My favorite Chinese proverb is: "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now."
This blog is about being better. To be better at anything, all you have to do is start now. The offseason is a great time to start training mental skills!
The Off-Season Challenge
This off season I want you to become aware of your self-talk. It is one of the fundamental pillars of sport and performance psychology. Self-talk is a collection of statements, phrases, and cue words that direct our actions and provide a running commentary on our experiences. Language hinders or primes performance by triggering physical, emotional, and psychological reactions, so what we say and how we say it is important.
Self-talk starts with the way your primary caregiver explained the world to you as you developed speech. That becomes the voice in your head. A word of warning for kids and adults alike: It’s going to bug you as you realize how much your mom or dad are in your head. The holidays are a great way to jumpstart the challenge as families will be together more than normal. You can observe language out loud and in your head, and get a feel for how it works in your system. To make this exploration easier for you, I am going to give you a few rocks to turn over.
I. What to Look For: Negative Commentary on Current Experience
I filter my work as a mental skills coach through the lens of mindfulness. Here’s how I define it to help athletes be better:
Mindfulness is the awareness of the present experience without assessing it as bad.
Because you are smart, reader, it occurred to you the “assessment as bad” part happens through self-talk. Self-talk “awfulizes” unfavorable experiences.
Awfulizing is the culprit in things like: “I struck out again, this sucks (negative assessment)!” or “This isn’t fair (negative assessment), the pitcher is 12 and has a mustache, I’ll never get a hit.”
Pay attention to how you comment on your experience as you go through the day. Observe the people around you, too. Pro level tip: Look for what comes after the comma in your sentences in your head and out loud.
For instance, “It looks like it’s going to rain today, and I _________ (fill in the blank) rainy days.”
Do you love them? Hate them? How you feel about the rain doesn’t matter. What’s important is noticing your commentary. You will find themes and tendencies, for sure! Do you minimize things? Are you overly critical? Are you self-deprecating? Remember, there is an emotional, psychological, and physical reaction to the language we use.
This morning, I had a realization of my own. I texted an aha moment to someone who liked the idea and responded affirmingly. I had to resist the urge to respond with something like, “Even a blind squirrel gets a nut sometimes.” I noticed a self-deprecating habit of minimizing things I say. Not totally sure why, I think it has something to do with not wanting to seem like a know-it-all. I’m still chewing on that.
II. What to Look For: Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs)
ANTs are reflexive thoughts that come in reaction to something. They are often the “assessing as bad” in mindfulness, but also stand alone as a problem. They are just a bad mental habit, but they influence everything.
We often respond emotionally, psychologically, and physically to the habitual negative thought, not the situation itself. This creates reactions out of proportion to the events that triggered them. Automatic negative thinking influences how we feel. What we feel flavors what we think next. More negative thinking leads to more negative feelings, and soon enough, we are in a downward spiral.
- Habitual use of the words “always” and “never.”
- The tendency to discount the positive in favor of negative information.
- “Mind reading” by assuming other’s thoughts and intentions without them telling you.
- “Fortune telling” by predicting a bad outcome in every situation.
- Using strong feeling and emotions to guide actions as if they were truth.
- Being the reason for bad things.
- Pushing blame onto others for your own shortcomings.
III. What to Look For: Explanatory Style
Put your self-assessment hat on for a sec. Are you a pessimist, realist, or optimist? It’s a trick question, “realist” is just a pessimist who doesn’t want to be one. If you bristled at that, you just might be a pessimist. I’m sorry, it’s my job to point these things out. Explanatory style is the way we describe our experiences to ourselves. In the mindfulness lens, it’s what flavors the commentary on our experience. It’s the ‘ol glass half empty or full, thing. Just like self-talk, our explanatory style comes from our primary caregiver.
Pessimists perceive events negatively and difficult, if not impossible, to change. Negative situations are perceived as long-lasting, and happening because of one’s own weaknesses. Problems appear global, not just part of a one-off situation. Because language primes performance, it’s easy to see how a running negative commentary on one’s experiences has a detrimental influence.
Pessimism also leads to poor performance because it contributes to the expectation that more bad events will occur. If the self-talk challenge reveals a lean toward pessimism, realize it is the way you have learned to describe your experiences. It’s not fact. It’s a habit you built because there is a perception of safety in pre thinking all of life’s potential worst-case scenarios. If you are a parent and read this and said to yourself, “Uh-oh, I’m creating a pessimistic monster based on my style,” don’t fear. There is a better way.
Your explanatory style isn’t a reflection of absolute truth, it’s a choice. Optimists choose to perceive adversity as manageable and improvable. They believe defeat is a temporary setback and isn’t because of personal deficiencies. Optimists in a difficult situation tell themselves it’s a challenge instead of a universal problem. Remember, words prime performance. An optimistic approach leads to better outcomes in sports and in life. Choose good words, choose optimism.
IV. What to Look For: Narrative
Narrative is a running story (or two) that we use to describe all experiences. Think of narrative as a mental model. It’s a template of thoughts, perceptions, and biases disguised as a story. We lay these narratives across our experiences to make it fit what we already believe to be true.
We don’t experience the present moment, but rather our tried-and-true stories about similar occurrences.
I work with a young man who isn’t living up to his potential. His parents’ narrative about baseball and why he doesn’t start is that “It’s all politics.” The mental model behind this narrative is that personal success will be denied by the actions of others. There is no truth to it. His coaches want to win, so they put the best athletes on the field. This athlete can’t see past the story and realize his skills are lacking. He doesn’t put in the work, because the family system is caught up in their story, not reality. His dad has the same story about his high school baseball career. He wasn’t successful in baseball because of politics, too.
We unconsciously hand our narratives down to our kids because they hear us describe our lives using them. They can’t help but adopt them.
Look for consistent stories (in you and your athlete) like, “The coach doesn’t like me,” or “I’m not big enough, tall enough or strong enough.” Remember, words prime performance, so even if there is some truth in a negative narrative, replace it with a better one. Try, “hard work, in the right direction, pays off.”
Why Self-Talk is Important
Self-talk is the expression of our beliefs. Our beliefs are a prediction machine. Self-talk guides the mind, twisting incoming information to validate the things we believe to be true.
If we aren’t mindful, and let habit take over, we don’t experience reality in the present moment.
We experience the perception of reality as filtered through our junk. The language and mechanisms of ANTs, negative assessments, and faulty narratives overlap but also work independently to chip away at how we feel and affirm what we believe to be true.
If you and/or your athlete’s self-talk isn’t as fine-tuned as you would like, there is hope. Self-talk is a trainable skill. The first step in building a new habit is awareness of the old one. The “awareness of the present experience” part of the mindfulness definition is what you are creating through this challenge. You will notice how your self-talk influences you.
There isn’t room here to teach you all the intricacies of challenging and changing negative core beliefs, intermediate beliefs, and building controlled self-talk. The infrastructure of that is massive. I will cover these things in future posts, so keep reading.
Hi, I’m Dr. J. Through my company, Mind Right Sports Psychology, I work with athletes, parents, coaches, teams, and organizations building the mental processes that drive high performance. 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. Check out my website to see my books, my blog, or to set up an appointment! I would love to hear from you.