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Improving self-talk part 2 – helpful self-talk

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Read the first article in the series! – Introduction to self-talk

Read the second article in the series! – Improving self-talk part 1 – awareness

Focus and drive, the mental edge

Now that you are convinced that your self-talk can give you an edge in training and competition it’s time to practice making the best productive self-talk.  First though, you should practice some sort of technique for emptying your mind or stopping your thoughts.  Most people use a simple word like “stop” or “no” and associate a strong image with it such as a bus or train screeching to a halt or slamming into a solid object.  It doesn’t seem to mater much what you choose, as long as it is simple and strong (or fast and fun).  Typically though the effect will start off rather weak and only get stronger with use.

The next step is to replace unhelpful self-talk with productive, and the best way to do this is use your unproductive self-talk to craft your helpful statements.  For example, if you catch yourself thinking, “my rush failed, now I’m behind,” depending on your strategy you could change it to, “my rush failed, now I need good scouting and catch her out of position.”  You see, if you just ignore yourself when you say “now I’m behind” and try to get it out of your head, it won’t work.  You still believe it, you still ‘know’ it, and even if you don’t say it out loud or in your mind you play like you did.  Countering your unproductive self-talk revolves around the idea of belief.  The reason self-talk can help or harm your performance is because you believe it.  If you don’t believe it, it’s just words.  So when you are in a sticky situation and what you are thinking or saying is not helping you get out, it helps to be able to argue against yourself (and win).

Some athletes actually keep small cards on hand when they are performing with their most common doubts and problems and productive self-talk that they created before hand to help them counter it.  This might be a good tactic for you, especially if you find that you do much better in practice than you do in competition.  That’s because your performance stress is causing you to make errors, and self-talk is a great way to build confidence, which reduces your performance stress.

Jason’s productive self-talk

I want to take a moment to go back to Jason, our water-polo goalie from the first article.  In this version of the story, he has the same unproductive self-talk, but he uses countering and reframing to get himself on the right track mid-competition.

Jason is the goalie on a water-polo team. They are in the midst of an intense game with a rival team and there was a foul called on one of his teammates. The result is a penalty shot. As the shot is being prepared Jason imagines how it will travel and the save he will make. However, he does not save the shot. In his mind he is frustrated with missing the save, and angry at his teammate for the penalty shot. He thinks to himself, “I will get the next one,” and “mistakes and penalty shots are part of the game.”

This is reframing.  Jason is aware of the distracting affect that anger and frustration can have on his concentration. However, that energy can be directed towards kicking harder for the next save. Jason manipulates his emotions in order to direct the energy towards the game instead of towards self-doubt. Later on Jason gives us an example of countering.

He can not help but think, “I’ll probably miss this next shot,” and he starts to panic a little bit. Out loud he says, “stop,” and imagines a train screeching to a halt. Then he says, “this nervous energy is good, it is making me fast and alert, if I focus this energy on the ball I will move quickly like a cat and save the shot.” In his mind he imagines his muscles like springs that are tight and prepared to explode, quivering with energy.

First off Jason uses his patented thought stopping technique to refocus. Then he wisely decides not to ignore such a strong self-doubt, “I’ll probably miss this next shot.”  He argues against himself and provides a convincing reason, that he is even faster than normal now that he is nervous.  Jason even includes some imagery to go along with it.  Perhaps he has used cat-like imagery in his training before.

SMART self-talk

So, how do you practice these techniques?  It is hard to do, and the best place is during competition.  There are a couple of activities to prepare mentally as well, but the best idea is to just practice making good self-talk statements and learn to recognize the ones that don’t work for you.

One of the guidelines I like to use for making productive self-talk is borrowed from goal setting; it’s called SMART.  A lot of self-talk is just mini or daily goals, so if you follow the same rules for effective goal setting then it will improve your self-talk.  SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measureable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • and have a Time frame

Here are a few examples of self-talk that has been improved using each of the rules from SMART.

SMART Example
Specific Die less than 4 times a match VS. Don’t die
Measurable Improve my accuracy over 30% every match VS. Get more accurate
Attainable Beat my lane opponent in CS without dying VS. Win this match
Relevant I have to focus harder VS. I’m feeling sluggish right now
and have a Time frame I will run the new build 20 times by Saturday VS. I should work on the new build.

If you are already good at giving yourself miniature goals in competition and keeping up the confidence, you might want to focus on learning what to avoid.  I like to say “control the controllables.”  Avoid demanding yourself to do something that you can’t actually do, like winning a team game or not make a mistake.  Pick something actionable! Like supporting a teammate or attacking to force your opponent to screw up.  Here’s a simple list of what not to focus on:

Don’t focus on… Example
the past or the future We lost to these guys last time.  Only 2 more points then we win!
weaknesses (during competition*) I hope he doesn’t go to my left, that’s my weak side.
outcome I really want to win this match, my grandma is watching.
uncontrollable factors My mouse got lost and I have to use a new one, the settings are different and it’s messing me up.
being perfect I can’t mess this up, I can’t mess this up, I can’t mess this up.

*Just a small note about weakness, which was listed above.  These are great to focus on during practice, but during a match it’s better to abuse your strengths then try to avoid your weaknesses.  Rely on the rule that everybody screws up and make your opponents lose by basing your strategy around your strongest plays.  This advice doesn’t really apply so much in the high jump.

Activity 1: Changing unproductive self-talk

To practice self-talk, first think of a situation in competition or practice that you typically find yourself thinking negatively or unproductively. PDF worksheet

(1) Describe the situation as completely as you can.

(2) What are the negative harmful thoughts, self-talk, or excuses you usually make?  Try to list at least three.

(3) Choose a word or phrase you will use to stop these thoughts.  Include a description of the images you will include with it in your mind.

Pretend now that you are a teammate, coach, or counselor for the person who answered the questions just above (you!).  How would you change each of the negatives into productive self-talk?  Remember they should be realistic to your own beliefs about your capability.  Positive and process or performance oriented statements are best, not outcome oriented statements.  That is, more about what you are doing and how you are doing it than about winning.

Positive versus Productive self-talk

Aside from negative self-talk that harms you there is also plenty of positive self-talk that doesn’t help you.  Most of it is too unspecific to matter, like “Let’s do this!” or “Bro bro bro.”  There is also the case of telling yourself something you don’t actually believe, like “I can do it!” when you never have before.  It’s good to recognize those statements and break them down into more applicable or realistic self-talk, for example, “I’ve put hours of practice in.  I know I’m good.  I want to win this, and I’ll prove that by playing as hard as I can.”

These kinds of things are really specific to yourself and your situation, but you should not be afraid to try saying something new and outrageous.  During the next activity when you come up with the personalized productive statements, write some that you wouldn’t normally try out and see how they sound, maybe they will work out for you!

Activity 2: Personalized Positive Statements

(1) Think of your pre-performance state.  Can you remember phrases that you use personally to try to pump yourself up or psyche yourself up for the coming game or match? Try to write down three more general positive statements in the chart below, then improve on them to make them more SMART and to highlight your capabilities. PDF worksheet

Positive Statement Personalized Productive Statement
I enjoy competition.
I will win today!
I go as hard as I can every time.
I am always positive.

If you have been trying out the activities in these articles, it would be great if you would post your experiences in the comments and share your knowledge with other players.  We can all learn from each other’s individual experiences trying to improve their game, and what worked for you might work for others as well.  Happy talking!