Thought Stopping

Thought stopping has its origins in the late 1950s and is a class of cognitive techniques (involving mental  or  behavioral  aspects)  commonly  employed  by sport  psychologists  to  eliminate  athletes’  recurring negative, self-defeating, or anxiety-related thoughts. Consequently,   an   underpinning   foundation   of thought-stopping  techniques  is  the  assumption that  such  thoughts  are  detrimental  to  task  performance, to well-being, or to both. While there is an abundance  of  evidence  supporting  this  perspective within  the  clinical  psychology  literature,  there  are some emerging and credible alternative viewpoints within the sport psychology literature. For example, although  there  has  been  support  for  the  theorized negative  associations  between  negative  thoughts and  performance  as  well  as  between  negative thinking  and  confidence,  there  is  evidence  within the  sports-oriented  self-talk  research  that  negative thinking might have a beneficial motivating effect. However, caution is required when interpreting the potential  benefit  of  negative  self-statements;  the motivating effects of negative thinking may be realized only by certain athletes under certain circumstances, depending upon their view of the content of the negative thinking. For instance, immediately following a basic mistake within a practice session, a competent athlete might self-scold, which is interpreted as being motivational.

Nevertheless,  few  practitioners  would  proactively encourage the use of negative thinking. On the contrary, negative thinking would be discouraged  and  some  practitioners  would  advocate  the use  of  traditional  thought-stopping  techniques  to achieve this. Thought stopping represents the use of a mental or behavioral cue to prevent the occurrence  of,  or  cease,  recurring  negative  thoughts. Mental cues might involve the use of self-directed verbal  cues  (“Stop!”)  or  the  creation  of  mental images like a stop sign or a red traffic light immediately  upon  recognition  of  a  negative  thought. Alternatively, behavioral cues such as a slapping of one’s thigh or pinching oneself can be utilized, with some  sport  psychologists  reporting  best  results when using mental and physical cues in combination.  Anecdotal  reports  also  suggest  that  thought stopping  is  more  effective  when  the  problematic symptom is largely cognitive in nature rather than accompanied  or  driven  by  unwanted  behaviors, such as an extreme negative thought accompanied by disengagement from the task at hand.

It  is  believed  that  thought-stopping  techniques are effective because the cue is distracting and can represent  a  punishment-oriented  command;  as such,  frequently  exhibited  negative  thoughts  are consistently punished and reduced. An additional view  is  that  thought-stopping  cues  are  assertive responses that can be followed up with the use of additional mental techniques offering reassurance. In  fact,  some  psychologists  report  greatest  effectiveness of thought stopping when it is accompanied by the redirection of the performer’s thoughts to  emphasize  positives  within  a  seemingly  poor situation or to refocus attention back on the task at hand.

Typically,  thought  stopping  is  employed  to tackle a single persistent thought (e.g., “I’ll never get  this  right”).  Deliberately  practicing  thought stopping over a number of days has been suggested to increases its effectiveness. The process of introducing  thought  stopping  can  involve  the  athlete recalling a personal experience of a common situation where the habitual thought appears with the psychologist  shouting  “Stop!”  upon  the  presence of this thought. When this brings about the desired effect  of  disrupting  the  targeted  thought,  the  client shouts “Stop!” when experiencing the negative thought  (instead  of  the  practitioner).  Following successful thought stopping because of the client’s shouted  “Stop!”  the  client  practices  reducing  the cue  from  normal  talking  volume  to  whispering, with the goal that, eventually, the cue can be used covertly.

Despite reports of successful use in the sporting environment,  there  are  various  theoretical  complications  with  the  use  of  thought  stopping.  For example, the theory of ironic effects developed by Daniel Wegner argues that attempting to influence thoughts and mental control involves the balance between  two  opposing  processes;  the  effortful intentional operating process and the unconscious monitoring  process.  Whereas  the  operating  process  tries  to  create  the  desired  state  of  mind,  the monitoring  process  continuously  searches  for inconsistency and failure of mental control. When situational  conditions  reduce  available  mental capacity (as when we are under stress), the monitoring process overwhelms the intentional operating process and ironically produces the unwanted effect.  These  unwanted  effects  have  been  shown in  word  recall  tasks,  those  involving  movement errors,  and,  crucially,  for  thought  suppression. Thus, the very act of an athlete trying to stop or not  to  think  a  certain  thought  may  increase  the likelihood  of  the  thought  occurring.  Of  further concern, this problem is likely to be exacerbated in athletes  who  have  dispositional  issues  with  anxiety. Mental techniques that involve rationalization of intrusive thoughts rather than suppression may be a realistic alternative.

As well as cognitive restructuring, there is a relatively newer and less well known form of thought stopping  termed  the  eye  movement  technique, which is believed to interrupt negative thoughts by sequentially activating the two sides of the brain. This method requires the client to rapidly move the eyes back and forth between two reference points, for  example,  two  corners  of  a  room  or  window or  hands  placed  on  knees  when  seated,  approximately  25  times.  In  doing  so,  it’s  theorized  that clients stop focusing on the stressful event or negative thought. Repeated use of the technique may be needed if the unwanted thought is still experienced after the first application of rapid eye movements. However, the eye movement technique seems to be most effective when the recurring thought is only moderately stress inducing.


  1. Smyth, L. (1996). Treating anxiety disorders with a cognitive-behavioral exposure based approach and eye movement technique: The manual. Baltimore, MD: Red Toad Press.
  2. Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, 34–52.
  3. Woodman, T., & Davis, P. A. (2008). The role of repression in the incidence of ironic errors. The Sport Psychologist, 22, 183–196.
  4. Zinsser, N., Bunker, L., & Williams, J. M. (2010). Cognitive techniques for building confidence and enhancing performance. In J. M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (6th ed., pp. 305–335). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

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