How to Turn Negative Thoughts into Positive Actions
In part one of this series on Get Your Mind Right on Game Day, we looked at the methodology behind creating and using motivational themes. In part two, we are going to talk about something everyone struggles with - negative thoughts.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about motivation that went something like this: “It must be easy for you to overcome adventure challenges and adversity because you have such a positive mindset all the time. I could never push myself like that because I have too many negative thoughts.”
This comment inspired me to write this piece because it highlights an important motivational lesson. No one is 100% positive all the time. The key to success lies not in avoiding negative thoughts, but in what action you take in those negative moments.
Everyone Experiences Negative Thoughts
No matter who you are, whether you’re an elite-level athlete or a weekend warrior, everyone experiences negative thoughts. Watch someone in the heat of competition and while his or her external appearance may give the impression that everything is under control, more often than not the internal reality is far different.
In 1995, one of the greatest-ever triathletes, Mark Allen (pictured below), produced a remarkable performance to win a record-equaling sixth Hawaii Ironman at age 37 after overcoming a thirteen-minute deficit on the marathon leg.
Despite his epic victory, Allen described his race as one fraught with “a thousand moments” of negativity and mentally the worst of his life.1 If you watch the video of that race, I guarantee you there is little in Allen’s external disposition during the marathon that reveals the depths of the negative mind battle he was fighting. And somehow, he found a way through those negative moments to win the race.
Allen’s revelations about his battle with negativity are quite astonishing when you consider he was known as The Zen Master for most of his Kona career, due to his seemingly impregnable mental mindset. What this clearly illustrates is that everyone experiences negative thoughts.
My Personal Struggle
My insights about the realities of positive and negative mindset were borne out of my own battles. In 2013, I undertook an epic hiking challenge called the A2K - hiking 130 kilometers nonstop through Australian Alps while climbing the 26 mountain peaks over 2,000 meters (6,561 feet).
It took me three attempts to succeed at this challenge and throughout the journey, I had an ongoing struggle with sustaining a positive mindset. I’m a pretty positive person by nature, but during my first two attempts when things got difficult, I had frequent barrages of negative thoughts e.g. “This is too hard,” “The conditions are too tough,” “You can’t finish this because you’ve never hiked this far before.”
When I had these negative thoughts, I really didn't know how to deal with them. I thought the only way I could succeed was by having a positive mindset 100% of the time and avoiding any negative thoughts. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, I thought if I started having negative thoughts, then it was going to set me up to fail. And thus in my mind, my failures on my first two attempts became testament to this.
Me, pausing for a moment of reflection during the A2K.
My Epiphany: Negativity Is Part Of The Experience
Then, one day while in training for my third attempt, something finally clicked. At the time, I was caught hiking in the middle of a snap snowstorm with gale force winds, getting blown off the side of a remote mountain deep in the Australian Alps. I was being blinded by snow while suffering the effects of frostbite and hypothermia.
Mentally, I felt beaten. My brain was a flood of negative thoughts - “It's too dangerous to continue” and “You don't need to do this to yourself” - and I was close to quitting on this challenge right there and then. Somehow though, I found a way to keep moving forward and I made it through that internal battle, safely finishing that hike and eventually the full challenge. It was during that relentless internal battle that I had my real epiphany.
No one is 100% positive all the time and the key to success lies not in avoiding negative thoughts, but in what action you take in those negative moments.
Reflecting on that experience, I realized that positive and negative thoughts are like yin and yang. Each side exists by virtue of the other. In other words, you can’t have the ups without having the downs. Having negative thoughts when you’re under stress or in the midst of a challenge is part of the experience. It’s part of being human. Negative moments should not be feared because they are the moments that have to occur for you to be truly tested. It’s these down moments that provide you with the opportunity to take action to reach a new high. As Mark Allen noted, “The best experiences in life are rarely easy.”2
The First Action: Do Your ABCs
When you experience negative moments in your chosen competition or adventure, I recommend you take two actions. The first action to follow is what I call the ABCs: accept, breathe, concentrate.
Accept: Simply acknowledge the negative thoughts you’re having. The more you fear them, fight them, or try to avoid them, the stronger their voices will become. There's an old adage that you can't effectively deal with a problem until you accept you have one. It rings very true in this context. Remember, accept the negative moments because in doing so they provide you with the opportunity to take action to reach a new high.
Breathe: If you’ve ever seen the classic 1980s underdog karate movie The Karate Kid 2, you may recall a quotation from the omniscient Mr. Miyagi about breathing: “When you feel life out of focus, always return to basic of life. Breathing. No breath, no life.”
As corny as it sounds, it works. This is actually a crucial step in stress and fear management. Breathing is the core practice of things like yoga and meditation for a reason: It calms the nervous system, which in turn calms the physiological response to stress.
Concentrate: Now is the time to concentrate strongly on the why that is driving you to complete your particular challenge, competition, or adventure. The best method to define the why is to use motivational themes, as I outlined previously. (You can learn even more about the mechanics behind motivational themes here.)
The Second Action: Keep Moving Forward
The second action to take, and I what I believe is the most powerful action of all, is to just keep moving forward - always. Forward momentum is an incredibly powerful thing. While the forward steps you take may be small, they steadily add up to a sum much greater than their parts.
Me, getting beat down by a snow blizzard.
Whether you're caught in an epic snow blizzard or being pushed to your limits in a CrossFit qualifier, sometimes all you can do is just keep putting one foot in front of the other. While it might not seem like much, continuing to move forward, no matter how fast or slow, can make all the difference in your life. Remember, the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.
The Take-Home Lessons
- Don’t fear the negative moments.
- When the negative moments do occur, follow the ABCs: accept, breathe, concentrate.
- No matter how negative the moment, just keep moving forward - always.
1. Munting, N. “Mark Allen: A Grip Like No Other.” Ironman.com. Last accessed 8 September 2014.
2. Buckley, A. “Mark Allen vs Kona – Lessons Learned Part 2.” Lava Magazine. Last accessed 8 September 2014.