10 Common Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions affect us all on an almost daily basis. instead of hiding from them it is better to identify them and then get to work on correcting them.

In this article Jim covers the top 10 common distorted ways of thinking seen in athletes and people alike. He then gives some insight on how to go about getting in a champions mindset in order to overcome these mental obstacles.

Jim Afremow

Dr. Jim Afremow is a much sought-after mental skills coach, licensed professional counselor, co-founder of the Champion’s Mind App, and the author of The Champion’s Mind, The Champion’s Comeback, and The Young Champion’s Mind. For over 20 years, Dr. Afremow has assisted numerous high school, collegiate, recreational, and  professional athletes. Major sports represented include MLB, NBA, WNBA, PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, NHL, NFL, and the UFC.

// Cognitive Distortions Affect Us All

Psycho-social factors, such as depression and anxiety have been on a rise in the last decade. While this is having a very real impact in our communities it has also impacted the world of athletics. Cognitive distortions can lead to sub-optimal performance and can take a serious toll on you.

In sports and life, we must face two different opponents in our quest to become champions. 

The first is the outer opponent. This can include our fellow competitors, playing surface, weather, crowd, clock, and other external factors. 

The other is the limitations and frailties of our own bodies and minds. Like when injury strikes or you doubt your abilities.

These can be tricky to navigate, but often our toughest opponent is the inner one that resides between our ears. No matter how well we train the body, it is the mind that ultimately makes the difference. 

We need to accurately evaluate what is happening in our heads. Put it into proper context. Then take the necessary steps to improve our mental game for next time. 

Unfortunately, due to our inherent negativity bias and tendency to be over critical of ourselves. This often leads to over emotionalizing situations and viewing the world in unrealistic ways. 

Think about one of those fairground mirrors that makes your body look big, small, or twisted out of proportion. That’s a good illustration for what we allow our minds to do when we let cognitive distortions take hold.

What are Cognitive Distortions?

Wait a second, cognitive what? 

OK, forgive me for putting on my sports psychologist/counselor hat for a moment. 

What I mean by cognitive distortions, is patterns of thinking that impact our perception of reality. 

Often in a negative or self-destructive way. 

The term was first introduced by Aaron Beck in 1976, and expanded upon by David Burns in the 1980s. 

When we give into such distortions, we’re allowing our inner opponent to become Serena Williams or Michael Phelps. An unbeatable task. 

In doing so, we’re giving ourselves little chance of accurately interpreting what actually happened. This sets ourselves up for sub-optimal performance in whatever situation comes next. Let this pattern continue for long enough and suddenly it becomes your default to distort.

The tendency to take yourself out of the right mindset will persist and self-defeat will endure.

In this article, we will walk through the 10 distorted ways of thinking that commonly affect us. At the end of this article you’ll be better able to identify when you’re allowing any or all of these to take hold. 

You can then make corrections to get you back to pairing your champion’s body with a champion’s mind. You’ll have defeated the inner opponent and have greater capacity to perform at your peak against the outer one.

10 Most Common Cognitive Distortions

Here is the list of the most common cognitive distortions I see affecting people. They may go by different terms, but you will get the understanding of each one. Hopefully identify these will help you correct them.

Distortion 1: All or Nothing Thinking

One of the most common traps that ensnares high performers is talking – to yourself and others – in absolutes. 

You’re either a complete success or a total failure. You set a PR or you stink. You’re a winner or a loser. 

In this way of thinking you have an all-or-nothing self-image. An image that doesn’t allow for mistakes, even when you win. 

The basketball player who scores 28 points in a victory, but thinks he’s a bad shooter for missing three shots. Or the softball player whose final run helps win the game, but fixates on a minor error she made. 

Outside of sports, all-or-nothing thinking could afflict the straight A student whose world falls apart when she gets a B. Or perhaps the prolific writer who loses confidence in his ability when a magazine editor rejects one of his pitches.

Your Title Goes Here

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

Course Correction –

Instead of seeing things in terms of black and white, zeroes and ones, and successes and failures, try to acknowledge nuance and ambiguity. 

By beginning to think in shades of gray, you’ll add more color to your inner and outer world and begin to have a brighter outlook. 

When you have a sub-par performance, you’ll expect an above average one to be just around the corner. 

And even when you don’t measure up to your high standards – which there’s nothing wrong with unless they become impossible to meet – you’ll still enjoy the game.

