How to Practice Positive Self-Talk as an Athlete

How you speak to yourself and how you think as an athlete has a direct impact on how you feel. Which is why you must learn how to practice positive self-talk.

If you pay attention, it’s easy to see how the thoughts you have directly correlate to how you feel and how you play. Which is why it’s natural to begin thinking about how you can practice positive self-talk as an athlete.

Maybe you’ve heard how important it is to speak to yourself in an uplifting way and you want to give it a try.

Or maybe you’ve realized how much you beat yourself up after a mistake and can clearly see how awful that makes you feel.

Whatever the reason, just know you are headed in the right direction.

Learning how to control your thinking and practice positive self-talk is a powerful skill for any athlete to learn.

Before we get into how you can begin mastering that voice in your head, let’s dive into what exactly self-talk is and why self-talk’s so important to you as an athlete.

What Is Self-Talk

Self-talk refers to the way you think and speak to yourself.

For the most part, this will involve quiet thoughts reserved for inside your head. Though, at times, you may mutter phrases to yourself under your breath, or even speak in a normal tone to yourself while training or when alone.

There is nothing abnormal about self-talk. We all speak to ourselves throughout the day, thinking about what we’re doing, analyzing what we’ve done, and in a lot of cases (especially within sports), worrying about what’s going to happen.

I like to break self-talk down even further into two separate categories: direct and indirect self-talk.

Direct self-talk involves you speaking to yourself about yourself.

An example is a football player who drops a pass. After the drop, he begins thinking over and over again, “I should have caught that! I suck, what’s wrong with me? I can’t drop this next one.”

Indirect self-talk involves you speaking to yourself about your environment.

An example is a basketball player who is warming up for a game. She looks across the court to see the other team in layup lines. As she does, she quickly realizes how much taller they are.

She begins thinking, “Those girls are huge. There’s no way I can defend one of them.”

Both of these forms of self-talk are important and will have an impact on not only how you feel, but how you play as well. So instead of the negative phrases I used in the examples above, your aim needs to be to practice positive self-talk.

But why is this? What exactly makes positive self-talk so helpful and negative self-talk such a harmful frame of thought?

Importance of Self-Talk

Learning how to practice positive self-talk is not easy. It requires work, patience, and attention. And so, it’s important to understand why you are going about such effort in the first place.

Well, it all boils down to the impact self-talk has on the way that you feel.

The thought-feeling cycle is a way of explaining how thought drives emotion. You first have a thought, such as I suck, then a feeling stems from that thought. In this case, you’re likely to feel down and lack confidence going into the next play or game.

That feeling of self-doubt will drive further thoughts which match that feeling. Thus creating a cycle that feeds on itself.

Now this is a way of showing what happens when you have negative self-talk. Luckily, the same type of cycle is present when you exhibit more positive self-talk.

Let’s say you think I am confident. That is going to lead to feelings of self-belief, which will drive further confident thoughts.

This is why taking control of your self-talk is so important; it provides you with control over your emotions.

With that core principal understood, here is a list of more detailed benefits you can expect from practicing positive self-talk:

  • Increased Self-Confidence
  • Improved Focus
  • Increased Motivation
  • Greater Resilience
  • Decreased Performance Anxiety
  • Stronger Mental Toughness

“Learning how to practice positive self-talk is not easy. It requires work, patience, and attention. And so, it’s important to understand why you are going about such effort in the first place.”

Different Forms of Positive Self-Talk

I was working with a young basketball player one time, talking to her about the importance of positive self-talk. We had been discussing how she can speak to herself differently after making a mistake or a bad game.

She agreed with me that getting down on herself wasn’t the best option for future success. It often led to her feeling less confident moving forward and trusting less in her teammates.

However, when I kept emphasizing the importance of practicing positive self-talk, she pushed back, stating, “I don’t always want to be positive.”

Now, I thought for a moment, trying to figure out number one, what she meant, and number two, how to respond.

But with a bit more explaining, it made perfect sense what she was trying to say.

After a bad game, or even a mistake, she didn’t want to be positive, telling herself how great she was, because she knew she messed up and wanted to make sure she didn’t make the same mistake again.

So we cleared it up and instead of always saying she was going to use positive self-talk, we changed it to productive self-talk. In all honesty, I like that way of wording it a bit better.

As an athlete, your mind is wired to seek improvement. Feeling as though you have to always speak positively and be all sunshine and rainbows can seem silly and counterintuitive towards your own growth.

However, productive self-talk means you are using your words to aid such personal improvement.

So, knowing that there can often be pushback and confusion when discussing always speaking positively to yourself, I want to outline different forms of self-talk you can use as an athlete. To me, these all fall under the umbrella of positive/productive self-talk.

