How To Strengthen Your Self-Talk Skills

Michael Phelps

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Think about the last time your coach presented an incredibly challenging set at practice…
 
What were your initial thoughts about it? How did your perception of the challenge impact your level of motivation, your energy, and ultimately how you performed? Our perception of a given situation almost always significantly affects our level of success.  
 
Our thoughts and beliefs have a powerful hold over how we feel and act. Cognitive-behavior psychology and sport psychology is grounded in the reality that there is a connection between our thoughts, emotions, and behavior/performance. Sports psychologists and coaches alike often encourage their athletes to "control the controllable" and not focus on outside circumstances. While we can't control the situation (i.e. pool conditions, that eye-popping set, level of competition), we do have control of our perception of the situation and our response. Today, we will talk about some self-talk skills (reframing, mantras, focus cues, reset cues) that athletes use to positively influence their performance.
 
It is normal to have doubts and negative thoughts. We all do. But how long do you focus your attention and energy on these doubts?  

Reframing is a powerful skill for combatting these moments of doubt. You probably already practice this skill without truly being aware of it. It is the act of being aware of, and then changing, one's self-talk. Once you recognize your doubt, evaluate the validity and utility of that thought. Oftentimes our thoughts are exaggerated with words such as ​always and ​never that simply aren't true. Sometimes our doubts have a small seed of truth to them, yet focusing on them isn't useful. If it isn't true or useful toward your goal, replace it with a more productive thought.  

Practice reframing by logging your thoughts (both positive and negative) after each practice. Evaluate the truth and usefulness of a couple of your negative thoughts and then write down a new thought that would be more useful for the situation.  

Thought? Truth? Utility? Reframe
"This set is impossible... I can't do it." Some truth. Finished similar sets before, but intervals look harder. Zero. Feeling pity for myself won't help. "This is going to be really hard, but I can do it. One rep at a time. I will cheer on my teammates to help keep me going. We're in this together."
During that long, brutal set you have ample time to work through that doubt and eventually reframe your mindset. But what about right behind the block, immediately before you perform? The more automatic this skill is, the more useful it is for those big moments. Going through the mentioned reframe exercise will improve your ability to use it "in the moment" -- when you need it most.    

The most important instance of reframing that I have heard of came from four-time Olympian ​Jason Lezak. He shared this at a swim clinic. Talking about his epic comeback in the men's 4x100m freestyle relay at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Lezak stated that he had a quick moment of doubt at the turn. To catch ​Alain Bernard, the world-record holder at the time in the 100m freestyle, seemed nearly impossible. Lezak, considering the significance of this race for the USA, quickly "reframed" his mindset. He described to the clinic that he felt a surge of adrenaline like never before, enabling him to chase down Bernard for the gold medal and world record. The power the mind can have over our physical capabilities is truly incredible.

Using a mantra or personal affirmation is a proactive way to take control of your self-talk. Mantras can be incredibly powerful tools of resiliency, serving as quick and effective reminders of one's goals and strengths. Think of it as your own quick, concise, and meaningful mission statement. Your mantra should address your desired experience and not overemphasize the adversity or pain. It should serve as a distraction from the struggle. The most effective mantras are short, positive, instructive, and use action words. ​Diana Nyad, who swam 112 miles from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64, embraced the mantra ​"find a way."

Focus cues and reset cues are similar to mantras but are more task-specific. Athletes may struggle with what to focus on throughout a practice or before a race. Some let their thoughts drift to what others will think of them or overthink about a desired outcome. A quick and specific focus cue can simplify your thoughts and zone you into the moment. A focus cue such as "press and pop" or "kick and drive" can keep you focused on the process. Reset cues, such as "bounce back," "clean the slate," or "my breath, my race, my moment," can be useful between races or behind the block to aid in shifting one's attention from the last race and into the present moment.  

The greatest athletes certainly recognize the power their self-talk has over their performance.

Fine-tune your reframing skills by raising your awareness and creating productive thoughts.

Find your own mantra to be proactive with your pursuit of a positive mindset.

Utilize focus and reset cues to shift your concentration back into the moment. Make your self-talk your ally.  
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​Andrew "Chip" Augustus is the Senior swim coach at Cardinal Aquatics in Louisville Kentucky. Chip graduated from Centre College in 2011, where he swam, with degrees in History and Psychology. He earned his MEd. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Louisville in 2016.  Chip volunteers with Dr. Vanessa Shannon, UofL's Director of Mental Performance. He works on his own mental skills by swimming masters and competing in triathlons; he completed the 2016 Louisville Ironman.
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