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Sports Psychology: Self-talk and negativity

“Whether you believe you can, or you believe you can’t, you are right. Your body hears everything your mind says. What you tell yourself daily will either get you to try something or stop you from doing something.”

Self-talk is your inner voice. It is a large part of what makes you who you are. It has an effect on how you feel about yourself. How you feel about what you can achieve in life. How you are viewed by the world. How you interact with others. Your self-talk has a powerful effect on your self-esteem, self-confidence and self-image. Your self-talk can be either negative and self-defeating, or positive, cheerful and supportive.

How often do you find yourself thinking or saying to yourself: “I am not good at this”, “This is too hard”, “I give up”, “Nothing I do will make a difference”, “I will make a mistake”, “Why can’t I be as good as person x”, “It’s not good enough”, “I am a complete failure”…

The above are examples of negative self-talk. It has a direct impact on your performance. It can destroy your motivation and self-confidence. It has an effect on your mindset. Many people beat themselves up daily without even realising. Is your self-talk working for you? Do you often put yourself down? When you make a mistake do you call yourself stupid, an idiot or worse? Do you get frustrated with yourself? Do you torment yourself with painful rumination? Is your self-talk attacking and judging you? Do you blame yourself when things go wrong? Do you compare yourself negatively with others? The way you talk to yourself helps shape how you feel about yourself. You will never feel good about yourself if you are always negative to yourself.

Your negative self-talk has a direct impact on your mental health. It can drain your energy. It can cause you to feel miserable including low mood and depression. It makes you feel bad about yourself and things around you. It can even make you doubt or question something good. Negative self-talk is irrational. It can lead to tensing of the muscles and decreased reaction times. It can influence your decision-making causing tunnel vision. In comparison, positive self-talk makes you feel good about yourself. It makes you optimistic about the things going on in your life. It helps you look on the bright side of life. It encourages you to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. It increases your energy levels and maintains focus therefore limiting distractions.

“You cannot always control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to uncontrollable events by controlling what is happening inside your head.”

 Examples of positive self-talk include saying things such as: “I am doing the best I can”, “I have prepared well for this moment”, “Despite the pressure, I will try to enjoy myself”, “It will be tough but I can get through this”, “I am struggling at the moment but it is only temporary”, “I am grateful for the opportunity”…

However, you are probably thinking it is impossible and even impractical to be positive all the time. So how can you make your self-talk work for you? If you are wanting to improve your mindset and attitude or simply wanting to be more accepting of yourself, it is important you look at your internal dialogue. Most people spend very little time, if any at all, thinking about their thoughts. Many people do not even realise there is a running commentary going on in the background. They do not realise they are controlled by their self-talk.

Have you ever tried to turn off your thoughts? Try it. For the next 30 seconds try to think of nothing. Eliminate all thoughts and empty your mind of all conscious activity. Most people find this activity extremely difficult particularly if it is one of the first times that they have tried to do it. Normally any attempt to empty the mind is followed by a flood of thoughts. This is your self-talk.

“This is a ‘can do’, ‘will do’ and ‘get things done’ day.”

There are a number of situations where you can use self-talk. You have to start by always assessing every situation and focusing on what you can do rather than what you cannot. Emphasise your strengths in your self-talk and the fact you are building on your weaknesses. Your self-talk cannot be a daydream. It must be realistic. You must focus on the present rather than the past or future. The past cannot be changed and the there is no guarantee about the future. The present is the only thing you can act upon. Stay in the here and now by using self-talk to provide clear instructions or to keep you motivated such as ‘come on’ or ‘relax the shoulders’. Try to view problems and difficulties as challenges and opportunities rather than a threat.

Self-talk could include things such as ‘I will give it a try’ or ‘this is a great opportunity to test my skills’. Remember success is due to skill and effort. This success can be replicated in the future. Use your self-talk to remind yourself that the success was due to your input – ‘I did it once so I can do it again’. Failure, for example, must be seen as an opportunity to learn what needs to be improved next time. Your self-talk could include things such as ‘more effort is needed next time to improve,’ ‘next time maintain energy until the end to improve’ or ‘next time stay focused on the job at hand to improve’ or ‘at least now I know what I need to do to improve my skill and I will get better as long as I keep working at it’…

Focus on what you can change and keep giving yourself instructions via your self-talk. Often you try to change things beyond your control such as people, luck, the weather or events. Make sure your self-talk is providing clear instructions about what you can control. Always remember that your performance is separate to your self-worth. Your worth as a human being has nothing to do with how well you perform in your work or how well you ride or train or breed a horse. Constantly, remind yourself that you are a good human being, despite your weaknesses and flaws.

“Have you noticed how much happier you feel when the sun is shining in comparison to how you feel on a wet, cold and windy day? The external environment plays an important role in altering our mood and emotions. However, what is going on inside your head can influence you even more.”

Handy tips to help improve your self-talk

  1. Try the Negative Self-Talk Stopping technique. Noticing how you talk to yourself is the beginning to changing it for the better. Start by mentally telling yourself to stop when you become aware of negative self-talk. This will give you the opportunity to address the thought and interrupt the cycle. Next, observe what you are saying to yourself and how it is making you feel. Finally, shift your response by using a positive coping skill or technique such as changing the self-talk to more neutral or by confronting the negative self-talk and seeking evidence.
  2. Talk to yourself as you would to someone you love. Ask yourself, would you be so harsh on a friend or a loved one?
  3. When you are stressed or anxious, your self-talk often becomes hostile and sarcastic. This can make the situation worse. When talking to yourself try to encourage yourself for the effort you have given or instruct yourself on what to do next. For example if riding your horse you might say ‘soften your hands or release your knee or outside rein’ (instructions), or you might say ‘come on try again’ or ‘come on next movement’ (encouragement).
  4. Your self-talk often does not reflect reality. Therefore you can challenge your self-talk. Seek evidence to prove your negative self-talk is correct. You will find there is little evidence to back it up.
  5. When replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk, replace the ‘I’ with your name.
Dr Lynn Pal [BSc (Hons), PGDip Sport, PGC (BPS personality A & B), PGDip CBT, MBCT, PhD, PGCHE, C Psychol.] is a Neurobiological and Behavioural Chartered Psychologist with a background in Biomedical Sciences and Psychology. Specialist professional qualifications and training include cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, sport psychology and psychoneurobiology. Experience includes 15 years in teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, an academic career including national and international research publications, consultancy work in national audits and national/international sporting teams, research supervision and a portfolio of sport, health and clinical clients. Dr Lynn Pal provides free sport psychology tips and research updates on social media www.facebook.com/drlynnpal/. If you are interested in working with Lynn please contact lynn.s.pal@gmail.com.


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