Distortion 2: Over Generalizing

This error occurs when you take the result of a specific event and extrapolate it to your entire game, personality, and/or life. 

You lost the game, so you must be a terrible football player and a worthless human being. 

You played a bad round and missed the cut. You’ll never make it as a pro golfer and are more likely to end up on the streets than on the PGA Tour. 

What’s the point anymore? You should probably just quit, right? 

Wrong! The mistake here is selecting something local and making it global. You take one negative event and see it as irrefutable proof that you’re stuck in a never-ending pattern of defeat and failure. 

If you let such thoughts percolate, it’s all too easy to feel like events and other people are conspiring against you. When you over generalize you’re blowing things out of all proportion – the classic making a mountain out of a molehill.

Your Title Goes Here

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

Course Correction –

Get specific. 

If it’s a single loss or below-average performance that triggered you, concentrate on and accurately assess what went right, rather than just zooming in on what went wrong. 

Check the details of your performance and find a few things to be proud of. Of course you have room for improvement – we all do, even an all-time great like Roger Federer or Simone Biles. 

In the grand scheme of things, everyone has off days, and this says nothing about you as an athlete or a person. Simply assess yourself objectively, focus on the positives, and resolve to do better next time.

Distortion 3: Mental Filtering

Filters can be very useful – for things like sorting email, improving your water quality, and my personal favorite, making coffee! 

But when it comes to your mindset, filtering can be self-destructive if you start relentlessly cataloging all the perceived negatives while throwing the positives in your trash can. 

Once you start down this road, you’ll soon be naming, dating, alphabetizing, and color-coding your shortcomings. 

If you start to compile a mental filing cabinet that houses all of your flaws and regularly pull out the folders to pore over every mistake you’ve ever made, you start to lose your regard for the good things in your performances and your life. 

It’d be like watching the morning and evening news and only ever paying attention to the bad stories – soon you’ll become what you behold and will be miserable. This is no way to live, and it’s certainly not going to make you a better athlete.

Your Title Goes Here

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

Course Correction –

You can keep that mental cabinet, but instead of organizing all your supposed failures and pulling them out to read on a rainy day, begin deliberately misfiling them. 

Meanwhile, take care to catalog all the successes, and return to them anytime you need a little encouragement and motivation.

No matter what life hackers might tell you, this is an even better way to organize things than #zeroinbox!

Distortion 4: Yes, But

This way of thinking involves an inability to accept compliments. 

Or without thinking, “They’re only saying that to be nice,” or “They just feel sorry for me because I suck.” 

Of course, you don’t want to let praise puff you up to the point that you become arrogant and narcissistic. Neither should you completely dismiss it. Or think that people have an ulterior motive for saying something nice to or about you. 

Another tendency when receiving a compliment is telling yourself something like, “Yes, but I missed that penalty in the first half.” 

In the relationship with your significant other, an apology that follows this “Yes, but…” model is half-hearted at best. And could even escalate the argument, depending on what follows the “but.” 

Diminishing or dismissing positive affirmation and appreciation from others can be just as destructive.

Your Title Goes Here

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

Course Correction –

Accept praise at face value and believe the person or people offering it are genuine in what they’re saying. 

Believe that their statements are true and valid, and feel good about yourself and your performance. You can even reinforce this through positive self-talk by saying, “They’re right, I was clutch in overtime. I come through for my team when the game’s on the line.” 

Then get back to working hard so that you deliver again in the upcoming game.

Distortion 5: Jumping To Conclusions

This subhead makes me think of the idea for a new board game that crops up at a barbecue in the movie Office Space. But unlike that film, there’s nothing funny about this particular cognitive distortion. 

It occurs when we look at what’s happening and use it as a weapon against ourselves. 

So if you’re a tennis player who’s lost your past four matches, you think your slump will go on forever. Or if you’re out of commission with an injury, you assume you’ll never get healthy. 

Even Superman or Wonder Woman would struggle to put their costume on and go out to fight the bad guys if they saw themselves like this. 

Another part of this distortion involves believing that we know what others are thinking, and assuming that their intentions toward us are negative.

So if you get moved down the batting order, you jump to the conclusion that your coach has lost faith in you, when really she’s just trying to give a rookie more playing time to boost her confidence.

Your Title Goes Here

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

Course Correction –

Stop getting ahead of yourself. 

