In another post I reviewed the importance of our self-talk and how it can affect performance. Recognition is a critical first step to improve our self-talk. This is actually easy to do. Take out a piece of paper and make two columns. On the left side list the different aspects of training, racing or course specific aspects. For example you could list the following: warm-up, starting line, hills, getting passed by someone, hearing split times (too fast, on-time too slow), middle of race, during workout on track, the competition, mile to go in race, kicking, etc. Now for each of these aspects think back to a recent race or workout and write down the thoughts that went through your mind at that moment. There can be multiple thoughts. (This is best done immediately after a race or workout.)
You now have a written record of your self-talk. Analyze it. How often did you tell yourself affirming things? How often were they negative or defeatist type thoughts? Once you identify these statements it’s time to do something about them.
Here are techniques sports psychologists and mental game coaches use to get your thinking back on the right track.
Thought Stoppage – Focus briefly on the unwanted thought then introduce a trigger such as the word “stop”. You could even say it out loud – better if you’re alone though. Without replacing the negative thought, this is not very effective by itself – it is only the start in my opinion.
Change Negative Thoughts to Postive Thoughts – It’s obvious what the intent is here. Change from “I don’t run hills well” to “I run tough on hills.”
Countering – This cognitive technique addresses the belief itself. Construct a logical argument (use facts and reasons) against the negative self-talk. Go ahead, debate yourself. (I hate it when I lose an argument to myself.)
Reframing – This approach creates alternatives for looking at the same event. i.e. “I run hills poorly” can be reframed to “I may lose some time uphill but I can gain that and more on the downhill side.”
A last word on self-talk
Irrational and distorted thinking is more than merely negative self-talk. Albert Ellis identified four basic irrational beliefs for athletes.
I must at all time perform outstandingly well.
Others whom I hold significant to me have to approve and love me.
Everyone has got to treat me kindly and fairly.
The conditions of my life, particularly my life in sports, absolutely must be arranged so that I get what I want when I want.
Without going into the details he goes on to identify these patterns of distorted thinking.
Perfection is essential. This is a debilitating thought that gets athletes stuck in the “practice” mindset – trying to perfect technique – while trying to compete.
Catastrophizing is when you expect the worst and that any failure is humiliating. Furthermore you focus on all the what-ifs.
Equating your worth to your achievement or status in sports.
Personalization is an egocentric view of events. You internalize and interpret events as solely your fault (i.e. a loss).
The fallacy that everything has to be fair or have ideal conditions. What comes along with this is the belief that accomplishments are supposed to somehow be “easy”… especially when compared to others.
Blaming is sort of the opposite of personalization. It is the belief that everything is everyone else’s fault.
Polarized thinking is the all-or-nothing or black-and-white view of life and life events.
Over-generalizations encompass things like superstitions. It is most often an extrapolation to “all” events from a single event. i.e. If I had a great race in a certain pair of shoes and now believe I can only run well in those shoes.
These thought patterns are especially difficult to overcome. They often have a lifetime of reinforcement. But it can be done! Changing any of our thought patterns, beliefs and views of ourselves takes work. If any technique is done passively and without intent to really change they will most likely fail. Our thoughts lead our actions. If you want different results, you have to do something different. Work at it. If your beliefs and self-talk are holding you back, it may be time to hire a certified mental games coach.