Admit it: you talk to yourself. That’s a great start.
It’s our inner debate that sometimes gets us out of bed before hitting the snooze button. That same debate might calm us down before we give a big pitch to our bosses, or help us ignore snacks between meals. Did you know that this forgettable exchange is honed by athletes to get the edge over their opponents?
The way athletes think, feel, and speak to themselves has a tremendous impact on their performance. Athletes are trained to perfect their inner dialogue to improve their confidence and awareness of their respective playing fields. However, these techniques can be applied by anyone of any age, in any occupation.
Everyone experiences an internal dialogue. Sports psychologists define this as self-talk. It might include intentional or random things that we say to ourselves throughout the day. We might say these things out loud or silently. Either way, they can equally facilitate or hinder one’s performance.
Are you aware of your self-talk?
Athletes first develop an awareness of their self-talk so that they are better able to understand their thoughts. Then they can discern whether these thoughts are beneficial to their performance, or impeding it.
Athletes are taught to focus on processes, rather than outcomes; focus on the present, rather than the past or future; and focus on strengths rather than deficiencies. Simply, the focus of self-talk is to be aware of what you, as an individual, can control.
Cue positive self-talk
When self-talk errors occur, athletes refocus using cue words or phrases. Cues serve as a reminder of ideal focus by interrupting random noise and aligning one’s train of thought with the current goals.
One can create cues by identifying the relevant factors they need to focus on in order to execute a successful performance. For example, a golfer may say “eyes on the ball” in order to direct their attention to relevant cues.
Reviewing previous successful performances and describing what they felt, thought, or focused on during the said performance can help an athlete pull words or phrases from that description. They then use these as their consistent cues.
As much as cue words are helpful in arranging thoughts, they are also helpful in disrupting unnecessary thoughts. If someone is easily distracted by weather conditions, which are outside of their control, they can use a cue word that reminds them to refocus.
An athlete may use thought-stopping techniques, such as saying “stop” or visualizing a stop sign and then implement their cue word in order to refocus.
Positive word choice
Athletes also consider word choice as a parameter in beneficial self-talk. People overlook that even if statements do not seem innately negative, they can do harm, specifically, with the use of “don’t” statements.
Athletes often find their thoughts veering towards what they don’t want to do, as opposed to what they want to do. “Don’t miss this goal,” “don’t fall off the balance beam,” or “don’t strike out” are very common. Yet, these are damaging, self-talk approaches.
The thoughts and images we illicit are directly tied to motor movement and performance. While an athlete may not view these as negative, ultimately by focusing on an outcome that they do not want to happen, they are making it more likely that it will occur.
The best athletes use self-talk that directs them toward what they want to do. For example, instead of saying “don’t strike out,” they implement self-talk that directs them towards how they want to swing the bat, where they want their focus to be, or even as simple as stating “hit the ball.”
Another persistent mistake is placing unrealistic expectations on one’s self and using should or have-to statements. For example, an athlete may say, “I have to make this shot,” or “I should be able to strike this batter out.” Statements like I should and I have to add pressure.
Simple changes in wording can make an enormous difference. Statements using language that builds confidence will facilitate an athlete’s performance. For example, “I can make this shot,” or “I will strike this batter out.” Athletes who make these subtle changes reap rewards of confidence and consistency.
Catastrophizing and other self-talk pitfalls
Other common self-talk mistakes include catastrophizing (automatically expecting the worst), personalizing (blaming oneself whenever anything negative happens) and polarizing (all-or-nothing thinking).
These can cause an athlete to give up after one error is made, have difficulty letting go of mistakes when they occur, or taking full responsibility for things even when there are factors outside of their control. Athletes are taught to reframe these thoughts to be more realistic, and allow them to maintain focus and confidence in the moment.
Building inner self-talk begins with the encouragement of positive affirmations about one’s self, abilities, and performance ahead of time. It’s challenging to develop these in the moment, so establish them in advance. Being confident in your self-talk before it is needed allows these statements to be more easily drawn out.
However, negative thoughts can still arise when desired outcomes are not met; this is normal. One shouldn’t beat him/herself up when this occurs. Instead, implement strategies to move forward from them quickly.
The thought-stopping technique is one strategy to begin the shift away from negative thoughts. Afterward, engage in thought replacement (replacing a negative thought with a positive one) or thought reframing (creating alternative ways to look at situations).
Everyone is different; therefore, practicing these skills begins with finding the techniques that are most beneficial for the individual. For an athlete who struggles with self-directed negativity, it is encouraged that they listen to positive things others say about them and use those in their self-talk. It is also helpful to challenge athletes only to say things they would say to a friend or a teammate, as we are often our own worst critics.
As with any skill, it takes practice to strengthen self-talk and maintain it with consistency. Athletes have proven that it is worth the effort; as the extra edge comes just as often from training what’s inside the mind as much as the rest of the body.
It is important to visualize what to do, rather than not do. For example, visualize the cues of “Do this. Then do that.” Versus “Don’t screw up” or “Don’t catch the pass.” Just like relaxation, the more you practice, the better your concentration and focus will become.
Focus on positive statements about your performance that you can control, not the outcome. Say the cues to yourself that you associate with your best performance, one at a time. – Dr. Chris Carr
Don’t ask yourself, “What other areas in my life do I expect to give minimal effort to receive maximal results?” I’ve never heard anyone say, “How many donuts can I eat and still have a six-pack?” or “How can I give the least amount of effort at work and still get a raise?” It doesn’t work this way in life. There is no easy way out in fitness either. – Jeff Richter
What are some things you will start doing to improve your self-talk? We all talk to ourselves, make the words positive, meaningful, and effective!