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Improving self-talk part 1 – awareness

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

Knowledge is power, understanding your own self-talk

Awareness is a great tool for success and learning. For example, most good singers listen to recordings of their own voice to be more aware of how they sound. Ballet dancers practice in front of mirrors so they can be aware how straight their lines are. So it’s no surprise that being aware of your own thoughts can improve your thinking. Just like the singer and the dancer, who use tools to enhance their awareness, there are some activities we can use to help reflect on our own self-talk.

After awareness comes thought stoppage techniques, and then countering/reframing unproductive self-talk into productive self-talk. However, I believe that most successful athlete, and indeed most people who succeed in anything, posses various mental skills already that they have refined themselves. So in my experience awareness is the most important step in the process since motivated competitors will take that knowledge and run with it. With that in mind this article will include two small activities for becoming more aware of your own self-talk and following that will be discussion of how to recognize the two different kinds of self-talk, productive and unproductive.

Activity 1: Monitoring your thoughts

This activity is simple and involves carrying around pennies or paperclips in a pocket, or keeping them in a stack on one side of your desk. Any time you recognize negative or unhelpful self-talk, move a maker to the opposite pocket or side of the desk. You may be amazed how quickly the stacks change.

Activity 2: Practice/performance profiling

The second activity is based on recall. If you are or were recently an athlete or performer, choose one of your sports/arts. Otherwise modify this worksheet so that it fits the activity you want to target (i.e. change “practice” to “play time” or some such)

Try to remember two of your peformances, the best and the worst. Start at the beginning and imagine the entire event to make it a strong memory. At the same time think about the thoughts that you had and what you told yourself. Answer the questions below. PDF Worksheet

(1) What were you thinking shortly before the start of your worst performance?

(2) Circle how positive or negative your thinking was before your worst performance.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Extremely Negative Extremely Positive

(3) What were you thinking during the performance?

(4) Rate how positive or negative your thinking was during your worst performance.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Extremely Negative Extremely Positive

(5) What were you thinking shortly before the start of your best performance?

(6) Circle how positive or negative your thinking was before your best performance.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Extremely Negative Extremely Positive

(7) What were you thinking during the performance?

(8) Rate how positive or negative your thinking was during your best performance.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Extremely Negative Extremely Positive

Doing this worksheet will give you a specific profile with examples of thoughts that help you win, and the ones that hold you back. This profile will not look the same for every person, which is why it is important to do this worksheet and produce your own personal performance profile. Set this worksheet aside and come back to it after the next section to analyze your thoughts.

Analyzing self-talk, the good the bad and the ugly

During the last activity you may have gotten the impression that negative self-talk is bad and positive self-talk is good. While that may be the case a lot of the time, it’s certainly not accurate enough to claim it as truth. So instead I want to label self-talk that helps you win as productive, and self-talk that either does nothing or helps you lose as unproductive. Of course, you can also still categorize into positive and negative self-talk, so we are left with a chart that looks like the one below.

Unproductive Productive
Positive This’ll be easy he sucks. I’m ready, I prepared hard.
Negative Well now I can’t win. Don’t be distracted, don’t be pulled out of position.

Negative self talk is basically anything with a “no” or “not” in it or maybe something with a typically negative emotion like anger, “I’m going to smash him.” It consists of things you tell yourself that are bad or when you give yourself commands framed in the negative. Positive is simply the opposite of negative. Either of them can help you or hurt you depending on your situation.

Recognizing unproductive self-talk

Competitors adapt to the situation to win. Pro League of Legends players don’t use the same item build every match; if they are losing to Galio they will go and buy a quicksilver sash instead of their next core item. Starcraft players don’t keep massing marines once the protoss player gets colossi out. Ok actually they do, OP marines, but theoretically they should be getting a few vikings. Likewise why would you keeping saying the same thing over and over if it’s not helping. Most people don’t know there is an alternative, for one thing. Also unhelpful self-talk is hard to recognize. You can easily be winning while using unproductive self-talk; similar to bad strategy or technique, if you win enough with it you stop thinking that it might be a problem.

I like to say good self-talk focuses on “controlling the controllable.” Therefore, bad self-talk would focus on uncontrollable factors such as: the past or the future, weaknesses (during competition), outcomes, being perfect, etc. In a competitive situation it is easier to control things like: what is happening right now, how you abuse your strengths, how much effort you put out, and not making mistakes, etc. Return to the performance profile worksheet that you did earlier and see if you can classify your self-talk examples. What self-talk did you do that you think is productive? Why? What about unproductive?

Being aware of what’s going on in your head and how it can help you succeed is just the first step. Next is learning how to stop unproductive self-talk in it’s tracks and replace it with helpful self-talk. Almost all of you already do this some of the time, but the effect is a lot more powerful when you have complete control over it. In the next post we will discuss the common method for thought-stoppage and then go over some activities for countering or reframing unproductive self-talk. Please comment below and share your own experiences with self-talk.