We all have that inner-voice. The one who shows up in those moments when we are going to take a risk. And for most of us, this becomes a healthy dialogue where we work through the positives and negatives of what we are about to take on. In certain circumstances, this is a healthy thing to do. If driving to a part of town we have not been through, that inner voice checks in and reminds you of times you got lost, and how that ruined your day. Pausing to be reflective of past negatives, or skills you may lack can keep us from making costly decisions. In positive situations, we may feel encouraged to take a risk. For instance, you have an opportunity to attend a concert in a place you’ve never been. That inner voice pipes up and encourages you to take the risk by preparing your GPS to give you instructions while you enjoy the drive in anticipation of what you know will be a great experience. But in sport, and other contexts of performance, this can get in the way.
I remember working with a pitcher a few years back whose inner voice was very negative. Technically what we are talking about is self-talk (ST). In this instance, the athlete was constantly listening to negative ST about himsef, questioning his ability to execute pitches, worrying about teammate and coaches’ reactions for poor performances, and explaining physical discomfort from stress as signs he was about to fail. By listening to this negative ST, he became distraught on the mound, and was so distracted that he “proved” the inner voice to correct as he through wildly. Over time, we were able to work together to help him recognize when that negative inner voice came up, and to refocus his attention in a more positive and productive manner.
So why do we talk to ourselves? In short, this is the way in which we have learned to understand most of ideas and thoughts. The inner dialogue is a means for understanding what we are experiencing now, reflecting on past events, and what we expect or anticipate going forward. Our mind is creating an inner narrative of our experiences. When we find ourselves nervous or uncertain, we use ST to increase motivation, hoping to find the courage and confidence to take on a difficult task. And if we can’t muster enough motivation, our ST becomes negative as a means of “protection” from the threat of failing. But if we rely on ST to get us through, there is a strong likelihood we become easy prey for difficult challenges.
Being aware of why ST can be detrimental is important. Intense and constant negative inner dialogue and lead to an athlete giving up on goals, as she begins to “believe” that she cannot succeed, or that something will hurt too much. A cycle of negative ST can also lower our motivation, as we begin to experience a sense of helplessness, believing that we are not capable. And for those who remain determined, there is the possibility of lowering your self-standards, feeling as though you are incapable or unworthy of higher levels of success.
I don’t mean to imply that you should ignore ST, or try to eliminate this natural process. In fact, positive ST can be very effective. There is evidence that motivation increases with a positive and encoruaging inner dialogue. Doing so can increase an athlete’s energy levels, as well as help him focus on working toward success. This is especially true when positive ST is focused on the present moment of competition and play. With the pitcher I noted above, eventually he was able to muster a greater focus on which pitch was needed in specific situations, and to use that inner dialogue to talk to himself about “how” to throw. But getting there required work.
Having positive ST is clearly a valuable mental skill. But at the same time, having a practice of “false” ST can be damaging. Instead, focusing your ST on realistic positives is important. One strategy I recommend is what I refer to as “hunting the good stuff”. I’ve written about this in previous blogs. Simply, this is taking time to implement self-recognitions by reflecting on a recent practice or competition and reminding yourself what you did well or learned. This becomes an effective means of building reilience and being more confident about your skill set. Similarly, when faced with a tough or challenging situation, purposefully turn your inner dialogue toward strengths you have that will help you find success. These strengths may be physical skills you have developed, or perosnal qualities you possess that connect to focus being mentally tough.
To make positive ST a “habit”, try implementing a drill I call Penny Pocket. Start your day with three pennies in your left pant pocket. As the day goes along, each time you recognize you have made a negative statement (or had a negative thought), switch one of the pennies to the opposite pocket. Similarly, if you make a positive statement, or have a positive thought (avoiding false or untruthful ones), return a penny to the original left pocket. By the end of the day, make your best efffort to finish with all of the pennies in the “positive pocket”. Like physical skills, this is a way to exercise and get better at self-talk.
Talking to yourself is normal. The way in which we talk to ourselves can be helpful or harmful. By purposefully engaging in positive ST, that is rooted in reality and present moment focus, helps us maintain our motivation while working toward high goals. This also allows us to maintain our self-expectations in a way that encourages us to continually work at self-improvement. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.