Edition 37 (Oct 2015)

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Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance. 

Walking the Walk, Talking the Self-Talk

By Chris Pomfret (PSY0000966671)

Few readers of the Mental Toughness Digest would argue that self-talk has an important role to play in an athlete’s performance (both in preparation and in competition). As with most mental methods, however, the vast majority of athletes typically don’t have a clear working definition of this skill and don’t target it specifically for improvement. For the purpose of ‘workability’ let’s define self-talk simply as internal dialogue. At the most basic level, thoughts can be classed as either words or pictures inside our heads. Self-talk can therefore involve any words, statements or mental ‘chatter’ being generated by an athlete, whether deliberate or otherwise. Self-talk can be broken down into the following categories:

• Negative (“I’m going to miss this shot”)

• Neutral (“the bus leaves at 4pm”)

• Positive (“we’re going to win this!”)

• Technical (instructions such as “toes, balance, swing, follow through”)

When it comes to self-talk and performance, the key factor (as ever) is how helpful that type of dialogue/thought content is for you. Negative self-talk can lead to focusing on irrelevant stimuli (such as the crowd rather than the ball) or changes to biomechanics due to physiological responses (e.g. muscles tightening up due to worrying about your impressions of the crowd). Neutral self-talk can help you to disconnect from your surroundings when you’re waiting or competing for long periods (e.g. trying to name a country beginning with each letter of the alphabet to take your mind off fatigue). Positive self-talk can be used to manage unwanted emotions such as anxiety, or to promote other more helpful emotions such as excitement. Technical self-talk can be used to initiate desired actions such as a forehand in a tennis rally – kind of like coaching yourself on the run.

Negative self-talk isn’t a problem in itself: just because someone has a thought that they’re going to make a mistake doesn’t mean that they will! As long as you are executing your catch/pass/run/defending skills effectively it doesn’t actually matter what you are thinking. Problems arise, however, when athletes react to negative self-talk in a way that adversely impacts upon their skill execution. This can lead to overvaluing the importance of negative self-talk and an increasing belief in these unhelpful messages.

Logically, if negative self-talk isn’t a problem in itself then positive self-talk isn’t a solution in itself. Just because you generate a thought that you’re going to do something successfully doesn’t mean that you will! In many situations positive self-talk is preferable to negative self-talk, but it is not essential to executing skills (catching/passing/running/defending) effectively.
If you’re looking to make changes to your internal dialogue it’s important to identify the type, frequency, and consequences of your current self-talk. This can be done using a thought diary either for a recent performance or for a training session. Thought diaries are a common tool within the world of sport and performance psychology which allow athletes to examine the ABCs:

• A is for the Activating Event: A brief and objective summary of what the situation was, e.g. a runner taking their mark on starting blocks before a race.

• B is for Beliefs: A list of all the thoughts you remember having. As you review the thoughts you can check whether they fall into certain unhelpful thinking styles. The more thought diaries you complete the more of a pattern you might see, e.g. black and white thinking where you regard a performance as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ You then use some thought-discovery questions to see if there are any unhelpful beliefs underpinning those thoughts, e.g. “I’ll never be good enough.”

• C is for Consequences: A list of how your body reacted; which feelings came up and how intense these emotions were; and your actions.

Some other strategies for identifying the type and frequency of self-talk involve drills in training sessions. You might set up a repetitive drill (such as a basketballer shooting 30 free throws) or a continuous drill (such as 5 minutes of game simulation on a smaller court) and record the thoughts which you experienced (for a few suggestions on how to go about this, feel free to contact me at this email address). Along with recording thoughts it’s worth noting down how your body, emotions and actions responded to these thoughts and considering whether these responses were helpful or unhelpful.

When you have collected a database of negative/unwanted/unhelpful thoughts from these drills or from thought diaries, you might want to reframe the thoughts to make them more helpful. This means taking negative thoughts and adapting them to be positive or technical/instructional. A negative thought such as “I’ll miss this shot” could be changed to “I can do this” or “eyes on the ball and follow through.” An unhelpful thought such as “I hate sprint drills” could be changed to “I’m getting faster” or “one rep at a time.”

Having worked through the steps above, it is then time to use your practice/training environment to learn how to better manage negative self-talk and to promote technical and positive self-talk for effective skill execution. As always, the team at Condor Performance is available to offer suggestions on how to go about this.

Author: Condor Performance

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