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.
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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.
- Smyth, L. (1996). Treating anxiety disorders with a cognitive-behavioral exposure based approach and eye movement technique: The manual. Baltimore, MD: Red Toad Press.
- Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, 34–52.
- Woodman, T., & Davis, P. A. (2008). The role of repression in the incidence of ironic errors. The Sport Psychologist, 22, 183–196.
- 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.