How to Use Self-Talk as an Athlete

Self-talk is one of the best mental skills you can learn as an athlete.

By taking control of your thoughts, you can influence how confident you feel, you can calm yourself down, and you can better manage mistakes, just to name a few.

But here’s the problem…controlling your thoughts is not easy. Especially during games. When you’re playing, emotions are running wild and typically the last thing you’re paying attention to is what you’re thinking.

However, by giving more attention to your thoughts, there are many positive benefits you can experience that will improve your performance.

So, you need to learn how to take control of your self-talk. And to do that, there are specific self-talk activities you can use.

What is Self-Talk

In terms of sports, self-talk involves the thoughts you have during practices and games. It’s the way you speak to yourself and the thoughts you have as you perform.

In general, we can lump self-talk into two categories: negative self-talk and positive self-talk.

Negative self-talk includes all the thoughts you have that hurt your performance. These can include thoughts of self-doubt, self-criticism, and thoughts centered around other people (such as the officials, for example).

Positive self-talk includes all the thoughts you have that help your performance. These can include thoughts that increase your confidence, calm you down, and help you refocus.

“In terms of sports, self-talk involves the thoughts you have during practices and games.”

Why Self-Talk is Important in Sports

Everything starts with your thoughts.

When you feel anxious, it stems from an initial thought that drove the first feeling of worry. If you’re feeling confident, it’s because a thought of confidence led to a feeling of believing in yourself. If you lose focus, it’s because your thoughts have become attached to something else.

Everything starts with your thoughts. That right there is why understanding and managing your own self-talk is so important.

When you learn how to control the thoughts you have during a game, you can drastically reduce the fear or anxiety you feel. This happens by thinking more positive thoughts that will lead to you feeling more confident.

If you find yourself losing focus during a game, you can use self-talk to interrupt the current pattern of thinking that is causing you to lose focus.

Put simply, self-talk is important in sports because it can either improve your performance or hurt your performance. It all boils down to whether you are experiencing more negative self-talk or positive self-talk.

“Everything starts with your thoughts. That right there is why understanding and managing your own self-talk is so important.”

Different Ways to Use Self-Talk as an Athlete

There are different ways you can apply self-talk in sports. When I’m working with an athlete, we identify the specific areas that self-talk can help improve, then target self-talk exercises to those areas.

For you, I am going to outline a few of the main ways you can use self-talk in sports, and then you can choose for yourself which activities are best for you.

Self-Talk Activity for Confidence

Since everything starts with your thoughts, if you can begin thinking more confidently, then you will increase your feelings of confidence.

But what does it mean to think more confidently?

Well, think about what you would say to someone else to try and increase their confidence. Let’s say you have a teammate who is down on themselves, what would you say to them?

Those are the same kinds of things you need to be saying to yourself and thinking about going into a game.

The self-talk activity you can use to increase your confidence is a three-step process.

  1. First, you want to identify the current negative self-talk you have. Make a list of all the unhelpful thoughts you have that lower your confidence.
  2. Next, you want to create confidence-boosting alternatives for each of the statements. This is where you really need to ask yourself, what do I need to say to myself to feel confident?
  3. Lastly, to begin building your confidence, you want to make it a habit to read through the new list you’ve created at least once a day.
“Since everything starts with your thoughts, if you can begin thinking more confidently, then you will increase your feelings of confidence.”

Self-Talk Activity to Refocus

When you’ve lost focus during a game, what’s really happened? Your thoughts have become fixed on something you don’t want them to be on.

Let’s say you just made a mistake and you can’t let go of what happened. You keep getting more and more upset and you can’t seem to move on. Why is this happening? Because you keep thinking about the mistake.

Another example is if you become distracted by a fan. This fan keeps yelling and is really getting in your head. The reason you lose focus is because you can’t stop yourself from thinking about the fan.

So, to refocus, what you have to do is take back control of your thoughts. This isn’t easy to do, which is why it’s best to have a preset idea of what you want to say.

This self-talk activity involves creating a thought-stopping phrase.

