The Role of the Cognitive Triangle in Figure Skating Self-Talk
The Cognitive Triangle is the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and is used to treat many mental health issues. It is well-researched and documented and very widely applied to performance related therapies, and as such, is particularly relevant in sports psychology and figure skating performance.
Basically, the cognitive triangle diagrams the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and actions. We have a thought or a belief, which produces a feeling, which leads to anaction or a habit. Then that action or habit produces additional feelings and thoughts, thus continuing the cognitive cycle.
In my last blog post I discussed how the Cognitive Triangle is key to our ability to control our actions, our reactions to our environment, and ultimately to our happiness.
I am not a therapist or licensed social worker, even though I sometimes wish I were. When I was a young coach, I felt completely unprepared to guide my skaters through the negative thought cycles that often sabotaged their goals and happiness. All I had to advise them with was my sincere emotional investment in their well-being coupled with my own ADHD and anxiety fueled overdrive.
Later, after many years of personal therapy and study, I became aware of what I called the Positive Thought Cycle and began applying it to my own life. It didn’t take long for me to appreciate the ability we have as humans to intervene in our own thought processes in order to change our behaviors.
Developing Mental Toughness – Intervening in the Cognitive Triangle - is Like Exiting a Twizzle
Imagine the cognitive triangle is like a rotating spiral staircase… maybe you’re standing still as the rotation takes you downward, or maybe you’re walking frenetically just to stay at the same height and avoid plunging into the dark basement.
If the staircase were only rotating in the other direction, you would make your way up to the roof and soar to new heights.
When we rotate on the ice, all it takes is one action to stop—usually it’s the twisting of the upper body against the lower body. (Hopefully it’s this action and not the blade getting stuck or another person stopping us!). The faster we rotate, the more forceful the opposing action needs to be, but just one action will stop the rotation, nonetheless.
The same concept applies to the cognitive triangle—If you are in a downward spiral with your actions, thoughts, and feelings, all it takes is an action or thought to make a change. The more ingrained our negative habits and beliefs, the more we must produce positive actions and thoughts to counteract them, but all it takes is ONE thought or action to start the process.
Think about when you’re having a bad skating day and you’re lost in your own thoughts. You may say to yourself “I can’t do this… I’m so embarrassed I keep missing this jump… Why is she able to land that jump and I can’t? What’s wrong with me? I’m so dumb. I can’t figure out how to do this. I should just give it up. No one believes in me. I’m such a disappointment. My parents are wasting their money. I’m never going to get it. ”
Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?
The other day I was driving to teach a Spanish class I teach at a local university, listening to a flamenco song about nostalgia. One line in the song hit me, and I got lost in memories of a loved one who recently passed. I started to get very sad, feeling sick to my stomach, weak in my knees, eyes welling up with tears. I went through the drive through of a local coffee shop, and when the cashier handed me my coffee, I hit the cup on the edge of the car window, spilling the coffee everywhere.
This one action is all it took to snap me out of my thoughts. The coffee didn’t burn me or stain my clothes (I was on my way to teach, remember?), and the barista gave me another coffee and didn’t charge me for the spilled one. I took a deep breath, laughed it off, and was grateful for the moment I had had to feel the sadness, grateful for the kindness of the barista, and grateful to be back in the present moment.
Sometimes it’s an outside force that intervenes, but other times, we must intervene on our own behalf.
When you catch yourself in a downward spiral—like in a frustrating practice session—stop what you are doing and take a deep breath. Maybe take a lap around the rink, do a quick shake down or dance move, and take out what one of my coaches used to call “the brain floss”. Then, visualize something positive or say some positive words to yourself. In that moment, it can be as simple as, “You got this” or “you are talented” or “you skate with grace and ease”.
When the Going Gets Tougher, The Tough Keep Going
Stopping the rotation of a triple jump requires more strength and “check” than stopping the rotation of a single jump. So, just as I mentioned above, the more ingrained the belief and habit, the greater the effort required to change the cycle.
We all have ingrained beliefs and habits that are a product of our environment and our upbringing. Plus, the Negativity Bias built into our brains over millions of years makes sure that the negative input sticks easier than the positive.
This bias has a good purpose—to keep us out of harm’s way—but the brain hasn’t evolved enough to quickly distinguish between an actual tiger chasing us and a not-as- imminent danger, such as making a mistake on a double flip jump or a nasty comment or look from a rival.
As Dr. Rick Hanson explains on his website: “the brain has specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in emotional memory. On the other hand, positive experiences – unless they are very novel or intense – have standard issue memory systems, and these require that something be held in awareness for many seconds in a row to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. Since we rarely do this, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones are caught every time.”
It is true that the negativity bias can lead us to ruminate and fixate on negative experiences more than the positive ones. We have all experienced this—someone says something mean to us or about us, and we think about it for hours, days, sometimes even months. But how long do we remember a compliment?
Researchers agree, though, that we do have control over how much the negative information and experiences stick.
According to Kenneth Yaeger, PhD, the director of STAR (Stress, Trauma, and Resilience) Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, “The single most important underlying factor is….how we talk to ourselves about our experiences”.
The negativity bias might seem like it stacks the cards against us but changing the conversation in our heads is 100% doable.
How do we change our inner dialogue? One step or action at a time.
How to Develop Positive Self-Talk
The first step in changing your habits and the way you speak to yourself is awareness.
Mindfulness practices such as meditation, breathwork, yoga, and journaling can help you slow down and observe your thoughts and how they make you feel. Identify negative thought patterns and aim to cultivate self-compassion instead.
Would you speak to your best friend the way you speak to yourself?
Therapy is a very effective tool in helping you identify and understand the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. A skilled therapist will be able to give you exercises and strategies to help you work through this.
And combination of all the above tools is especially powerful.
Becoming aware of ourselves through any practice is just that—a practice—and it can take time to see the benefit.
In the meantime, you can take a first step towards intervening in your cognitive triangle with one simple strategy:
practicing positive self-affirmations.
Here’s how to do it:
Practicing positive self-affirmations is not the only answer to developing positive self-talk in your figure skating journey, but it’s a solid step in the right direction.
Science shows that the practice works by activating new neural pathways in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, but it only works when done regularly. So, try to make the practice a habit—just a few minutes first thing in the morning and/or right before bed can make a big difference.
Enter the cognitive triangle: this rewiring of the brain helps us feel better, which leads us to take more positive actions.
Once you have a regular habit of practicing self-affirmations, then you have some positive thoughts to recall during a rough skating session.
And that one positive thought may be all it takes to get the ball rolling to intervene so you can turn your negative thought cycle around.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. I have seen firsthand the abuse that happens at the higher levels of our sport and experienced how that trickles down into unhealthy training practices and habits at the grassroots. I have seen this play out in the operations of the very institutions that control our sport. Whether for a profession or hobby, pursuing skating should be a joyful, rewarding process, an opportunity for athletic and personal growth, and a place to build lasting friendships.