In last month’s article, I asked you to pay attention to the way language is used in your system and your head through the self-talk challenge. This month I’ll add texture to the challenge by explaining how self-talk influences EVERYthing. Sports, life, and what you have for lunch are all managed through self-talk.
- Self-talk is how we “hear” our thoughts. It is a collection of statements, phrases, and cue words that direct our actions and provide a running commentary on our experiences.
- Self-talk starts from the way our primary caregiver talked to us as we were figuring out the world.
- It is expanded on and affirmed through the messages we receive in our families, and other systems like sports, school, and friends.
What we think as expressed through self-talk influences what we feel. In response to negative thinking, the mind says, “Hey, I think we have a problem,” sending warning signals to the body. The body tightens up, and sends a message back to the brain saying, “Alright, we’re on lockdown. What next?” The body tightening up affirms to the mind that there is a problem, and it says, “The body agrees, we have a problem. Let’s double down!”
The Negative Thought/Feeling Loop
I call this the negative thought/feeling loop. If we don’t consciously step in, it keeps spinning. Each pass through the loop makes the perceived problem and its psychological and physical consequences bigger. It creates mental chatter focused on negative outcomes. In real life, the emotional, physical, and psychological reactions to the chatter sit underneath things like anxiety and depression. In performance, the chatter wrecks attention, focus, and coordination.
The Belief System Drives It All
The things we hear repeatedly in our families of origin, systems like school and sports, and from our friends, become the foundation of our belief system. If you are a parent, keep this in mind! Consistent messages create and affirm a “good kid” or a “rotten apple.” They tell us we are “gifted” or “challenged.” They lead us to believe we “march to the beat of our own drum” or perhaps we are as “straight as an arrow.”
This process is true of all the beliefs we gather about ourselves, others, and the world. It is important to be aware of our negative beliefs because they fuel negative self-talk. It is also important to understand that just because we believe them doesn’t make them true. They rarely are true, but they are the filter we unconsciously run our experience through, anyway.
The Big 3
Fundamental to the belief system are the “Big 3” negative core beliefs. They are:
- I am unlovable
- I am unworthy
- I am helpless/incompetent
Everyone has some arrangement of the Big 3. Everything that distresses us bottoms out in our individual combination of them. When we are angry, annoyed, put out, whatever… when we bristle, it’s because a raw nerve is being plucked. The Big 3 are the root of those raw nerves. We bristle because the external experience implies that we are unlovable, unworthy, or incompetent. Adolescence coupled with sport performance is a minefield of these triggers.
We rarely hear the Big 3 directly in our heads. Self-talk operates more through our intermediate beliefs. These are our rules and assumptions about ourselves, others, and the world. They are a mental template that sits on top of the Big 3. We lay this template across our experiences, so instead of being present in them, we are in our preloaded expectations.
To identify intermediate beliefs, look for “shoulds.”
I should ____________ (fill in the blank with your rule or assumption), if not, I am ____________ (unlovable, unworthy, or incompetent/helpless).
Also look for “if/then” statements like:
If I ____________ (fill in the blank with your rule or assumption), then I am ____________ (unlovable, unworthy, or incompetent/helpless).
We make our beliefs come true. It’s not because we have the power to influence the universe. It happens through the confirmation bias. The mind unconsciously knocks the edges off reality, so it fits our mental models. It cherry-picks information that affirms what we believe to be true and ignores anything that runs counter to it. It finds supporting evidence we are unlovable, unworthy, or incompetent everywhere. In normal life, this sits under a host of things that keep us stuck. In sports, this process is a killer of consistently high performance.
The Solution is a Pickle
The off-season challenge I presented last month is developing an awareness of the language in your system and your head. As this awareness blossoms, so does your ability to counteract negativity. When you catch a negative thought, counter it with a neutral or positive opposite thought.
Counter a thought like,
“If I lose focus, I’ll mess up and get pulled from the game,” with,
“Stay focused and you will shine.”
This technique is effective, but it comes with a warning. Negative thinking is like all habits, it’s resistant to change. Negative thoughts must be run down like a pickle in baseball. When you counter a negative thought, another one will pop up. Counter it too. Just keep countering, you will see the benefit.
Pro level tip: you don’t want to be in a pickle with negative self-talk and have to come up with a positive counter thought on the spot.
There are two techniques to make is easier:
- “Flip” the negative thought. Simply take the content of the negative thought you notice and reverse it. In the example above, there is a simple flip, “Lose focus,” becomes, “Stay focused.” In the batter’s box, “Don’t strike out,” flips to, “Get a hit.”
- Have preloaded self-talk programmed for specific situations. Use these statements in the situation they are built for. In the batter’s box have a mantra like, “Swing at strikes,” that you use every time. Through an intentional focus on preloaded thoughts, automatic negative thoughts have no room to blossom. When they do, simply go back to the preprogrammed mantra.
When negative thoughts run free, the mind is in a negative thought/feeling loop 100% of the time. This vicious cycle spins indefinitely as the mental and physical consequences continue to mount. By running them down in a pickle, you create a 50/50 split between negative and positive. This is the start of a virtuous cycle and a positive thought/feeling loop. Making this the default increases good feelings in the individual and the system. Good feelings promote high performance. Get after it!
Hi, I’m Dr. J. I am a mental performance coach at Mind Right Sports Psychology. I work with athletes and their systems, building the mental processes that drive high performance. This includes individuals, parents, teams, and organizations, from beginners to pros. No matter what level of sport, mental skills training builds a repeatable approach to performance, enabling an athlete to perform at the upper levels of their ability consistently.