Using Positive Self-Talk to Improve Performance
The human brain is the most complex organ in our bodies and arguably in all of creation. Learning to unlock its powers is the key to unlocking consistent high-level performance. When it comes to its relationship with athletic ability we must analyze its effect on human behavior. Research suggests that our behavior is formed from a complex interaction of three parts: our actions (what we do), our cognition (what we think), and our emotions (how we feel). Our actions are probably the most well understood part of this equation. It consists of the things we do that can be physically perceived or observed. It is our physiological activation to perform the necessary movements and motions for sport, i.e. swing a bat, throw a ball, swim a lap. Our cognition (thoughts) and emotions (feelings) are a bit more complex, yet equally important in the performance equation. Cognition can directly influence confidence, as cognition consists of our knowledge and skills and our ability to recall them at a given moment. The athlete who takes 1,000 reps is working on storing that muscle memory for later use. This is an example of cognition and action working together. Emotion is even more complex than cognition and can have detrimental effects on both action and thought. The feelings we have, such as fear and anxiety, can have physiological effects like muscle tension and elevated heart rate that directly influence our call to action. Understanding and controlling emotion, thought, and action will lead to more consistent performance.
So where does self-talk fit in to the equation? Self-talk is a cognitive (thought) tool used to influence our emotional (feeling) state in order to improve our actions (physical response). Self-talk is the verbal conversation we have with ourselves in our own head. Self-talk can be utilized as a mantra, reminder of previous successes, or a re-focusing agent. All of these forms are meant to build confidence and calm the physiological sensation of negative emotions (fear, anxiety, nervousness). Let’s analyze these forms more closely:
A mantra is a word or phrase that can be repeated internally as a means of confidence building.
Some examples include: “There is nothing I can’t do”, “You got this”, “I am powerful”
Think of a mantra that is special to you that you can use in times of pressure or stress.
A reminder of previous success is self-explanatory. Think of a time you succeeded at the task you are performing and tell yourself about it. It can be a specific moment or just a time you have completed the task in general.
Example: Specific – “I crushed the last pitch this guy threw me”, “This person couldn’t guard me last game”
General – “I have been hitting golf balls great lately”, “I have a great shooting percentage”
Re-focusing self-talk is also self-explanatory. The mind has a tendency to wander during games. Unruly crowds and opponents attempt to get into your mind and throw you off your game. When this happens it is important to re-focus on your task at hand.
Example: When shooting a free-throw, you must remind yourself to block out the crowd and focus on the shot and basket. When pitching and opponents in the dugout start trash talking, you can step off and remind yourself to find the strike zone and catcher’s mitt and focus on throwing a strike.
These self-talk techniques are cognitive ways to influence your emotions so your actions will be beneficial to performance. They can calm your nerves, especially when teamed with other techniques (see http://www.sportpsychologytoday.com/youth-sports-psychology/calm-your-nerves-literally/). A calm action (physiological) state allows for better muscle memory activation (cognitive) and leads to ideal outcomes and, as we all know, better outcomes produce better emotions. Let them all interact for your benefit. Start taking control of you game!