Athletes' beliefs about elite sporting events can trigger negative responses

As athletes prepare physically and technically for the Commonwealth Games, it is important that they also prepare well psychologically as the pressure mounts.

three women weightlifting

The way in which athletes think influences psychological wellbeing. Understanding this can help them not only to experience positive mental health, but to increase the likelihood of performing well at the Commonwealth Games.

Research suggests that the extent to which individuals possess irrational beliefs may influence their views about stress and their psychological wellbeing. Taken together, these beliefs may lead to a deterioration in performance.

Irrational beliefs are fixed, illogical and extreme beliefs that are widely associated with poor mental health. Irrational beliefs may be categorised into primary irrational beliefs of demandingness (e.g., “I want, therefore I must…”), and three secondary irrational beliefs of ‘awfulizing’ (e.g., “it would be absolutely terrible if I did not win), frustration intolerance (e.g., “I can’t stand it if I lose”), and depreciation (e.g., “losing makes me a failure").

In contrast, rational beliefs (e.g., “I want to, but that does not mean I must, be successful”) can support greater psychological wellbeing and performance. Often, demandingness beliefs may be held in conjunction with secondary irrational beliefs, so an athlete may believe that they must be successful in the Commonwealth Games (demandingness), and that if they are not, they would be a failure as a person (depreciation). Indeed, it is depreciation beliefs which are considered particularly damaging to psychological wellbeing. As such, it is possible to see how when an athlete thinks in this way, they may feel additional pressure to perform well, and as a result, this may negatively influence their performance.


Given the importance of psychological wellbeing in influencing performance, controlling the way in which athletes think as they approach the competition is vital.

Paul Mansell, School of Sport Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences

So why does this happen? Research specific to athletes has demonstrated that when they possess irrational beliefs, there may be several reasons why psychological wellbeing and performance may deteriorate. Our research has established that when an athlete possesses irrational beliefs it increases the likelihood of viewing stress as debilitative, seeing a situation as a threat and not as a challenge, and experiencing worse psychological health. This suggests that irrational beliefs may set off a chain reaction of behavioural and emotional responses that are not conducive to the high levels of performance demanded at the Commonwealth Games. Although there is an argument that the short-term effects of irrational beliefs may actually be useful for athletes, research overall suggests that irrational beliefs are related to psychological distress and worse performance. For example, golfers who used irrational self-talk were found to perform worse than those who used rational self-talk.

Given the importance of psychological wellbeing in influencing performance, controlling the way in which athletes think as they approach the competition is vital. As such, the first step that athletes could implement is to recognise that they are able to exert control over their beliefs. Aligned with the framework suggested by Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, athletes should be taught to recognise that an event in itself does not cause negative behavioural and emotional consequences. Instead, it is their beliefs about an event – and in the uncertain domain of elite athletics, the nature of their beliefs is something that they can exert control over. Coaches should endeavour to promote more rational ways of thinking, such as promoting unconditional self-acceptance (e.g., “If do not perform well, it does not make me a complete failure, only that I have failed this time”). Adopting these beliefs does not have to diminish an athlete’s desire to win, but this style of flexible thinking can only serve to facilitate psychological wellbeing and performance compared to irrational beliefs.