When it comes to refocusing yourself, you want to keep things simple. Your thought-stopping phrase should be something that’s easy to remember and redirects your attention onto the next play.

A thought-stopping phrase works by stopping the negative pattern of thoughts that are hurting your focus.

Here is an example of a thought-stopping phrase I like to use with my clients:

  • Stop! Take a breath. Let it go. Refocus.

You can see how it’s broken down into four different parts. First, you are telling yourself to stop thinking the unhelpful thoughts. Then you are telling yourself to take a breath which helps calm yourself down.

Then you say let it go, to let go of whatever was bothering you. And lastly, you remind yourself to refocus, whether that be in the present moment or on the next play.

Self-Talk Activity to Help With Performing

There are two ways you can use self-talk to help with performing. And when I say performing, I am talking in terms of your physical skills and mechanics.

The first way you can use self-talk to help with performing is when you’re training. You can coach yourself through drills just like a coach would.

For example, if you’re a basketball player practicing free throws you can coach yourself before each shot by saying, “Elbow above head,” or any other cue that will help.

When it comes to games, you don’t want to be so focused on the small aspects of your mechanics. After all, games are a time for performing. So, the way you will use self-talk will be a little different.

What you can do is decide on certain cues that will put you in the best position to perform your best.

An example is a third baseman in baseball. Before each pitch, he thinks, “Glove down, watch the ball all the way in.” That is a cue he uses to put himself in the best position to make a clean play.

Self-Talk Activity for Motivation

Imagine you’re dragging yourself through a grueling workout. What would you need to say to yourself to keep going? That’s the kind of self-talk you need at that moment.

When practices get tough, it’s easy to have your thoughts turn negative. But that’s one of the quickest ways to lose motivation. Instead, you want to make sure your thoughts are boosting your motivation, no matter what’s going on around you.

Another way self-talk helps with motivation is when you make a mistake or have a bad game.

One bad game after another can be devastating. But you can’t allow yourself to lose motivation and get down in the dumps. If you do, it will likely turn into another bad game and then another one after that.

What you have to do is keep your spirits high to go out there and compete. You can use self-talk to increase your motivation in these situations by reminding yourself that you can do it and that you’ve come back from setbacks before.

“When practices get tough, it’s easy to have your thoughts turn negative. But that’s one of the quickest ways to lose motivation.”

Self-Talk Activity for Anxiety

One of the worst things you can do when you’re anxious is to keep focusing on your anxiety. But one of the easiest things to do when you’re anxious is to focus on your anxiety.

Anxiety sucks, and you know that when you’re anxious, you don’t play your best. So, the natural thing to begin doing is focusing on how much you’re anxious and wishing the feelings would go away.

However, the only way to make them go away is by taking your attention off of the anxiety and to begin thinking in a way that calms you down and increases your confidence.

To reduce anxiety, you must replace it with a feeling of calmness and confidence. You cannot fight your anxiety. That only causes it to stick around.

To use self-talk to manage anxiety, the process is going to look very similar to when you used self-talk for confidence:

  1. First, you want to identify the current anxious thoughts you have.
  2. Next, you want to create a positive and productive alternative for each of the anxious thoughts.
  3. Lastly, you want to make it a habit to read through the new list you’ve created at least once a day. Then, apply the new statements during a game when you’re feeling anxious.
“To reduce anxiety, you must replace it with a feeling of calmness and confidence. You cannot fight your anxiety. That only causes it to stick around.”

Final Thoughts

Self-talk is a powerful tool for any athlete to use because of the impact it has on your performance. When you focus on having more positive self-talk, you can increase confidence, improve focus, increase motivation, and manage anxiety.

Everything starts with your thoughts. That means you want to be sure your thoughts are helping you, rather than hurting you as an athlete.

I encourage you to make use of at least one of the self-talk activities listed above and put it into practice on a consistent basis.

If you have any questions about self-talk in sports or any other sport psychology topic, please fill out the form below.

If you’re interested in learning more about one-on-one mental performance coaching, click here.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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