even simply saying “stop” can be an effective way to counteract negative thoughts. 

6. Minimise the noise around you

When you are competing, there are many distractions and noises. Not just the crowd or the other competitors, but also the press, and expectations of those around you. Try and block this out and immerse yourself in the moment.

7. Build a team around you

Having a team of people that you trust is important. They can help insulate you from distractions, and they can focus on the future and what you need to do next, allowing you to focus on yourself and your performance. This can include coaches, teammates, family, physio and a sport psychologist.

Final thoughts

At the end of the day, the thing that separates the top performers from the rest is that they are able to pull off their best performance when it really matters. One way to help you do this is to take each day as it comes, and not to look too far ahead.

Focusing only on what you have to do that day will help you deal with the pressure and ensure you can perform to the best of your ability. Worrying about the future will only lead you to making mistakes and becoming stressed.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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