Article in “Swimming World Magazine”

With Associate Head Coach Nancy Bigelow and Head Coach Adam Hoyt

On November 12 I had the wonderful opportunity to facilitate workshops on preparing for competition with the Tufts University swimming and diving teams.

A few days later I discovered that I had been quoted extensively in the following article, which will serve as my blog this time. Enjoy.

Neutralizing overgeneralizing

Flying white bird small Photo by Nicole LeBlanc

To refresh your memory, take a look at my most recent post. ( See below to address overgeneralization using the questions we’ve been talking about.

1) What’s the evidence that your thought is accurate?
“Never” hasn’t happened yet so you don’t know if you’ll never practice or compose/write/ draw/design. (Note: this is also jumping to conclusions because you’re predicting the future.)
If you practiced yesterday or last month or 5 years ago, then the statement that you “never” practice is clearly false. Also, if you are ruthlessly honest you may find that you have already composed/written/drawn/designed and that you have gotten some good calls from officials.

2) What are alternative explanations?
Not sure if this applies. What do you think? Let me know if you see the relevance of looking for alternative explanations here.

3) What are the implications?
Not career changing or life altering. You can practice again any time you choose. You can take another look at what you put on canvas/paper/computer. Calls by officials will probably vary from fair to unfair.

4) Is the thought useful?
Again, hard to see how such thoughts are going to encourage and motivate you.


Man painting

This multisyllable thinking error has a lot in common with all-or-nothing thinking. You interpret one thing as “a never-ending pattern of defeat.” (David Burns, MD)

Remember my story of dropping out for 4 bars while accompanying the chorus on piano? I made it into a never-ending pattern of defeat by never even trying again. By, in essence, “retiring” at age 13. (Though, happily, I came out of “retirement” eventually.)

One of your teammates blows his coverage assignment and you say, “He never stays with his guy.”
You have a day when you don’t like anything you put on canvas/paper/computer and you say, “I don’t have what it takes to paint/draw/write/design.”

A referee makes a lousy (in your humble opinion) call and you think, “I’m always getting the lousy calls. I never can get a break.”

When you find yourself over-generalizing ask yourself the questions we’ve been going over, such as: What’s the evidence? What are alternative explanations? What are the implications? Is this a useful thought?

Next time I’ll weigh in with my thoughts on some of these questions.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking Remedies

As promised, here are things you ask yourself when you notice you’re in in all-or-nothing thinking.
1) What is the evidence that the whole thing was a failure? Acknowledge the things you did do, the things that did work. All the “correct” notes you hit. The rest of the painting. The aspects of your race that were positive and that you can build on. It can be helpful to write these things down. This is not bragging or inflating. You are simply doing a thorough assessment.

At the end of this assessment, you’ll probably find lots of shades of gray and will have more energy to apply yourself to what you need to do. Education research shows that people learn from encouragement, not from being beaten down. By finding reasons to be encouraged you will improve your learning and results.

2) What are the alternative explanations? This question doesn’t give permission to make excuses. It gives permission to look at extenuating circumstances. Dan Jansen was favored to win a gold medal in speed skating in the 1988 Olympics. Try as he might to race at his peak he could not overcome the effect of the death of his sister only hours before his race. He finally got the elusive gold medal (and a world record) in the 1994 Olympics.

3) What are the implications? Really, when you think about it, so what if the note was wrong? If the shading was off? If you didn’t hit your PR today? All is not lost. The true implications are that you will need practice that part of the song or solo more; you will experiment before applying shading; you will continue to work to improve your time. In the great scheme of things whatever happened is not an insurmountable setback.

4) Is the thought useful? Hard to see how a thought that dismisses anything positive and erases all hope for enjoyment and improvement can be useful.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking: My Story

Portrait of a girl bending backwards

Portrait of a girl bending backwards

Also called black-and-white thinking: If something isn’t perfect you call it a total failure.
You honk on one wrong note in a piece and you say the whole thing sucked.
You create a lighting effect on your painting that you don’t love and throw the whole thing in the trash.
You don’t achieve a personal record and you say the whole race was a waste of time. (Pun intended.)

My first vivid experience of all-or-nothing thinking occurred when I was a high school freshman and accompanying the chorus on the piano. I briefly lost my place and dropped out for a few bars. I then found my place and completed the piece. When the concert ended I sobbed uncontrollably, believing that I had humiliated myself in front of an auditorium full of students and families. No one could convince me that my lapse wasn’t noticeable or significant. (This also has elements of mind reading, mental filter, discounting the positive, and magnifying.) I refused to play piano in public (though, happily, I still sang in the chorus) for many years.

My all-or-nothing thinking about my sport manifested differently. You might say it was “all-around -or- nothing thinking.” Although I hated vault and balance beam I forced myself to do them because I thought I should compete all-around. (Shoulda-coulda thinking here too. More on that in another post.) Nothing less than all was acceptable. (For those who aren’t into gymnastics: women have 4 events: floor exercise, vault, balance beam, and uneven parallel bars. To compete in all 4 is to compete “all around.”) If I had let myself do the 2 events I really liked—floor and bars—I would have had a lot more fun and been a better gymnast.

In my next post I’ll talk about how to counter all-or-nothing thinking.

Digging In

Discounting the Positive

It took the intervention of a really good supervisor (and the persistence of my husband) to break this habit. A specialty of mine was laughing off compliments by saying something self-deprecating in a humorous way. Maybe something like, “Yeah, sure, but I didn’t exactly achieve world peace.”

What is “discounting the positive”? You find ways to say that what you did accomplish doesn’t count. “I had a generous judge.” “It’s always easy for me to work in pastels.” “I copped that idea from someone else.” “I swim fast because I have long arms.” “Anyone else could have done it.”

