What to Do if You’re a Self-Critical Athlete

Are you a self-critical athlete? Does this lower your confidence and keep you from playing your best? Learn a simple strategy you can use to stop being so critical of yourself in sports.

Imagine you’re playing a game with your best friend, and they make a mistake. Immediately, you rush over to where they’re standing and start screaming at them. You say things like, “You suck,” “How could you make such a stupid mistake,” and “You’re a failure.”

What do you think will happen?

Well, your friend might start crying, they may punch you in the face, and they may realize that they never want to play with you again.

I mean, can you blame them? Would you want to be friends with someone who reacted like that? Well, guess what? If you’re a self-critical athlete, chances are you are friends with someone like that. And that someone is yourself.

Now, this was a very extreme example, but I used it to show just how ridiculous being overly critical appears when it’s directed outward towards someone else.

Yet, when it’s directed inwards, and we’re too self-critical, it often seems okay, natural, and goes overlooked. However, just like your friend would respond negatively to you talking to them in that way, being overly critical of yourself has many negative consequences.

Therefore, you need to learn how to stop being so critical of yourself as an athlete. Something that isn’t easy to do but will be helped by the strategy you will learn in this article.

Getting to The Core of Why You’re Self-Critical

As an athlete, why are you self-critical?

This why is important for us to look at because without understanding why you are self-critical, it’s difficult to stop being so critical of yourself.

The reason is because you are critical for a specific purpose. Under all that nitpicking and negative language is a good intent. It just so happens that being self-critical isn’t the best way to go about achieving what you’re trying to achieve.

So, what do I mean by a good intent? What could be good about you criticizing yourself constantly about the way you are playing? Well, it comes down to your desire to be the best you can be.

I’d say that’s a pretty good goal to have, wouldn’t you?

Of course, but it’s difficult to become the best you can be when you are too critical of yourself. That’s because of the negative consequences being self-critical has on your mindset. We’ll get into that in the next section.

But first, let’s go a little deeper into this idea of being your best and why that leads to self-critical behavior.

When you have this baseline goal that you want to be the best you can be, naturally your aim is to improve each day. Once again, that’s a great goal to have. But what happens when you make a mistake?

Well, that mistake signifies you aren’t as good as you could be. Therefore, you get upset with yourself and the self-critical voice returns.

But more specifically, you don’t want to make that mistake again. So, it can seem like a good option to beat yourself up and be critical because you are wanting to make sure that you don’t mess up again in the future.

That’s really where this self-critical nature comes from within athletes. It stems from a desire to be your best and continues as a way to be sure you don’t keep making the same mistake again.

But sadly, being overly critical tends to increase your chances of making another mistake, not decrease them. As is clear when you realize the negative impact being too critical has on your mind.

Negative Impact of Being a Self-Critical Athlete

Once again, taking this idea of being self-critical and thinking about what would happen if you spoke that way to a friend can help to see just how dangerous this type of thinking is.

Imagine if every day you pointed out to one of your teammates everything they did wrong. You kept on telling them how they are messing up and how stupid they are for doing so. Over time, what do you think will happen to their mindset?

Unless they have a tremendous amount of self-confidence and self-worth, naturally their mindset is going to take a downward turn.

In the same way, as you continue to criticize yourself, your mindset is going to get worse. Specifically, these are the negative consequences you can expect from thinking this way:

  • Low Confidence: the more you criticize yourself, the less confident you will be that you can play well.
  • Increased Anxiety: when you’re self-critical, it doesn’t feel good. As you associate negative emotions with making a mistake, you will grow anxious to perform.
  • Fear of Failure: like anxiety, this is caused by being afraid of how you will feel and what will happen if you make a mistake. So, you play timidly due to fear.
  • Loss of Joy: enjoying your sport is such an overlooked aspect, especially when you get older. But having fun is a key motivating factor to training and increases your level of play. When you’re too critical, you can easily lose this love for your sport.
  • Lack of Improvement: even though you’re being critical to try and improve, the emotional and psychological toll of constantly criticizing yourself will actually keep you from improving as much as you could.
  • Poor Focus: instead of being focused on what you need to be focused on during practices and games, your focus will be centered on whether or not you made a mistake.

Given the negative impact being a self-critical athlete has on your play, it’s important for you to work on not being so critical. That doesn’t mean, however, you must drop the desire to be your best.

