During exercise and training, there are multiple factors to consider, such as technique, maintaining proper body mechanics, controlling effort and force, and breathing effectively. All these elements come together while we push ourselves to do more and work harder. A crucial aspect to pay attention to during exercise/training however, is our self-talk, also known as internal dialogue or chatterA lot of athletes train great physically, but don't practice how they talk to themselves during hard workouts or practices.
The thoughts we cultivate in our minds can significantly impact an athlete's sports performance and overall workout experience, either positively or negatively. This is because our thoughts influence our feelings, which in turn impact our behavior. The quality of our thoughts can affect our productivity and motivation, especially in exercise.
The good news is that by practicing the steps outlined below, athletes and exercisers can rewire negative self-talk and develop new thinking habits.
IDENTIFYING NEGATIVE SELF-TALK
Over the years, I have heard clients share their negative self-talk during training sessions or before and after workouts. They make statements like:
"I can't do this!" "Exercise will never be easy for me..." "I'm not skillful enough..."
These negative statements do not motivate performance or propel individuals forward in achieving their goals, overcoming obstacles, or creating sustainable behavioral change. Instead, they diminish our self-efficacy and become self-fulfilling prophecies.
4 STEPS TO REWIRE SELF-TALK
Given its impact on behavior and motivation, it is crucial to recognize when negative self-talk arises. Doing so can help prevent its negative influence on motivation, exercise adherence, and sports performance. Here are some tips on how to cultivate mindfulness, notice self-talk, and reframe thinking to enhance exercise behaviors:
DELIBERATELY PAY ATTENTION
Start by cultivating mindfulness in small steps. If you are new to mindfulness practices, begin by deliberately paying more attention to your thoughts before, during, and after exercise. Shift your focus away from external distractions and become aware of your internal experience. Notice the thoughts and feelings that arise in the moment.
In mindfulness terms, this is called "staying present" in the experience.
CONTINUOUSLY IMPROVE YOUR EFFORTS
Developing new skills takes time, regardless of the skill itself. Keep this in mind as you practice staying present and being mindful of your self-talk. Don't put too much pressure on yourself to notice every thought at all times. Instead, focus on the self-talk statements that you do catch. Celebrate your successes and trust that with refinement and practice, you will become more skillful in paying deliberate attention to your thoughts.
REFRAME UNHELPFUL THOUGHTS
I recommend writing down the negative self-talk statements that arise for you. Be specific and precise in capturing the exact wording. Then, ask yourself, "What could be a more helpful and adaptive statement?"
For example, if an athlete says to themselves while running, "I'm so slow right now," they could reframe that thought to, "I want to improve my speed, and I will keep working on it." Both statements acknowledge that their running is slower than desired, but the reframed version propels positive future action, unlike the original negative version.
It is important to note that reframing doesn't mean replacing all negative statements with overly positive ones. The goal is to reframe negative, self-defeating thoughts in a way that encourages growth and motivation. This will have a positive impact on sports performance outcomes.
REINFORCE AND REPEAT
The next step is to reinforce the newly reframed thought whenever the old, negative self-talk resurfaces. When you catch yourself defaulting to negative self-talk, consciously say the newly reframed statement out loud or silently to yourself. Repeat this process each time negative self-talk arises. The more you use the new statement instead of the old one, the more it becomes reinforced and ingrained as a habit.
If you identify another negative thought you want to reframe, repeat the process outlined above. The more you practice mindfulness of your self-talk and the reframing of negative statements, the more skillful you will become.
Overall, the process of deliberately paying attention to our thoughts and reframing negative self-talk can have a profound impact on our goal outcomes. Shifting from "can't" to "can" and reducing negative statements about our limitations or capabilities positively affects athletic performance. This mindfulness practice enhances exercise motivation, adherence, and enriches the overall exercise experience and enjoyment.