Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a technique that is commonly taught to athletes by sport psychologists in which  self-defeating  thoughts  and  negative  self-statements are identified and substituted with positive, adaptive self-statements, and coping thoughts. Cognitive  restructuring  was  originally  developed in clinical settings and has since been used by practitioners  in  various  contexts  (including  sport)  to address  a  range  of  issues  related  to  performance, social  anxiety,  maladaptive  perfectionism,  aggressive behavior, depression, and low self-esteem.

Generally speaking, cognitive restructuring has been  examined  as  part  of  a  package  of  mental interventions. These typically include the setting of effective goals, visualization, relaxation strategies, and self-talk. Invariably, psychological skills packages  are  associated  with  improved  athletic  and sporting  performance.  For  instance,  the  positive effects  associated  with  psychological  skills  packages  have  been  reported  in  sports  as  diverse  as baseball,  basketball,  boxing,  figure  skating,  golf, gymnastics,  karate,  skiing,  tennis,  and  volleyball. Pertinently,  systematic  reviews  of  the  effects  of psychological  skills  on  performance  indicate  that cognitive  restructuring  interventions  often  have large  positive  effects  on  performance,  suggesting  these  interventions  are  particularly  effective. As  yet,  few  studies  have  involved  direct  tests  of the  mechanisms  that  might  account  for  the  positive performance effects associated with cognitive restructuring.  However,  there  is  a  large  body  of evidence  indicating  that  cognitive  restructuring is  associated  with  improvements  in  a  variety  of psychological  variables  such  as  increased  self efficacy, reduced cognitive and somatic anxiety, an increased ability to cope, as well as increased effort and motivation to succeed. As a word of caution, research suggests that the skills required to deliver cognitive restructuring interventions require many hours of training to master. Practitioners considering  using  cognitive  restructuring  should  bear  this in mind prior to delivering such interventions.

Cognitive  restructuring  is  often  described  as a  technique  in  its  own  right.  In  this  way,  cognitive  restructuring  involves  four  sequential  steps: (1)  identifying  the  individual’s  negative  thoughts or  self-statements  during  problematic  situations, (2) identifying coping self-statements and rehearsing  them,  (3)  replacing  negative  self-defeating statements   with   coping   self-statements,   and (4) identifying and rehearsing positively reinforcing self-statements.  However,  it  is  worth  noting  that cognitive  restructuring  is  more  commonly  used within a rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) or a cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) framework.

Albert  Ellis  developed  REBT  in  the  1950s.  At its  core,  REBT  attempts  to  apply  rationality  and logic to a person’s beliefs. Rational beliefs, which are  thought  to  be  at  the  core  of  psychological health,  are  flexible,  consistent  with  reality,  logical,  and  self-enhancing.  Irrational  beliefs,  which are  thought  to  be  at  the  core  of  psychological disturbance,  are  rigid,  inconsistent  with  reality,  illogical,  and  self-defeating.  In  the  context  of sport, irrational beliefs often underlie much of the stress  and  resulting  self-defeating  thoughts  and feelings experienced by athletes prior to or during athletic  performance.  REBT  teaches  that  it  is  the irrational  beliefs  and  thinking,  and  not  the  event or circumstance that contributed to the irrational beliefs, that lead to negative emotions. Sport psychology practitioners can help athletes reduce their self-caused negative emotions by enabling them to identify  and  dispute  their  irrational  beliefs  via  a process known as ABCD cognitive restructuring:

A:  Athletes are asked to keep a diary of daily events that generate negative emotions. The athlete is asked to describe the facts of the events as they occurred.

B:  The athlete is to record in the diary the exact content of the dysfunctional self-talk (said out loud or silently in private) that followed the activating events.

C:  The athlete then records the resulting emotional or behavioral responses.

D:  After completing the ABC steps across a designated number of days, the final step requires the athlete to identify which aspects of the self-talk are irrational or distorted and substitute more rational and productive thoughts in their place.

This process is practiced repeatedly until the substituted rational statement is internalized.

Cognitive-behavioral  therapies  are  often  an amalgamation  of  cognitive  and  behavioral  procedures.  While  some  treatments  may  emphasize cognitive  more  than  behavioral  techniques,  and vice  versa,  these  interventions  typically  share  an appreciation  for  basic  learning  principles  and  the role  that  cognitions  play  in  human  behavior  and affective  experience.  When  cognitive  restructuring is used within a CBT framework it is often considered  a  discrete  part  of  a  wider  intervention.  This is because cognitive-behavioral therapies are more directive, educational, and future focused than traditional psychotherapies. Cognitive restructuring is one of the skills taught to the client as part of the therapy but it is often accompanied by other cognitive-behavioral techniques like relaxation training.


  1. Blagys, M. D., & Hilsenroth, M. J. (2002). Distinctive activities of cognitive-behavioral therapy: A review of the comparative psychotherapy process literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 22, 671–706.
  2. Greenspan, M. J., & Feltz, D. L. (1989). Psychological interventions with athletes in competitive situations: A review. The Sport Psychologist, 3, 219–236.
  3. Haney, C. J. (2004). Stress-management interventions for female athletes: Relaxation and cognitive restructuring. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 35, 109–118.
  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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