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Have you ever talked to yourself before?

Talking to ourselves has nothing to do with being crazy (or maybe just a tiny bit ;)) but is actually considered as a very useful strategy in sports to control emotions, motivation, self-doubts and our movements. Professional climbers like Katha Saurwein, Sasha DiGiulian or tennis pros like Novak Djokovic (and many more professional athletes) use this technique in order to focus a 100% on what they're doing and shift their focus away from negative thoughts and emotions such as e.g. being afraid of falling at great heights or losing the next game.

Very often we are not even aware of the amount of negative thoughts and emotions we have. We quickly make assumptions like, "I'm not able to climb this", "I won't have a chance in this competition because there are so many other strong athletes" or "I'm not motivated to do this today in training" etc. I believe all of us have had negative thoughts like this before and the list of examples could obviously be way longer and individually different. Very often we have so-called fixed "negative belief systems". This means, negative generalisations of things based on previous experiences, e.g. "I never make it past semis, I always do super well in qualifications, ranking in a top position but I never make it past semis" or "I always do badly in my first qualifications". Words like "I always..." or "I never..." are very generalising and believe it or not, are mostly very irrational. Why this isn't rational, I'll tell you about later when I propose different strategies of self talk. All in all, negative thoughts like this can negatively influence our performance and shift our focus away from what is actually important. If we only think about failing, the chances of actually not doing well is way higher. If we doubt our abilities, it will be way more likely that we won't be able to recall them when we need to (like e.g. in competitions). This psychological phenomenon is also called a "self fulfilling prophecy". A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction we make that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true. Expectations and beliefs about a situation evoke a behaviour that supports this perception and expectation come true. 

The crux is to become aware of negative thoughts and emotions. How often do we have such negative thoughts? How often does our focus shift away from the actual action, task or movement? How often do we have a lack of motivation, self-doubts, negative emotions & thoughts or lose tension? 

Here's a little exercise for you which you can either do in your training or even at work.

Prepare several little scraps of paper and put them into your pocket. For every negative thought that comes to your mind, throw one of these little scraps of paper on the ground. At the end of the training (or work day) have a look at how many there are. Are you surprised? Have you expected more or less? 

How can we improve our self talk?

  • First of all, we have to recognise our negative thoughts. Write them all down.
  • Try to reformulate these negative thoughts. Instead of "I can't do this, this won't work" tell yourself, e.g. "I'll try my best right now." Instead of "of course this didn't go well again, I'm too bad", say to yourself "Ok, it might not have worked this time, but I'll try my best and train really hard so it works next time." Instead of "Shit, I'm so nervous", tell yourself "I may be nervous because that's normal. But I learnt how to deal with it." Everyone of us has their own formulations. These are just examples what you could tell yourself in case you can't think of anything yourself. Try to be creative though and find a solution that fits you!

Generally, we differentiate between three different self talk strategies:

  • Thought stop technique: It's often hard to escape the circle of negative thoughts. Therefore try to imagine a "stop sign" or tell yourself (silently or loudly) "stop" when negative thoughts come to your mind. Once having imagined the stop sign, you'll have to think of a positive alternative, otherwise the negative thoughts will come back. (Remember the example "Don't think of the pink elephant"). What can you think of instead? What calms you down or puts you into a good mood? Is it a positive picture or a motivating phrase you tell yourself?
  • Affirmations and self-motivation: This technique helps you to motivate yourself and keep going. You can talk to yourself (such as the given examples from before, Katha Saurwein or Sasha DiDiulian – follow the links) to stay focus and psyched. Try to formulate affirmations for yourself that are formulated
    • positively (without negations)
    • present-tense
    • first person perspective
    • written down
  • Rationalisation/ relativisation: The last technique is to rationalise and relativise negative thoughts and generalisations. As I said before, we sometimes have negative belief systems such as "I always..." or "I never..." or "last time... this happened, so this time, this is probably going to happen again". Have you ever thought about how often such fateful situations actually happened? How often have you e.g. actually done badly in qualifications? This techniques helps us to put challenges in a realistic perspective. Instead of "Today it's raining and last time I tumbled when it was raining", what can you tell yourself differently? Well, maybe: "9 out of 10 times I've actually not tumbled". When we generalise things and become afraid of certain situations, we often forget how often we have already successfully managed similar situations. We should focus on these positive experiences instead.

What do you tell yourself to stay focused? In which situations do you use the self-talk technique? Have you used this technique before? What did you like/ dislike about it?

If you have any further questions concerning self talks, don't hesitate to ask.