Make an effort to stay in the present and let the future unfold in its own time. 

Examine the evidence and you’ll likely find some flowers among the weeds. Your present situation does not dictate what happens next. 

So control the controllable, improve where you can, and let the uncontrollable unfold, confident in the knowledge that you can handle whatever comes your way.

Distortion 6: Magnification / Minimization

This distortion doesn’t just apply to athletes, but to anyone who tends to procrastinate because they consider the full scope of the task list in front of them. 

For example, I recently read a tweet from a published author who wrote, “I have a mountain of writing to do tonight.” Maybe this was her way of psyching herself up for a monster word count, but more likely she was making things harder than they needed to be. It sure seemed like an example of magnification. 

For a sportsperson, the equivalent would be looking at an entire year-long training plan and becoming overwhelmed by the size of it. When you make a creek seem as big as the Grand Canyon, it can easily become paralyzing. 

The other side of the coin is minimization. This is where you dismiss everything you’ve accomplished as insignificant or meaningless. 

Rather than seeing how you contributed positively to your team’s success or finding the good in your individual performance, you look at what’s happened in a self-defeating way.

Your Title Goes Here

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

Course Correction –

Learn to think about things in proper proportion. 

When you’re considering a big goal, this means breaking it down into smaller milestones. If you’re racing in a marathon, it could be taking it a mile at a time mentally, or breaking the 26 miles into even littler chunks.

To overcome minimization, recognize and celebrate the good in each performance. Even if the scoreboard shows that you lost, you can still choose to think like a winner.

Distortion 7: Overly Emotional Reasoning

It’s so easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment, isn’t it? 

Think about a toddler who reaches their hand into a snack bag expecting there to be another handful. When she comes up empty, it seems like the end of the world and an ear-punishing tantrum ensues. 

While you’ve matured beyond that point, you can probably recall a race where you finished just outside the medals or a game where you missed a free throw in the final minute. I bet it felt like the roof had fallen on you. 

That’s perfectly natural. 

Give yourself permission to feel what you need to feel. Just don’t let negative emotions pitch a tent in your mind. 

Sure, you might feel angry, upset, disappointed, and dejected for a few minutes after a setback, or maybe even a few hours. But after this point, you need to transition from being overly emotional back to a more rational mindset that will help you assess things more objectively and fairly.

Your Title Goes Here

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

Course Correction –

Acknowledge negative emotions and allow them to manifest themselves for a little while. 

Then flip the switch back to positivity by recognizing that you feel this way because you’re a determined competitor who wants to win and play as well as you can. 

This is a good thing. 

Now opt to put emotion aside and examine what went wrong and what went well with a calm, neutral perspective.

Distortion 8: Should / Must Statements

We use this way of thinking to scold ourselves and/or other people. 

Perhaps you fixate on the perceived error of a teammate: “She should’ve passed me the ball and I would’ve scored to win us the game.” 

Or maybe you take aim at the person in the mirror, and heap undue pressure on yourself that ties a millstone around the neck of your performance potential by thinking something like, “I must win the tournament this weekend or I’m finished.” 

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with aiming high and motivating yourself to exceed past high points. 

For example, if you know you slacked off on a few possessions, it’s perfectly natural to think, “I’ve got to play harder defense!” But when should/must statements become confining absolutes that try to conform you, the people around you, and the world to rigid, rules-based expectations, we’re only creating bigger problems.

Your Title Goes Here

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

Course Correction –

Next time you catch yourself making a should/must statement – either spoken aloud or verbalized internally – check this chain of thought by thinking, “Really? Where’s that written?” or “Says who?” 

Then realize that most of the time, should/must thinking is merely the result of your personal preference. So maybe you re-frame your coach calling you out during practice as, “I would’ve preferred if the coach hadn’t done that, but I can handle it.”

Distortion 9: Labeling

This is where you over-generalize how you see yourself or others. 

At its worst, labeling results in racism, xenophobia, discrimination, and hate speech. But even when it doesn’t go that far, labeling is still an example of lazy thinking that is rarely helpful. 

If you respond to your coach’s constructive criticism by labeling them as an idiot who’s out to get you, you’ll never hear his or her positive advice that’s going to lift your game or help you fix a technique error. 

It’s OK to call out someone’s behavior as unacceptable or displeasing without dismissing them as a person who’s just as much of a work in progress as you are. 

