Why athletes have such a strong inner critical voice

In the intense and demanding world of sport, the inner critic is a constant presence for many athletes. This article delves into the phenomenon of the inner critic, its origins and its impact on performance. 

Picture of Av: Tommy Davidovic | Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Tränare.
By: Tommy Davidovic | Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Trainer.

If you haven't felt it yourself, you've seen it in the eyes of an athlete just after a mistake on the field - the grimace, the head shaking in disapproval, maybe even the muttering of a harsh word meant only for their ears. This is more than just disappointment; it is an intimate conversation with their harshest judge, the inner critic. 

In our world, where results are everything, athletes often develop an inner voice that pushes them harder, criticizes more sharply and expects more. But here's the interesting thing - while the inner critic pushes them to the limit of what they can do, it can also whisper doubts that undermine their confidence. How to find the right balance without tipping over? This is what we are considering today.

What is the inner critic and how is it formed?

Firstly, what is that inner critic we keep mentioning? It's the voice that serves up a buffet of "should" and "could" after you've poured your soul into the pitch. Psychologically, it's a mixture of our conscious norms and the subconscious echoes of former coaches, parents and that horribly competitive teammate.
Sure, sometimes that voice is the MVP - the one that makes you fight one more time in the gym. But other times it's like mental quicksand, making you doubt decisions you could otherwise make in your sleep.

The inner critic can be described as an inner voice that constantly judges and often criticizes our actions and performance. This voice begins to take shape early in life, shaped by our experiences at school, in sport and through social interactions. This process is often accelerated in competitive environments such as sport, where performance is constantly measured and judged.

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Factors contributing to the inner critical voice

Perfectionism is a significant driver of the inner critic, especially in sport where margins are small and the quest for improvement is constant. There is a silent script that says athletes must outperform, persevere and outshine. However, this quest for perfection can lead to a fear of failure, which in turn feeds the inner critic.

Constant comparison with others, a natural part of competitive sports, can also reinforce the inner critic. When athletes compare their performance, physical ability or success with others, it can lead to self-criticism and doubts about their own abilities. Mix that with the concrete analysis of modern sport, such as shooting percentages or lap times, and you have a cocktail that is guaranteed to make most people feel the weight of the pressure.

The sporting mantra 'no pain, no gain' can have a profound impact. External influences, such as media and audience expectations, can also become internalized. Athletes often feel pressure to meet these expectations, which can intensify the inner critical voice. Add to this the echo of parents' "just do your best", which sometimes sounds like "be the best", and boom - the inner critic has set up camp for a long stay.

The inner critic from a neurological perspective

The amygdala is part of the brain's limbic system and plays a key role in managing emotions, especially those linked to survival, such as fear and anger. It is involved in the detection of threats and triggers the body's fight or flight response.

When the amygdala perceives a threat, it can activate a stress response that prepares the body to react to the danger. This is an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect us from harm. In modern times, these threats are often psychological or social rather than physical, but the amygdala responds in a similar way.

The activation of the stress response involves the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which prepare the body to deal with a perceived threat. Chronic activation of this stress response, especially in non-life-threatening situations, can lead to increased anxiety, fear and hyper-vigilance.

The inner critic represents the self-critical inner voice that judges, criticizes or degrades a person. Although the inner critic can be a source of motivation and self-regulation, it can become too harsh or punitive, leading to negative self-talk.

The inner critic can be linked to the amygdala and stress by reinforcing perceptions of danger and risk. A hyperactive inner critic can interpret challenges or failures as threats, which triggers the amygdala and sets off the stress response. This can create a vicious circle where the inner critic feeds fears and anxieties, which in turn activate the amygdala, leading to more stress and further reinforcing the inner critic.

If the inner critic consistently triggers the amygdala and the stress response, over time it can contribute to a range of psychological problems, including anxiety disorders, depression and low self-esteem. It can also lead to heightened vigilance and sensitivity to potential threats, even if they are non-existent or relatively minor.

Essentially, the inner critic can exacerbate the body's stress response by maintaining a state of perceived danger and threat, which can have both immediate and long-term psychological effects. Recognizing and addressing the inner critic can be an important part of stress management, reducing anxiety and promoting a more compassionate self-image.

A successful case

An example of this is Hanna, an athlete I worked with who struggled with a strong inner critic. Much of our work involved identifying when and how the inner critic spoke, and by restructuring these thoughts, Hanna was able to reduce her self-criticism.

This not only led to better health and increased performance - in about 9 months Hanna went from playing in the Swedish Elitettan to quitting her job and moving to Norway to play in their top league, then on to the Spanish Andraliga at the end of the season! 

Listen to her story here.

Your game plan for silencing critics

  1. Please note: Become aware of when the inner critic is active. Note what it says, and question its messages. Are they really true? Are they helpful? 

  2. Reformulation: Learn to reframe critical thoughts into more supportive and constructive messages. Instead of "I can't do this," try "I can learn to do this with time and effort."

  3. Empathy and self-consolation: Learn to treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would show a good friend. When the inner critic gets loud, ask the question: Would I say this to someone I care about? Practice giving yourself encouragement and understanding, and recognize that mistakes and failures are part of the learning process and the human experience.

  4. Mindfulness and presence: Mindfulness exercises can help reduce the voice of the inner critic. By practicing being present in the moment, athletes can reduce the space for self-critical thoughts.

Do you have goals? I am here to coach

Does it feel like your inner critic is getting all the playtime while your confidence sits on the bench? That's where I come in. From simple programs for those who want to start small, to full-scale for those who want to get to the top - my services are like a GPS for navigating the mental game of sport.

Are you ready to go from self-critical to self-confident? Find the way on my page on program.

Look this way to read more about mental training and raise the level of your mental game.

Slowing down your train of thought

Mastering the monologue in your head is like any other game. Sometimes you score, sometimes you learn. Cut down on the criticism and find a supportive co-coach. Remember that the only voice that really influences the game in the direction you want is the one that encourages, calls for wisdom and advocates compassion.

Remember, your brain works like any other muscle in your body - what you train you get good at, and what you don't train you get weaker. 

Until next time, keep the inner conversation cool and your inner game strong. 

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About the author

Picture of Tommy Davidovic
Tommy Davidovic

Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Trainer who helps athletes get guaranteed change and results fast. Creator of the Flow Mindset method that has helped athletes around the world break their old records and made competition fun again.

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