Everybody talks to themselves all day long. Your brain narrates your day, and if you are like most people, a lot of the running commentary is negative - full of warnings, doubts, and fears. Athletes must understand how self-talk affects performance. Negative self-talk leads to negative emotions like worry, fear or panic. Your brain responds by adjusting your heart rate, breathing rate, degree of muscle tension, and the amount of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that are released into the bloodstream. It diverts attention from the task at hand, making it difficult to focus. It can also infect your teammates, causing them to become more negative and potentially negatively impacting their performance.
Over time, negative self-talk can have adverse health effects. When you sense danger or a challenge your brain triggers your adrenal glands to release small amounts of cortisol. This can enhance athletic performance by inhibiting pain sensitivity, improving memory and creating a burst of energy. However, chronically elevated cortisol levels impair thinking, elevate blood pressure and slow healing from injuries. Studies show that athletes who have consistent negative self-talk often have higher cortisol levels, and that when they implement a positive-talk training program they reduce those cortisol levels over time.
Examine Your Thoughts
First recognize negative self-talk. Do certain people, settings (school, home, swimming) or situations (practice, tests, meets) trigger more negative self-talk? Some people have a habit of certain kinds of negative self-talk. Look for patterns:
- Perfectionism Do you think mistakes are unacceptable? Does your happiness rely on outcomes like winning the race or getting the top grade?
- Doubts and Fears Do you imagine all of the things that can possibly go wrong?
- All or Nothing Can a single less-than-ideal swim ruin your whole session? Or a single bad class ruin your whole day at school?
- Dwelling on the Negative Do you tend to personalize what other people say or do? Can you let bad breaks go? Do you blame other people responsible for your negative thoughts?
- Claiming A counter-productive cycle happens when a person expresses negative thoughts to solicit support or help. For example, a swimmer may say to a coach, "I stink at butterfly," even if they actually think they are average or even good at the stroke, hoping for extra help or reassurance. However, in the swimmer's mind, and sometimes the coach's, this sets up a belief that becomes hard to shake.
STOP negative self-talk
As soon as you recognize one, say, "STOP," to yourself, or imagine a big red STOP sign. Now, Replace the Negative Thought with a positive one. Here are two strategies for replacing negative thoughts.
Countering When you have an unrealistically pessimistic thought try countering it with logic. For example, you think, "I've never done an open water swim. I'm probably going to panic." Instantly ask yourself, "Why do I think that? It's new, but it is still swimming and it's a distance I do every day in practice. Why shouldn't it go well?"
Reframing In reframing you are not trying to change the situation. You are trying to see it in a more positive way. "I can't do a crossover turn." becomes "I can't do a crossover turn yet." There is a big difference in those two statements with the addition of one small but powerful word. Champions do this well. What one swimmer sees as a failure, a champion sees as an opportunity to learn or a motivation for future success.
Creating Positive Self-Talk
Have you ever heard the saying, "The best defense is a good offense?" Don't wait for negative talk to happen. Instead, prepare for positive self-talk. Research on athletic performance shows that there are 4 specific categories of performance-based self-talk you can use to your advantage.
Calming/Relaxing | Instructional | Motivational | Focusing
Develop Affirmations and Cues for all of the categories below. Keep them Positive, Short, and Powerful and use them consistently.
Affirmations are strong, positive statements about a goal that you have achieved or believe can be realized. Affirmations interrupt negative self-talk, encourage greater effort, and build confidence. Many champions rely on affirmations to achieve their goals. Muhammad Ali, one of the best heavyweight boxers of all time said, "It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen." He said,"I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was."
Start with affirmations you can believe because they are true right now - like "I am a State Championship Qualifier," or "I like the challenge of a close race." Gradually begin to set stretch affirmations. For example, even if you barely made a cut to participate in a preliminary event, and doubt creeps in that you will be in the top 8 who will make it back to finals, you affirm, "I am a finalist." Use the present tense, even if you have not yet achieved the goal. For most people, "I am" statements are more effective than "I will" statements, which can imply success at an uncertain future date and time. Say it, believe it, and your body will react to make it happen. Make them positive ("I stay relaxed and focused at the start" NOT "I won't tense up on the blocks.")
Write a list of swimming affirmations - include positive statements about your fitness (I have unbeatable endurance,) your mental state (I am focused,) your training and skills (I work hard and smart), your faith - anything you can think of that will help you reach your goals. Now look over the list. Is there an affirmation on the list that you cannot believe? Do you need that affirmation to be true to reach your goals? If so, you need to make a plan to make the affirmation start working for you. Next, work your affirmations into your routine. Many champions keep affirmations at their bedside to read before bed or first thing in the morning. Others keep them with their equipment so that they can refer to them before they train or compete.
Cues are words you can use in practice or meets for focus, confidence, motivation and resiliency. Cues are:
- Short Use them like a mantra - something you can repeat to reinforce. "EXPLODE!" "OWN THIS!"
- Evocative It needs to create a powerful sensory image.
- Personal You have to make it your own. Keep working until you find one that works and then use it consistently.
For example, let's say you know you need an explosive recovery in breaststroke. Repeating "explosive recovery" will not work for most people. Instead, imagine a desk covered with books and papers. Imagine your current breaststroke recovery is like pushing all the papers off the desk. You want it stronger - more explosive - so you imagine using everything you have to push the whole desk over, not just the papers. Hear the crashing sounds, see the papers scatter. Now, swim your stroke, and as you recover your hands, say "DESK!" to yourself as your whole body drives your hands forward hard enough to knock that desk over. Do that consistently in practice, and then on race day, use your cue - DESK! - to drive yourself to recover explosively every stroke cycle.