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Training & Nutrition

The Sports Psychology of: Reframing Negative Thoughts

Can writing down all the nasty things you say to yourself make you think more positively?

Negative thinking is an epidemic in women’s cycling. We’ve got evidence: British Cycling tell us their independent research shows fear of not fitting in and lack of confidence are the greatest factors putting women off challenge rides. Sport England tell us fear of looking bad puts women off exercise. And at Total Women’s Cycling, our article on reversing negative thoughts was our second most read piece of editorial in 2016 (number one was about saddles).

Being able to say we have a problem is one thing – but how to address it? We’ve been having weekly Sports Psychology sessions with consultant at Performance in Mind, Dr Josie Perry – to bring you simple and practical advice on using the cognitive techniques of the discipline to improve your riding, and enjoyment of two wheels.

This week, Dr Perry put a specific focus on one technique that is particularly useful in this case: reframing.

Elsewhere in the series:

The Sports Psychology of: Setting Goals and Achieving Them

The Sports Psychology of: Beating ‘What If’ Worries

She explains: “We’re doing this exercise specifically because we talked about anxiety and lack of self-confidence initially. Reframing is a type of self-talk. It is picking out the negative thoughts you have, and asking how you can change that into something much more positive. It feels quite awkward to start with, because it’s so deliberate. It doesn’t just happen naturally, you have to consciously force yourself.”

“If you heard someone say these things to somebody else you’d be furious, but we do it to ourselves.”

Dr Perry explains that negative thinking is generally more common in women, so we can usually benefit more from reframing – she says: “I find particularly for women, we often have a lot of things going around in our heads that we tell ourselves all the time – that we’d never even dream of saying to anyone else. It can be quite destructive and quite negative. If you heard someone say these things to somebody else you’d be furious, but we do it to ourselves.”

Sound familiar? Then it’s time to force those thoughts to flip 180 degrees. Dr Perry explains that the best way to address these issues is to keep a record of negative thoughts, and then attack them in one go initially. With regard to cycling and training, she says: “The best way to do this is, usually over a couple of weeks, every time you’ve ridden with a group, trained or raced, write down any negative thoughts you found yourself having. That can be beforehand, such as ‘I’m too slow to be here’ or ‘I don’t fit in’, ‘I’m useless and have been overtaken again’. Then, collate them all and force yourself to look through them in one go.”

Starting with a long list of negative thoughts from a week of training will help to highlight common patterns – Dr Perry says: “One thing this does is show you where there are themes that are clearly bothering you – such as comparing yourself to other people, or what other people might be thinking of you. Sometimes it might be that someone doesn’t feel they deserve to ride with the people they’re riding with – you can spot a wider issue to work on. You can also very consciously force yourself to start thinking much more positively.”

Want a smile this big? Then kill off the negative thoughts!

So, what does reframing look like? Dr Perry and I work through a few examples to give you an idea how to tackle your own negative thoughts.

Starting with a common issue runners face, she explains: “One that often comes up with runners is ‘they’re all laughing at me, because I’m not a real runner’. You would reframe that as ‘I’m going to be a real runner, I need to do the training first. The training is making me a real runner.’”

More lists for my 2017 diary!

I come up with four of my own, which we work through – and Dr Perry tells me that most athletes will start with a list of fifteen, which makes me wonder if I’m perhaps not as lacking in confidence as I first thought…

Negative thought: I’m not fast enough. Reframed: I might not feel fast enough when riding in this group, but everything is relative. For everyone who feels slow, there’s someone else looking up to them and thinking they are fast. Even if I’m being dropped, I’m doing more than someone sitting on the sofa.

Negative thought: People think I’m a risk in the group. Reframed: I’m new and I’m learning. I’ve never actually caused a crash, so why would anyone doubt me? And I’ve been told I’m a safe wheel to sit on. Josie adds: “The strongest way of getting your self confidence is evidence. You’ve got evidence that you’ve never caused a crash, and you’ve been told people choose your wheel on purpose because you’re safe and position yourself well – so write those comments down.”

Negative thought: I don’t look like a cyclist. Reframed: Pro cyclists are all shapes and sizes, and even the best cyclists in the world look relatively normal out of lycra. Speed isn’t just down to how you look, it’s genetics and training. We have a tendency to believe a fast cyclist looks a certain way but its not always the case.

Negative thought: I’m getting dropped on the hills. Reframed: On a club ride: Even if I last for 20 minutes, the nature of being dropped means I’ve pushed myself as hard as I can, and that’s going to maker me stronger. In a race: Whenever you are dropping off the back there is probably someone else already dropped and trying to chase to form a group.

Feeling confident! Over to you…

The initial act of picking out negative thoughts, and finding a positive angle, is helpful in itself, but it takes time to alter a cognitive process.

“It’s hard to find a positive when your sugars are down and you’re tired. Like any mental skill, it just takes practice.”

Regularly reframing will help you to apply the process during training – and eventually even when the going is really tough. Dr Perry says: “Like any mental skill, it just takes practice. The more you do it, the more it will come naturally. It’s hard to find a positive when your sugars are down and you’re tired. But when you get much more conscious of those negative thoughts, and how to reframe them, you can start doing it in training – and then eventually it will become natural even in a race, or on a tough ride, when you need to be able to feel confident.”

That’s everything you need to know about reframing. Ready to give it a go? Read more in our sports psychology series: 

The Sports Psychology of: Setting Goals and Achieving Them

The Sports Psychology of: Beating ‘What If’ Worries

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