Delete “All or Nothing” Thinking for Athletic Success
Sport psychologists often warn of the dangers of dichotomous thinking (also known as “all or nothing” thinking), as this mindset often crushes mental toughness and prevents athletes from reaching their full potential. Athletes who are self-proclaimed perfectionists often run the greatest risk for dichotomous thinking as anything short of being perfect is looked at as a failure rather than simply coming up short (but still experiencing a degree of success nonetheless).
The danger in all or nothing thinking is that growth and advancement in athletic skill is often overlooked when the athlete fails to achieve success. For example, if a basketball player sets a goal to shoot 80% from the free throw line but only ends up shooting 78%, the all or nothing thinker will view this as a total failure — although the argument could easily be made that shooting 78% is still quite good and above-average. All or nothing thinking prevents the athlete from seeing this level of success, and in fact compounds frustration since shooting below 80% is viewed as a complete waste of a season.
Often we operate in the shades of grey while experiencing life, and this is certainly true for athletes working to improve their athletic skills. Athletic success is achieved by building upon small, daily successes that help build confidence, increase motivation, and refine focus. Unfortunately, all of this is lost when success is only defined in narrow, all or nothing terms.
Below are a few tips to consider when working to eliminate all or nothing thinking:
- Perfectionist thinking is a guaranteed path to frustration, as rarely are we perfect in life. Instead, change your thinking to striving for excellence, not perfection.
- Set long-term goals for the end of the season and monitor your progress along the way. Be sure to also develop a “range of acceptance” that allows for coming up short (yet still accepting the results as a positive experience).
- When competing, try to stay in the moment and focus on using skills like breathing, self-talk, and imagery rather than constantly looking to hit specific targets/numbers. By staying in the moment you will keep your focus on the only thing that is important (the next play), while ignoring bigger targets that you might not be hitting that day.
- Rather than seeing frustration, failure, and adversity as negative things, try to instead learn from those experiences — if you study successful people you will see that this is often one of the secrets to their success.
- If you struggle with dichotomous thinking, consider talking to a professional as it is likely this type of thinking may be limiting your growth in areas beyond athletics.
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