We all know negative self talk can be detrimental to our performance. Doubt and self-criticism were never a way to success. As Henry Ford once said: whether you think you can, or you can't--you're right. But often, we can't stop the negative inner dialogue in our minds, and spiral down a self-deprecating route. We are more likely to reassure others with positive words; so why are we so harsh on ourselves? We can't shut off the mind, but there are strategies to help you silence the frontal lobe of your brain for at least a little while, so you can gain a greater focus on the task at hand.
In comes Self-talk. Self-talk is a common self-control strategy. It is the dialogue you have going on in your head. What you think or say to yourself can affect how you feel, and how you feel largely determines how you perform. Thus, the words you say to yourself can significantly influence how confident, satisfied, and energized you will feel. Makes sense to be more positive to yourself right? Well, as we mentioned, that is easier said than done. We need to essentially "trick" the mind into focusing on more adaptive action, rather than our negative "default mode".
The first step in improving your self-talk is to become more self-aware of what you're actually saying to yourself. Too often, we don't even notice that were being quite harsh to ourselves, and unfortunately this becomes a habit. So, start off by regularly asking yourself:
-“What am I thinking and saying to myself?”
-“Am I encouraging or discouraging myself?”
-“Am I helping or hindering my performance and well-being?”
The more you become aware and catch yourself thinking in a negative way, the less damage it inflicts. Overtime, negative patterns of thinking can become chronic and even lead to depression, and maladaptive perfectionism.
Step 2 - give the mind something concrete to focus on
The Pink Elephant Dilemma
If I tell you don't think of a pink elephant right now, what do you think happens? You think of a pink elephant. The same thing applies to having a good performance. For example, if you tell your mind "don't miss", or "don't screw up", your mind will focus on not doing that thing, and ironically you will fail. If we don't give the brain something to think about, it usually ends up focusing on something negative by default.
Unfortunately, many people spend a great deal of time talking negatively to themselves, especially when they face challenges, barriers, or setbacks. However, you have a choice in this matter to give the mind something encouraging, and positive to focus on even if you are not performing well in the moment.
So when you catch yourself saying something like "I can't do this" or "I am super nervous", instead of giving that phrase some weight and attention, come up with a "cue word" that can help you bring yourself to the present. Here is an example:
His cue word was "clear the mechanism". It got rid of the distractions, and brought him onto the task at hand. Everyone is different and unique. Use something that has some significant meaning for you. If you want to be explosive in your starting speed, use "power". If you want to be relaxed, use "chill". Or it can be something as simple as "focus". Whatever it is, it essentially tricks your mind into focusing on one concrete thing, rather than on the negative.
It also doesn't necessarily have to be a phrase. You can visualize seeing a stop sign, or see your thoughts dissolve down a drain. Even writing the words down on a sheet for your reference can help. Here is Andy Murray reading his "mental checklist" during a break:
The Rule of Three
Another good way to keep your mind focused on the task at hand, is to give it a few things that are within your control to bring attention to. Before a match or performance, give your mind just three things to focus on. For example, a soccer player might want to focus on (1) working hard (2) making good runs (3) keeping it simple. Throughout the game, this athlete can bring their attention back to these three things whenever he or she starts to get distracted or discouraged. Depending on your position, the 3 things can change, but it gives you something concrete and simple to get you back on track and focused.
Take your brain to the gym
The more you train your brain to catch yourself when you're being negative, and shift your attention to your cue word, the better your ability to stay present and focused longer. Try out these few tips before, during, and after your performance, and see if it works for you!