How Negative Self-Talk Hurts Your Game
To understand how negative self-talk impacts you as an athlete, we need to take a step back and first think about the way thoughts influence our emotions.
The same principle applies to negative self-talk as it does to positive self-talk: thoughts drive feelings.
When you have a certain thought, it is going to result in an emotional response. Now, for the most part, this process is happening in the blink of an eye on a subconscious level.
But it's the reason why, when you think about something fun you're going to do this weekend, you get excited. It's also why, when you can't stop thinking about the mistake you just made, you get madder and madder.
Now, as a thought leads to a feeling, that feeling is going to drive another thought. Then, once again, that thought will generate another feeling, leading to another thought, and so on.
This is known as the thought-feeling cycle. It is this thought-feeling cycle that is the very reason positive self-talk helps you and negative self-talk holds you back.
When you have negative self-talk, you are generating negative feelings. These will likely be feelings of anger, self-doubt, or embarrassment.
In a second we're going to get into how these negative thoughts impact you on a long-term scale in the form of beliefs. But first, let's take a look at how negative self-talk will hurt you in the short-term. Specifically, during a game.
Negative Self-Talk & Competing
Negative self-talk will impact your play before the game starts, along with during the game.
Going into a game, if you have negative thoughts, this is going to generate a negative emotional state. We can also say that it will generate a negative mindset or attitude.
Now, do you think having a negative mindset is the best recipe for you playing at a high level? Definitely not!
Let's imagine it's a day before a game. You know that the team you're playing is undefeated up to this point. Them being undefeated leads to you having negative self-talk in the form of doubts about your ability to win.
This continues that night and going into the next day. Your mindset grows worse the more you think about how good the other team is. And naturally, the more you think about how good they are, the more your own team's flaws seem to stand out.
Another example involves the opposite side of the spectrum: thinking about how bad the other team is and how easy the game will be. This can lead to feelings of overconfidence and taking the game too lightly.
Whether it's because of overconfidence or fear due to thinking about how good the other team is, negative self-talk will alter the way you play.
You may play timidly due to fear, or you may play lackadaisical because of your feelings of overconfidence.
The bottom line is, this negative (or unhelpful) self-talk can change the way you approach games.
During games, negative self-talk will also have a major impact on the way you play. Just as with before games, the negative self-talk can come in many different forms. But once again, the common theme is that they all will negatively impact your ability to perform.
One example of negative self-talk involves negative and unhelpful thoughts following a mistake.
After messing up, it's easy to have negative thoughts stream through your mind. After all, you're angry with yourself for making the mistake and may feel a little embarrassed.
But what happens is, instead of moving on from the mistake, negative self-talk makes the situation worse.
When you beat yourself up and think negatively, this lowers your confidence. It also is a distraction as you try to move forward with the game.
As a result of the negative self-talk, you will be competing with less confidence and a distracted mind...not a great mindset for peak performance.
Another example of how negative self-talk holds you back comes from a baseball player I worked with who struggled against lefties.
Normally he went up to bat with confidence. His self-talk was good and he was focused on the process of each at bat.
However, this changed when a lefty was on the mound. All of a sudden this triggered a mixture of indirect and direct negative self-talk that did nothing but lower his confidence.
The indirect self-talk involved thoughts about how good the pitcher looked and how hard he was throwing. The direct self-talk followed these thoughts, by reminding himself how much he struggles against lefties and other thoughts of self-doubt.
As a result, going up to bat he had very little confidence and his mind was not centered on the process. Instead, he hit with fear and found himself hoping not to have another bad at bat against a lefty - which would only further solidify the negative beliefs he had.
That idea of beliefs takes us into the second way negative self-talk holds you back.
In addition to being a distraction and lowering your confidence before and during a game, negative self-talk also leads to beliefs. Beliefs that over time can tire you out and tear you down.
Negative Self-Talk & Beliefs
What is a belief? A belief is something that's stuck deep in your mind. It's a way of seeing yourself that either helps you or hurts you on the path towards your goals.
When thinking about beliefs, we can also use the term, self-image. Your self-image is made up of different beliefs you have about yourself in relation to situations. All combining to create an overall image you hold of yourself as an athlete and a person.
But how do these beliefs impact your game? And how does self-talk (negative self-talk, especially) play into beliefs?
How Beliefs are Formed
Well, to understand that, we need to first examine how beliefs are formed. Since beliefs are deeply ingrained ways of seeing yourself, something had to have happened that led to the formation of the belief in the first place.
That something involves your thoughts.
Beliefs form from repetitive thinking. For the most part, this is not something you do consciously. It happens as a result of hearing other people talk a certain way, and you unknowingly adopting the same type of thinking.
Over time, the more you hear others speak, and the more you talk to yourself in a certain way, the stronger your beliefs become.
But for there to be a belief present, we know there must have first been a string of thoughts leading to the formation of that belief. Now the question becomes, are your beliefs helpful or hurtful?
A helpful belief would be believing you are a great player. A hurtful belief would be believing you can't succeed in crunch time moments. Are you beginning to see how negative self-talk plays into all of this?
If you have adopted negative self-talk, whether indirect or direct, over time this pattern of thinking will form a belief.
Think about the example I gave a second ago about the baseball player who struggled against lefties. He didn't always feel that way. But after a few bad games, combined with some negative self-talk that seemed to stick around, he developed the belief that he couldn't hit against lefty pitchers.
And you know what's interesting about beliefs? We will typically compete to the level of our beliefs. For him, this meant continuing to struggle against lefties.
It was only after changing his belief that his performance level increased. For yourself, are there any beliefs you can think of that are holding you back? If there are, what kinds of negative thoughts do you think led to the formation of the beliefs?
Changing Negative Self-Talk
The association between negative self-talk and beliefs is what makes changing your self-talk so important. In the moment, you may feel like it's a harmless thing to say. It's no big deal to beat yourself up a little and think negatively.
It may seem that way if you take a short-term view. But if you take a long-term view, it's easy to realize how crucial it is to stop those negative thoughts in the moment.
If left unchecked, they will form beliefs. And it is a lot easier to alter negative self-talk in the short-term than it is to change a deep rooted belief.
And the good news is, the way negative self-talk forms negative beliefs is the same way positive self-talk can undo those negative beliefs. Building beliefs that will help you as an athlete, rather than hold you back.
Watch the video below to learn how you can begin building more positive self-talk as an athlete.
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Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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