In fact, by using the strategy you’re about to learn, that desire will be strengthened, and you will actually get better as a result.

How to Stop Being a Self-Critical Athlete

If your aim is to stop being self-critical because you recognize the negative impact it is having on your game, then you need to come up with an alternate way of examining your game and speaking to yourself.

That is what this strategy will help you do.

This strategy is broken up into two different sections. The first section involves managing your thoughts, while the second section focuses on a better way for you to evaluate your game, rather than criticizing yourself.

Reframing How You Talk to Yourself

One of the most difficult tasks for someone who is wanting to stop being so self-critical is altering the way they speak to themselves.

Our thoughts form natural patterns. Without deliberate interjection, they will continue with the same old pattern day in and day out. Or in the case of an athlete, game in and game out.

When we get down to the very core of being overly critical, we find a set pattern of thinking. That pattern is what you must work on changing.

Now don’t get me wrong, changing thought patterns that have become so natural they feel completely out of your control is not easy. But…it is possible.

The exercise that’s part of this strategy involves coming up with four different statements. The first one is known as a thought-stopping phrase, while the other three are going to be new statements you want to say to yourself.

These new statements should increase confidence and make you feel good.

So first, you want to come up with a thought-stopping phrase. The goal of this phrase is to stop the self-critical thoughts in their tracks. Imagine you’re throwing up a huge red stop sign. Here are a few examples:

  • Stop, stop, stop! Take a breath and refocus.
  • Stop, let it go and be present.
  • Quiet! Stop! These thoughts are not helpful.

You can really use any statement you want, just make sure it is strong and works to stop the self-critical thoughts as they rush into your mind.

Next comes the three positive self-talk statements. The reason you want to have these, is because once you stop the self-critical thoughts, you want to begin thinking something different. That’s where these new statements come into play.

Here are a few examples of what you can make these statements look like:

  • I am a great player, and I am improving each day.
  • I trust in my skills and believe in myself.
  • Each day is an opportunity to learn and grow. I accept challenges and have confidence that I will continue to get better, even in the face of adversity.

Now that you’ve got the phrases created, how do you use this to help stop yourself from being self-critical? By incorporating it into a daily routine. What you want to do with the three positive self-talk statements is repeat them to yourself each day.

Then, whenever you find yourself being critical, whether it’s after a mistake or following a game, say the thought-stopping phrase and then begin repeating your self-talk statements.

Evaluating Yourself Rather Than Being Self-Critical

The second part of the strategy involves changing the way you examine yourself and your game.

When you’re self-critical, what do you normally do after a practice or game? Likely you start in on all the things you did badly. We want to change that.

Now, I want to preface this exercise by saying that we aren’t going to completely overlook the mistakes you made and fluff up your performance. Quite the opposite, actually.

You are still going to look at what you did wrong, except you will do so in a way that helps you improve, rather than getting down on yourself.

This part of the strategy needs to be done after each practice and game. What you’re doing is retraining the way you look at yourself and your performance. Over time, this way of examining yourself will become more and more natural.

To make this exercise more impactful, I recommend getting yourself a journal. In mental performance coaching, I always give my clients a journal for this specific purpose.

What you’re going to do after each practice and game is answer two questions.

First, you want to think about everything you did well. Make a list and aim for about five things.

Next, you want to think about everything you can improve. Once again, make a list of about five things. With this second list, you want to take it a step further and create a practice plan for the areas you need to improve.

This exercise does two things. First, it works to increase your confidence and decrease the need to be self-critical by focusing on what you did well.

Second, it trains a new way of evaluating your play that actually serves as a way of gaining valuable information you can use and apply to improve your game moving forward.

Final Thoughts

When you’re a self-critical athlete, this comes from an honest place. You are critical of yourself because you want to be the best you can be.

That’s great! Except…being critical of yourself isn’t the best way to actually become your best. This is due to the many negative effects being self-critical has on your mindset.

Instead, what you want to do is learn how to be less critical and examine yourself and your play in a way that pushes you to be your best, rather than holds you back.

This is done by first creating a thought-stopping phrase followed by a set of positive self-talk statements you can repeat to yourself. Then, make use of a strong performance evaluation practice on a daily basis.

By putting this strategy to work, you will reduce the tendency to be self-critical as an athlete. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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