1) What is the evidence?
Everyone else had the same generous judge. Since there’s nothing new under the sun, maybe you did cop that idea but you also put your particular spin on it. Maybe you have long arms; but not everyone with long arms can swim, let alone swim fast. Maybe anyone else could have done it; but did they?

2) What are alternative explanations?
That someone else created that piece? That someone else swam your race? I don’t think so.

3) What are the implications?
Maybe you did get lucky this once. Maybe you did “borrow” someone else’s idea. Maybe you do have long arms. None of that takes away from the totality of your efforts in your art or sport. You’ll find that out if you only rely on getting lucky, or stop practicing because you’re relying on your long arms, or only look at others’ ideas to make good, creative work.

4) Is this thought useful? I doubt it. What do you think?

A coach can both help you see if and when you fall into this trap, and also be a great cheerleader for all the positives you do.

Common thinking errors

Common thinking errors (David Burns, MD)
• all-or-nothing thinking
• overgeneralization
• mental filter
• discounting the positive
• fortune telling
• magnifying or minimizing
• emotional reasoning
• shoulda-coulda thinking
• labeling
• self blame or blame of others

A simple (though not always easy) way to defuse these thoughts is to notice, label, and replace them with rational, realistic thoughts. Albert Ellis, Ph.D. is a trailblazer in this approach.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a pioneer of Positive Psychology, suggests these steps:

1) Look at the evidence
2) Look for possible alternative explanations
3) Realistically evaluate the implications.

In future posts I’ll go into detail on each of the thinking errors and provide examples of using various approaches to defuse them. For now, see which ones you think may apply to you. You may even try some of the approaches above and see if you can begin to neutralize some of your self-defeating thoughts some of the time.

Mind Matters: Thinking Errors

“I think, therefore I am.” (Rene Descartes, philosopher.) “I think, therefore I drive myself crazy.” (Many of us in the modern world.) Humans are the only species that has the ability, with thoughts, to make benign situations seem bad, and bad situations seem catastrophic.

This tendency has all sorts of names: stinkin’ thinkin’, thinking errors, twisted thinking, cognitive distortions, automatic thoughts. I’ll use the term “thinking errors” in this blog. You’ve probably figured out that if you do this sort of thing you are not alone. Heck, there’s even a whole method of psychotherapy based on it, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

I probably don’t have to tell you that negative thoughts affect your creative process, your artistic or athletic performance, and even your practicing and training. Thinking errors affect all the other areas of our lives, too.

Sometimes these thoughts are like the air we breathe: we don’t even notice them.

The good news is that you can learn to identify and defuse them so that realistic, useful thoughts prevail. I hope this blog will help arrive at a client’s realization that “the constant ticker tape of (negative, worried) thoughts going through my head isn’t necessarily real.”

More on naming and identifying common thinking errors in my next post.

Managing Stress and Anxiety

Woman holding head screamingWhen we’re stressed hormones course through the body preparing us for fight/flight/freeze. While this is adaptive for brief times of crisis, chronic stress takes a physical, emotional, and mental toll. Most of us have experienced the tense shoulders, stiff neck, or stomach ache that accompanies stress. What you may not know is that the effects go much beyond these symptoms. The body is on alert; problem solving and the creative process are luxuries that are sidelined. Paradoxically, being too stressed can also lead to over-thinking, which disrupts flow.

There are many tools for managing stress and anxiety. The simplest and most portable is deep breathing. Ideally the belly will go in and out with each breath. This may take practice; breathing while leaning way back (or lying down) with one hand on the chest and one on the belly can help. Focus on the breath. The mind will wander; when it does, gently (and without judging) return focus to the breath. According to psychotherapist Don Altman, MA, LPC, author of One-Minute Mindfulness, research shows that after only 20–30 seconds of relaxation breathing, the body begins calming. The body’s calming includes lowered blood pressure, increased alpha (calming) brain waves, and decreased pulse. All of us can find a minute or less to gain these benefits; even if it’s on a bathroom break in the midst of an insanely busy day. (Unless, of course, your toddler has followed you into the bathroom.)

There are many variations on deep breathing. You can do 5-2-7 breathing: breathe in to a count of 5; hold it for a count of 2; exhale to a count of 7. Some like to add a calming phrase; it can be as simple as, “In with relaxation, out with stress.” A line or two from a favorite poem, prayer, or song works for some people.

Here are some fun adaptations for kids: Breathe in the smell of a flower and then blow off the petals. Lie on the floor, with a stuffed animal on the belly  and watch the animal go up and down. Make believe your belly is a balloon and fill it with air; when you exhale make the noise a balloon makes when you let the air out.

You can find apps for relaxation breathing, calming visualizations, or muscle relaxation.  Doing a computer search of these things yields good results too.




Welcome to my blog. It will feature quotes, stories, and tips about how we can harness our thoughts, energy, and emotions for positive change. I love coaching kids, teens, and adults in all aspects of life. Since my specialty is helping artists and athletes get the most out of their art or sport my writings will use lots of athletic and creative examples. I’ll start with stress and anxiety management techniques ’cause, let’s face it, we can all use some of this. Then there will be installments about how our thoughts can hinder us. We humans have the unique ability to turn a bad thing into something worse, or a good thing into something bad, simply through the power of our imaginations. I won’t just tell you how we get into trouble, though. I’ll also be letting you know what we can do to address the negative thought patterns and replace them with realistic, positive thoughts. In addition, I’ll be giving tips on finding balance, maintaining focus, regaining motivation and the like. I’m sure there will be quotes, musings, and stories that don’t fall into any of these categories. Thanks for joining me in my blogging adventure.