Written by therapist Zach Seifert
“I think that everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it, and you put the work and time into it. I think your mind really controls everything.” – Michael Phelps
What is Positive Self-talk in Sport?
Positive self-talk can be a mantra, expression, general praise, building ability, confidence, etc. expressed inwardly aimed toward a stated goal or event performance. It looks like an internal dialogue or statement aimed at remaining in a positive mindset. Positive self-talk includes the active engagement with thoughts that can sometimes lean negative, ultimately challenging their validity and reframing negative thoughts that have no evidence in more helpful ways. Positive self-talk can be as simple as, “I’ve got this,” or as complex as running through a game plan internally and visualizing positive outcomes with language.
Why is it Important?
Our brains are wired toward a concept called negativity bias, the brain’s tendency to register negative stimuli more actively than positive. I think about it as an evolutionary adaptation that we have developed overtime. This is used to sift through gathered information that is helpful and use it to “improve”. While this is extremely helpful in learning what to do to improve, if we use it, it postures our mind in a way that can ignore the more positive leaning stimulus such as successes. Ultimately, we have overvalued negativity. If we ignore positive stimuli, it makes it practically impossible to escape the negativity that is inevitable as failure ensues. Recognition and focus on positive feedback can be life changing for athletes that have been brainwashed into believing that the only focus should be on the failure and negativity that often comes with sporting culture.
Brains become efficient at developing and processing, as well as consistent at what is being filtered through them. If your brain is focusing heavily on negative stimulus, it will develop neural pathways that become familiar with the negativity that is being provided. By challenging this negativity of thought, one can re-train the brain to focus on positive thoughts, in turn improving the ability to think, reason, and form helpful memories useful in your sport performance. Replacing negative thinking patterns with positive and useful messages aimed at successful outcomes is key in shifting this narrative.
Motivational self-talk is aimed at increasing confidence, improving effort, and refining energy expenditure to harness a more positive mood. Boosting motivation and intensity to complete the stated objective is crucial to increasing confidence in overall ability. This type of self-talk can also encourage positive mindset and even help athletes improve from game to game, or event to event. More-so, motivational talk is what we see in team huddles or from coaches before and during games. This kind of self-talk is a personal expression of that motivation, resonating in ways that are personal; less about “We” and more focused on “Me”.
- “I can do this! I know I can because I have done it before.”
- “I have practiced hard and am competent in my skill, I know that trying my best will put me in a great position to succeed!”
- “I can give my best effort; I have proven it to myself.”
Focusing self-talk is aimed at increasing focus on the present moment and task at hand, directing your mind toward the skill or task you will be performing.
Often, depending on the state of an individual’s thought patterns, distractions can creep in and question past failed performances or nerves about failing in the future. To combat these human tendencies to question abilities based on previous performances, one can practice mantras aimed at focusing their attention on the present moment and less on the past. Identifying queues in the direct environment can be important here, whether it is ensuring the quality of equipment before an event or checking note cards before a presentation, posturing one’s mind is crucial in focusing intent on meeting the goals they have laid out.
For example, I used to wrap my own wrists before football games off by myself and run through plays as a prompt for my brain to focus on the coming task at hand; “your job on this play is…” or, “your assignment on this play is…” This would allow me to focus and posture myself in a game time mindset before heading on the field.
Calming self-talk aimed at soothing and calming the anxious parts of the brain when a potential energy expenditure is eminent. A competition such as a golf tournament might require calming self-talk to quiet all the uncontrollable variables that come with competing in the tournament (weather, wind, tee times, interviews, etc.); “just breathe”, “let the tension release through the head”, etc. are great example of calming self-talk.
Calming self-talk can help to engage in effective breathing strategies that allow oxygen to get into the bloodstream, ultimately to the brain, for better decision-making and working toward peak performance. A relaxed posture is important in performance so that the training an individual has gone through is easily accessible from a clear and relaxed mindset, where they can easily access these skills when adversity arises. Training usually carries a goal of making performance second nature, calming self-talk can ensure the mind is clear and focused on the appropriate stimulus, ensuring output is second nature.
Positive self-talk is extremely helpful for finding success as an athlete and in competitive spaces. It allows individuals to posture their mind in more positive ways and believe in their abilities and training. It is a wonderful skill to develop and practice actively if you are an athlete. If this sounds like you or someone you know, and you believe talking about how to become more efficient can help, I would love to hear from you. Don’t hesitate to reach out!