Same goes for yourself. Just because you fell short of your pre-game expectations doesn’t mean you’re a loser or that you suck. Rather, you have room for improvement.

Your Title Goes Here

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

Course Correction –

Remember that you can’t measure the labels that you put on yourself or other people, but you can evaluate a specific action. 

When reflecting on a situation that upset you, think about how you would describe someone’s words or actions, rather than using these as the catalyst to label them as stupid or mean. 

Similarly, when reflecting on your own performance or a conversation you had, don’t dismiss yourself, but rather consider how you might play better or choose your words more carefully in the future.

Distortion 10: Blaming

When things don’t go your way, it’s really easy to start blaming, isn’t it? Who do we tend to blame? 

Other people, ourselves, the weather, the refs, the world. You name it, we blame it! But while blaming is easy, it’s not helpful in any way. 

When we blame others, it can start to trigger other cognitive distortions like magnification/minimization, over-generalization, and jumping to conclusions. And when we self-blame, we’re our own prosecutor, judge, and jury all in one, ready to condemn ourselves to a life sentence as we engage in two more self-destructive distortions: all-or-nothing thinking and mental filtering. 

I’m all for taking responsibility for your actions, being accountable, and having high standards.

But when you try to pin all of your team’s shortcomings on yourself or blow a single error out of all proportion, then you’re playing a self-blame game that you cannot win. 

Similarly, when you take aim at others, you not only abdicate your accountability, but can jeopardize your relationships with teammates and coaches with unfair attributions.

Your Title Goes Here

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

Course Correction –

Look at the situation as a whole. 

Did the ref really screw you with that red card, or did that lunging, two-footed tackle warrant you getting sent off? 

Is it truly on you that your team lost the game because you fluffed that shot, or was your great play earlier in the game the only reason you were still in contention?

// Overcoming Distorted Thinking

While I was writing this article, I caught my mind wandering as I jotted down my notes and recognized a couple of the cognitive distortions that I’m particularly susceptible to. 

How about you?

Try going back through the list and pick the two or three that you struggle with most (even if you didn’t realize it before I brought them to your attention). 

Now that you know what these are, how they wrap your thinking, and why they prevent you from reaching your potential as a person and athlete, it’s time to keep tabs on these 10 internal opponents, so they don’t sneak up and take you out of the game before you even reach the court. 

The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to sit down for a few minutes at the end of each week and run through a checklist of all 10. 

Put a mark next to any that you’ve fallen foul of, and then re-read the course correction for each. 

You can do the same any time you feel emotionally stuck. 

Just write down what you’re thinking and then see if you can assign it to one or more of the cognitive distortions. Then apply the change of direction recommended in this series, and write a positive thought to counter each negative one. 

Looking ahead, consider how you can improve your thinking next week, particularly in response to what happens at practice and during competition. 

If you can keep how you think in check, then you’ll be able to consider events as they really are (or were). Such objectivity will allow you to avoid being held hostage by ill-proportioned thoughts that conjure negative feelings and, in turn, self-limiting behaviors. 

As development coach Wayne Dyer once said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” 

If you can keep cognitive distortions at bay, you’ll not only start seeing the world as it really is, but also be free to celebrate what you did well and identify ways to do even better next time.

This is what champions do, and you’re a champion.

TAKE YOUR TRAINING

TO THE NEXT LEVEL

The TrainHeroic Marketplace

TrainHeroic brings online training and strength programs to life with an unmatched imersive training experience delivered directly to your phone. Browse our Marketplace for thousands of programs or take your training up a notch by joining an online community with fresh programming and coaching by some of the biggest names in the strength game starting at $15 / month. 

READY TO TRY  TRAINHEROIC?

Our powerful platform connects coaches and athletes from across the world. Whether you are a coach or trainer looking to provide a better experience for your clients, or you're an athlete looking for expert programming, click below to get started. 

Want more training  content?

More coaches and athletes than ever are reading the TrainHeroic blog, and it's our mission to support them with the best training & coaching content. If you found this article useful, please take a moment to share it on social media, engage with the author, and link to this article on your own blog or any forums you post on.

Be Your Best,

TrainHeroic Content Team

HEROIC SOCIAL

TRAINING LAB

Access the latest articles, reviews, and case studies from the top strength and conditioning minds in the TH Training Lab

Share This