What is Cognitive Restructuring?
Cognitive restructuring is a technique used by psychologists to assist in re-framing how a person perceives and thinks about certain situations, so that they can adapt the way in which they approach it. Originally developed in clinical settings, but now used by practitioners in various context (including sport), cognitive restructuring is often used if an athlete is having recurrent negative thoughts. It has also been seen to address issues relating to performance, perfectionism, depression, low self-esteem, social anxiety, and aggressive behaviour. The process of cognitive restructuring involves identifying negative thoughts about oneself during challenging situations and shifting them to positive statements and then rehearsing these.
Cognitive Restructuring as Part of Wider Treatment
Cognitive restructuring is not usually used in isolation. It is often used within a rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) or a cognitive- behaviour therapy (CBT) framework.
The aim of REBT is to apply rationality and logic to a person’s beliefs. The difference between rational and irrational beliefs can be significant in a someone’s psychological health and therefore effecting their sporting performance. Rational beliefs are flexible, consistent with reality, logical and self-enhancing, whereas irrational beliefs create psychological disturbance, are rigid, inconsistent with reality, illogical and self-defeating.
In a similar way, CBT explores the links between thoughts, emotions and behaviours and aims to help manage issues by changing the way you think and behave in certain situations.
More often than not, cognitive restructuring is used as one of many tools in order to modify thought structures and behaviours. Others include mindfulness and self-compassion.
Within mindfulness practices a single focus of attention is chosen (often the focus is on breathing). During this time, any thoughts that enter the mind are gently dismissed and attention is returned to the focus of attention. Mindfulness can assist with increased clarity and ability to dismiss negatives self-statements.
Self-compassion is a tool that can be used in all aspects of life, not just in a sporting environment and it involves addressing yourself with thoughtfulness and kindness when in a state of suffering. For example, when a mistake is made, instead of telling yourself you did something wrong, instead recognise that the mistake occurred and that it is natural for this to happen as part of human experience.
ABCD method of cognitive restructuring
A = Activating event – Athletes are asked to keep a diary of daily events that generate negative emotions. They are asked to describe the facts of the event as they occurred.
B = Belief system – The athlete is to record the exact content of the dysfunctional self-talk (said out load or silently) that followed the activating event.
C = Emotional Consequences of A and B – The athlete then records the resulting emotional or behavioral responses.
D = Disputing irrational thoughts and beliefs – This step requires the athlete to identify which aspects of the self-talk are irrational or distorted and substitute more rational and productive thoughts in their place.
E = Effect of challenging the self- defeating beliefs – Athletes are then asked to look at the effect or consequences of the changing in their beliefs.
Research suggests that the skills required to deliver cognitive restructuring interventions require many hours of training to master and so practitioners should keep this mind prior to delivery.
In recent research by Leeds Beckett and Loughborough University, sport psychology researcher, Dr Faye Didymus, worked with four high-level female hockey players over nine months, using cognitive restructuring to help them identify what put them under pressure, understand how they responded emotionally, and then consider more helpful alternative responses. The results were immediate: things that they had viewed as threats, players began to see instead as challenges, resulting in more positive emotions and higher satisfaction with their performance.
Dr Didymus, from the Carnegie Research Institute at Leeds Beckett University, said: “Cognitive restructuring can help people take control of what they think about stress, which is incredibly empowering. This is particularly true in sport where individuals have to perform under pressure, either alone or as part of a team. CBT has been used in health and business settings to improve individuals’ wellbeing and performance but it’s wider use in sport is long overdue.”
Benefits of cognitive restructuring have been reported across a wide range of sports, including baseball, basketball, golf, boxing, karate, skiing, and tennis. And so, the effectiveness of cognitive restructuring makes it a desirable tool for any athletes, however, it should be remembered that it is likely to be one of many tools used during sport psychology treatment. Having said this, undertaken by sport psychology professionals, treatment which includes cognitive restructuring is an excellent way to increase both an athletes emotional wellbeing and sporting performance.
Faye F. Didymus, David Fletcher. Effects of a cognitive-behavioral intervention on field hockey players’ appraisals of organizational stressors. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 2017; 30: 173 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2017.03.005