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The Secret to Negative Thinking

Negative thinking

If I were to say to you; “thinking or visualising negatively about whats coming up could benefit your performance”, you’d most likely think I was mad. You may say; “wait, we’re constantly told to think positively about our performances”.


Whilst it’s important to think positively to improve levels of motivation and deal with setbacks more effectively. It’s just as important to express that within sport that athletes can’t control every single aspect and here’s where negative thinking can help.


Let me tell you about an Olympian, many people say he’s the greatest Olympian ever. Also known as the ‘Baltimore Bullet’; Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time with a staggering 28 medals. Though, according to his coach Bob Bowman, what set Phelps apart from everyone else was his Mindset.


Phelps would engage in the use of positive imagery throughout his training camps and the night before races whereby he’d imagine the perfect races.

     “He will see it like he’s sitting in the stands and he will see it like he’s in the water”

But it wasn’t just success that Phelps pictured…

     “He also spent time picturing things going wrong. The worst-case scenarios.”

     “He would then have this picture in his database. He would have a set of solutions just in case the problem would arise during a swim meet. His nervous system would know what to do- it would be ready and prepared.”

Therefore, you may ask: “has he benefited from using this technique in real life“?


A Story From Beijing

This approach helped him win one of his many Gold medals in Beijing 2008.


Knowing there was a problem as soon as he hit the water, after a few metres the exact problem became apparent that he had water leaking into his goggles. As the metres passed increasingly more water flushed into his goggles therefore meaning he couldn’t see. He couldn’t see in front or below him more importantly he didn’t know where he was in the race.


He didn’t panic! This is because he’d been in this position before, not physically though mentally. He’d visualised this situation occurring therefore as he turned for the final length he calculated how many strokes his arms had to pump. It was 20, 21 at a push and he started to count. He remained calm and efficient in his technique whilst his body was still performing at a high level. He couldn’t see but he could hear, the roar from the crowd but he still had no§ idea whether it was for him or another competitor. As he got close to the finish line he stretched out his arm for one final push. He touched the line before his rivals. He’d won the gold medal, not only that but he’d achieved a new world record time.



Michael Phelps attributed his success down to the way he thought about his performances. Demonstrating positive thinking and body language; played an important part in his psychological make up and ensuring he was fully prepared. However, an integral part to Phelps Mindset was his use of negative thinking! He understood that in sport ‘stuff’ happens and not all of that ‘stuff’ will be good. He understood that there were lots of things that were outside of his control as the story above demonstrates.


How does imagery work?

Imagery is an experience that mimics real experience’s. It involves using a combination of different sensory modalities in the absence of actual perception. The reason imagery can initiate such a sensory response is because the body can’t recognise the difference. Imagery activates the same neuromuscular systems pathways as a regular movement would; which allows the performer to mentally refine and develop their skills without experiencing the movement. Also, imagery allows the performer to develop coping strategies as with the case of Michael Phelps, he didn’t panic when his goggles started to leak because in his head he’d already encountered this problem and developed solutions therefore all he had to do was select the most appropriate one.


Key points to an effective imagery script

Like the SMART target setting technique, there is an acronym to remember when using imagery to make it more beneficial to performance PETTLEP!

  • Physical You need to make the experience as physical as possible, visualise yourself experiencing the skill or movement.
  • Environment Consider your environment. Perform the imagery in an eviorvment like the performance environment. However, this is open for discussion as Michael Phelps can initiate his imagery from his room.
  • Task This relates to the content of the imagery and should be related to the athlete’s skill level and personal preferences.
  • Timing The athlete should perform the imagery in real time (for example in cricket, ball by ball)
  • Learning – This is something to consider over time of using imagery. Ensuring the imagery script includes changes and improvements to the athlete’s performance.
  • Emotion – Sport performance is very emotion therefore to reflect real life so does the imagery in order to be realistic.
  • Perspective – Visualise performances from different viewpoints, as mentioned Michael Phelps would visualise himself not just in the water but in the stands or from a competitor’s perspective.


Hopefully, this post has given you a little insight into the mindset of a champion. Someone who has been at the top of their game for the last decade and how both positive and negative thinking has increased his performance.


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Other Blogs by Lyle Kirkham:



20th January 2018

4 responses on "The Secret to Negative Thinking"

  1. Like it!

    I read something recently about linking in hypnosis with this. Be interesting to hear your thoughts on linking imagery with a hypnosis session.

    • Thank you for your reply Steven,
      Imagery is a very prevalent stage in many hypnosis sessions, especially during the suggestion stage whereby the practitioner attempts to change or provide alternatives to the clients beliefs. Furthermore, as you mentioned there is a lot of research around the effectiveness of imagery within hypnosis.
      If you are interested in this area check out the research coming from Staffordshire University Sport Psychology department, a lot of applied research with sports teams.

  2. Quality blog. It’s good insight to recognize that it’s not oversimplified positive thinking that helps an elite athlete. I am sure I will find this example useful in the future.

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