What negative thoughts and swimming pigs have in common

written by Erica Quam


You're trying to rally your team.

They're tired, broken down, and on the brink of a meltdown. This is the time of the season where trust is critical...and difficult. The hard work will pay off - it's just hard for your athletes to believe when they're in the midst of struggle. 

Brains are like velcro. Negative thoughts stick. Judgements, and criticisms burrow their way in. When the mind gets cluttered - with dark traffic - things can take a downward spiral. 

Your role as a coach is to help your athletes recognize the patterns of negative thoughts. This becomes especially important when they're tired and working hard. They may not even be aware of how much destruction goes on inside their heads.

It's not about staying positive. That's not always helpful or realistic. Trying NOT to think negative thoughts can sometimes make things worse. If you tell your athletes not to think about a swimming pig, the only thing they'll be able to think about...is a swimming pig. That's the nature of the mind.

Instead, teach your athletes: a) everyone has negative thoughts (aka...it's normal and okay) b) they don't have to believe their thoughts and c) the real power lies in the awareness of the thoughts they're having. 

Here are three ways to help your athletes develop this awareness:


One of the best things you can do to help your athletes build awareness is give them time to sit quietly and do nothing except breathe and observe their thoughts. It may be the most simple and most challenging thing they'll ever do...especially at first. 

Why it’s hard...

It's hard to sit. Period. It's hard to stop DOING and just sit - without texting, looking at Facebook, or checking email. 

What to try...

Have everyone sit so they’re comfortable. If they sit on the floor, fold up a towel or two so their hips can be more relaxed. If they slouch (like most tired athletes do) have them sit in front of a wall for a little more support. Or, have them sit in a chair, feet hip width apart, and hands rested on their thighs. If that’s still uncomfortable, just have them lie down flat.

Set a timer for five minutes. Have them close their eyes, breathe comfortably, and observe. Remind them to watch their thoughts. Let go of any judgements or criticism for whatever thoughts come up. You can have them label each thought or just say, “thinking” and bring the focus back to the breath.

After the first five minute session, ask them what was good about it? What did they notice? If your team is a little larger, have them partner up and take turns. Have one person share while the other person listens. Then switch roles. 

Try this with your team everyday for a week. Find out if it gets any easier. See if anything changes for them. 


Another powerful way to deal with negative thought patterns is to write. No one needs to read what your athletes are writing. Not even them.

What to try...

Hand out a couple of pieces of blank paper. Set a timer for ten minutes. Have your athletes write down whatever comes into their heads. Don't worry about grammer or punctuation. No need to edit anything. Just write.

When the timer goes off, stop writing and move on.

How it helps...

This a brain 'dump'. Our brains are always working. Sometimes our brains go on overdrive just trying to remember everything. 

Our brains are not storage devices. Brains are solution devices - solving problems, having ideas, and making decisions is what they're wired to do. 

The practice of writing helps transfer thoughts from the brain onto paper. Some of your athletes may find a lot of freedom in the practice of simply offloading their thoughts.


If they want to read what they wrote, they can go back and A) cross off stuff that doesn't make sense B) cross out things they can't control and C) circle things that are repeated. This can help them see trends and patterns and become better at recognizing it when it happens in real time.


Thoughts think themselves. There’s no one behind the curtain pulling the strings, thinking the thoughts. The thoughts are happening by themselves, based on causes and conditions that bring them into existence.
— Mark Epstein

Teach your athletes that "thoughts are just thoughts". Thoughts aren't true or real. Once they understand that, they may be able to let thoughts drift away - instead of getting even more worked up, worried, or anxious.

What to try...

Have your athletes close their eyes and visualize. Have them look at their thoughts like they're watching a movie. Instead of being an actor in the movie, they're sitting out in the audience. Or they could visualize their thoughts floating away like leaves being carried down a stream. 

How it helps...

Your athletes are not their thoughts. When they're able to detach the thoughts begin to lose their power, the mind gets more quiet, and there's more room to focus on taking positive steps towards their goals.

The more your athletes can observe, write, and detach from their thoughts the more awareness they'll develop and the less power the negative thoughts will have - in the game and more importantly in their lives.

Are there other things you’ve done to help your athletes develop better awareness of their thoughts? I’d love to hear what you've done. Share one thing in the comments below!