The Dangers of Rumination


This article contains references to sports, science, and business—three of my passions in life.

As a high-performing athlete, my club consistently and without question offered my peers and me access to an excellent sports psychologist, as well as mental training resources. How this looked was weekly group classes, in addition to one-on-one coaching with a licensed, experienced, and wonderful woman, Dr. Carolyn Phelps.

Carolyn worked with my skating sisters and me on a number of areas, including but not limited to meditation, imagery, positive word association, positive self-talk and body association, and many more. In one such area, performance anxiety, we would dive into and further understand rumination and the impact it can have. But what is rumination?

Rumination in sports and business

Rumination has been defined by the American Psychiatric Association as the following: Rumination involves repetitive thinking or dwelling on negative feelings and distress and their causes and consequences. The repetitive, negative aspect of rumination can contribute to the development of depression or anxiety and can worsen existing conditions.

In sports, rumination has been linked to decreased performance, increased risk of injury, and decreased overall satisfaction with one’s sport. Athletes who ruminate may be less likely to take risks, try new things, or push themselves to their limits, which can limit their potential for success.

Similarly, in the workplace, rumination can lead to decreased job satisfaction, decreased productivity, and increased burnout. Employees who ruminate may be less likely to take on new challenges, seek out new opportunities, or collaborate with others, which can limit their potential for success and growth within their careers.

What I love most about getting to lead an organization centered around humans is the endless potential we have. It’s not my job to see more in people than they see in themselves, that part comes naturally, it’s my job to help people see more in themselves. Reflection can be an important part of that process. But when the rumination and reflection scale tips too far, to the point where paralysis kicks in, that’s when it can be almost impossible to recover from.

Leveraging rumination

As with anything, a healthy balance is needed to not tip the scales too strongly in one direction. By definition, rumination is a repetitive, relentless reflection. While this type of thought will most definitely not benefit employees or athletes, the same relentless repetition is all too often how people train, persist, and succeed at their skills. Hence, where balance comes into play. We shouldn’t aim to eliminate reflection, we should be mindful of how productive the reflection is and be careful not to fall too deep into negative thoughts.

Employees can benefit from learning how to manage rumination through techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and self-reflection. By learning to identify when they are ruminating and taking steps to break the cycle, individuals can improve their overall performance, well-being, and satisfaction in their work.

Imagine approaching your reflection as a scientist would approach a question. They would do it scientifically, void of emotional investment and bias.

  • Make an observation.
  • Ask a question.
  • Form a hypothesis or testable explanation.
  • Make a prediction based on the hypothesis.
  • Test the prediction.
  • Iterate: use the results to make new hypotheses or predictions.

By controlling the way we reflect, we can avoid falling into the pitfalls of rumination and instead, discover ways to improve our performance—whether in the office or on the field.

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan


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