We all have that “inner voice”. The one that seems to be ever present, narrating our experiences and evaluating what we have done. Sometimes, it also likes to chime in about how we expect things to go. I was recently talking with an athlete who described having his inner voice as a series of doubting questions. Every time he found himself in a moment of direct interaction with his opponent, his inner voice began to ask questions about his own strengths, and whether he was actually able to do what he was trained to do. And the more questions the inner voice asked, the more he began to “freeze up”, which obviously then led to mistakes and tardiness in his reactions. By the time we met to talk, he was frustrated with himself, with a keen sense of awareness that he was much less fluid than he hoped to be at that point in his season.
The more he and I talked, the more clear it became that he was trapped in a cycle of negative self-talk. Through more investigation, he began to recognize that his doubts and questions were tied to a belief that he was “obligated” to meet the expectations others had of him. When I asked what those were, he noted the typical issues; “I’m supposed to be winning”, “I should dominate at this point in my career”, and “I’m supposed to be better because the team is counting on me.” When I asked who had told him these things, he noted that no one had, he just knew that was what was expected….”because”. Without any real (or realistic) expectations having been clearly communicated to him, he had begun to believe a false narrative, and consequently had internalized these as requirements to meet in order to validate his own self-worth. The pressure he felt from this faulty belief system had now manifested itself into a strong pattern of negative self-talk.
Most in the sport psychology world would quickly jump in here and give strong recommendation for “flipping” this with positive self-talk. At its most basic level, this would entail converting the negative statements into their opposite. Rather than, “I’m supposed to be better…”, the athlete would be coached to declare, “I’m good at this”, or “I’ve trained hard, and I’m ready.” While at face value, this seems logical and worthwhile, for many athletes this can backfire. Instead of using an inner dialogue that promotes a sense of well-being, it instead stands as confirmation that they don’t feel ready or that there is reason to doubt their own ability. When used in direct contradiction to how we feel, we in a sense are lying to ourselves. This can be especially true for athletes who harbor a perfectionist mentality.
Another issue I have seen with positive self-talk is a dependency for using it to hype up one’s emotions. This can also be tied to a belief that higher levels of emotion and arousal are needed in order to be ready to compete. This can be a dangerous tightrope to walk, On either side is a response of not being ready enough, or being over-hyped. And instead of being dialed in to the challenge this performance and its challenges brings, the athlete gets lost in the swirl of emotions. And should things go wrong, such as a mistake or an opponent beating you on a point, the athlete runs the risk of completely doubting himself, or trying to amplify his emotional state even higher.
This is why I feel “neutral self-talk” can be much more effective for athletes who are struggling and fighting themselves internally. By neutral self-talk, I mean employing present-focus with verbal cues in order to tap your skill set and face the challenge of competition.
Being present in the moment is about accepting the challenge before you. This may be the difficulties of the course, the abilities or strategy of your opponent, or degree of execution you will need to sustain over a specified amount of time. Doing this maintains your ability to hold on to your desire to be successful. Instead of opening up doubts and fears, the athlete recognizes challenges that will require a specific response within his control. Describing for yourself what the challenges are, you conceptually “contain” them with boundaries. At this point, your can now focus the inner-dialogue in a productive way.
Neutral talk can now be employed by focusing your attention on performance goals that will likely lead to success in this competition. Use your inner-voice to your advantage here, using short statements meant to keep your focus on execution or objectives. As a hitter, use neutral talk to focus on “cover the outer half” against a pitcher using breaking pitches away. As a defender on the court, remind yourself to “stay on his inner hip” to keep him from attacking the basket. As a swimmer in the last lap, maintain your focus on the last lap of a tight race with “win with stroke rate.” These types of statements direct your attention on what you are doing, or what you intend to do well, allowing your to maintain your motivation in pressure situations.
Remember too, this is competition, and in all sports mistakes and failures are inevitable. Although you may be using neutral self-talk, there will be situations when you get beat. This an opportunity to help yourself be resilient without hype. Take a moment to evaluate how close you came to what you intended to do. Although a subtle change in what the inner-voice is asking, the result is powerful. Instead of questions of doubt, you are now thinking forward on how to adjust in order to be successful in the next opportunity. The next step is to return to the previous neutral statements, and be ready to compete.
That inner-voice is always going to be present. It is a natural function of the brain. At times it can get away from us, especially if we have a sense of perfectionism or a belief that meeting high expectations is connected to our value. But we can redirect this self-talk with a neutral voice to helps us focus on what we actually can control. An athlete who has then put in the time and effort to hone his skills then increases the chances of success by focusing his attention of execution. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.