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Coaching Away the Athlete’s Inner Critic

This article originally published on

When it comes to winning, a positive attitude beats a negative attitude almost every time in sports. In team sports, the impacts teammates make on each other are even more important for the way they play together. Naturally, athletes who behave in a collaborative, engaging, and enthusiastic manner attract others toward them, especially if they perform at a high level.

As a coach, one of the greatest skills to master is the ability to observe and inquire for understanding. By observing negative body language before or after a play, you then have an evidence point to ask your athlete about what types of thought processes they engaged in as they responded in the way they performed. It is hard to mask what one is thinking on the inside with how they are behaving on the outside. One of the reasons being that we want to self-actualize by synchronizing our thoughts with our feelings and our behaviors. Often, negative thoughts will show themselves through an athlete’s body language, giving you clues as to when an athlete is disappointed or has a negative attitude.

See if you can connect to some of these observations to your experiences as a coach:

Athlete shows: Head is held down; Hands are covering the face; Shoulders are drooping forward; Walking pace is slow and directed away from the team or their position

Athlete says: “What’s wrong with me?” “I always screw up!” “I can’t do anything right.” “I am such a disappointment to my team.” “I suck!”

Interpretation: In these examples, the athlete presented a very negative and critical self. It can be assumed from their body language alone that they do not believe in their ability to play. Then, when listening to or inquiring about their thought patterns, it is evident that they are turning their situation into a personal catastrophe. In all likelihood, they have just made a mistake or failed on a play, and their negative response will lead to more mistakes unless they find a way to adjust their body language and their internal dialogue.

Coach’s intervention: Whatever happened on the last play needs to stay with that last play. Help the athlete understand that results from individual plays are not permanent marks on their ability to perform. Their skill level and potential has not changed as a result of the last play. Their reaction to the last play will determine the quality of their next play if they are not fully engaged in terms of focus on what is relevant to the task at hand and emotionally controlled with their ideal energy.

Start them with a cleansing breath so that they can gain some emotional control and center their attention on a present moment activity. When they breathe, they should also narrow their attention to their belly so they receive the psychophysiological benefits of a deep diaphragmatic breath. Next comes behavior change. If they can think about presenting themselves with a prideful upper body (chest out and shoulders back) while walking with a gait that has purpose, then their general mood will change over time. As they are thinking about all of this, the room for negative self-defeating thoughts has disappeared and been replaced in consciousness. Once they have reframed the situation with their presence and their focus, they need to reset to the task at hand in their sport or position. Give them “something to chew on” by asking a simple open ended question about what needs to be done now. Wait for their answer and give them the space to process the question and situation.


Athletes need to develop a way to release performance debilitating thoughts that inhibit their ability to perform in the present moment. You may already call this an attitude adjustment or a shift in focus. An athlete playing with the inner self-critic in full power limits their potential to perform at their best. Coaching the mental game during performance helps the athletes overcome themselves as their first opponent so that they can then compete against the other team or athletes.

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