  • Confidence boosting self-talk: this involves saying phrases such as, “I can do this,” “I’ve got this,” or, “I am a great player.”
  • Self-talk to focus: here you will use your thoughts to redirect your attention, for example, “Focus on the present moment.”
  • Self-talk to help with a mistake: this is where you will speak to yourself in a way that actually helps you move on from a mistake and sets you up to succeed moving forward. This will look something like this, “Let go, relax, focus on the next play. I’ve got this.”
  • Anxiety reducing self-talk: to reframe the way you see anxiety and how nervous you feel before a game, instead of worrying about what’s going to happen you can say, “I am excited to play,” “Today is going to be a great game,” or, “I trust in my skills.
  • Self-talk to manage pressure: to let go of expectations and handle pressure, you can use self-talk to remind yourself to stay relaxed and that this is just like any other moment. For example, “Focus on the present, this is just like any other time during the game.”
  • Self-talk to help with training: you can also use your thoughts to help with training. For example, finding a cue that works for you in terms of your mechanics. Then, you can repeat that cue to yourself during a game.

As you can see, these are not all about blowing sunshine up your ass. It’s simply a way of leveraging your thoughts to help you perform better and manage mistakes.

Your self-talk is always present and is always working to impact the way you feel. What you must do is ensure that the thoughts you have are pushing you towards peak performance, rather than dragging you further away from your potential.

“Productive self-talk means you are using your words to aid such personal improvement.”

Developing Your Own Self-Talk Practice

There is a reason I use the phrase, self-talk practice. It’s because, in order to truly master the thoughts you have and use them to your advantage, it must become a practice just like any other part of your game.

Thoughts become programmed and automatic. During a game, the way you currently think is likely an automatic response to the environment. To consciously think something different takes work. And such work you must do in order to make use of a cue or phrase during a game.

But there is also another way you can use self-talk, to work on rewiring the natural thought patterns you have.

So, what I’m going to do is outline first a way you can begin working on altering your natural thought patterns (as that is one of the best ways to begin taking control of how you speak to yourself).

Then, I will outline a couple different ways you can begin practicing positive self-talk directly within your game.

Altering Your Natural Thought Patterns

This may all sound more complicated than it really is. But, what you’re going to do through a simple repetitive exercise is work to rewire the way you think.

Your thoughts are largely automatic. They have been programmed due to ways of thinking over many years. This has happened through repetition.

Therefore, we must take the same approach to altering your thought patterns. Except this time, it’s not going to take years…but what it does take is consistent effort each day!

Step #1: Outline your current negative/unhelpful thoughts

Before you can work to reprogram your mind, you have to identify what exactly you are saying to yourself presently that is working against your ability to perform your best.

To do this, I encourage you to keep a list for a week. Anytime you notice a negative thought, write it down. By the end of the week, you’ll likely have more things written down than you’d care to admit.

Step #2: Creating your alternatives

Once you’ve come up with your list of negative and unhelpful thoughts, it’s time to create your list of alternatives.

Now these will be both general and specific statements.

For example, if you noticed you say, “I suck,” or, “I’ll never figure this out,” you’ll want to replace that with something broad like, “I am confident,” or, “I am learning and improving each day.”

The aim of these alternatives is to generate the opposite emotional reaction (how you feel about yourself) from what happens when you speak negatively.

Go line for line, and create an alternative for each of the phrases you identified.

Step #3: Reprogram through repetition

For the last step, you will take your alternatives you just created and read them outloud to yourself twice a day.

It may seem like a lot of work…but trust me, it’s not. We’re talking a minute or so at most each time. So, two minutes a day? I think that’s more than worth it!

Now if you do want to work a little bit harder, you can rewrite the statements each day. I’ve found this works best for athletes who are really struggling with their self-talk, because it strengthens the entire practice.

But either way, the underlying principle you must grasp is that repetition (consistent daily repetition, that is) is key!

“Your thoughts are largely automatic. They have been programmed due to ways of thinking over many years. This has happened through repetition.”

Creating Different Self-Talk Phrases

The previous section describes a powerful technique you can use to alter your natural thought patterns. I encourage you to put the exercise into practice, as it’s a phenomenal way to begin taking control of how you speak to yourself.

Now in addition to that practice, you can also use set statements during practices and games to control the thoughts in your head.

These will be specific and reusable phrases you outline that are tailored to instilling a certain emotion (such as confidence), altering your focus, or stopping an unrelenting storm of negative self-talk.

There are three different phrases we will go over and create together. But, don’t limit yourself. You can use this concept and apply it freely however you choose.

The three we will create include: a thought stopping phrase, a mindset statement, and a mistake statement.

Thought-Stopping Phrase

This is a statement you will use whenever you find yourself distracted, or notice negative self-talk beginning to take hold.

Think of it like a big stop sign you throw up in the middle of the road, forcing all those distracting and unhelpful thoughts to come to a screeching halt.

In addition to stopping unhelpful thoughts, this phrase should work to refocus yourself onto the process and aim to instill a different frame of thought and emotional state.

Some examples of good thought-stopping phrases include:

  • Stop, refocus, be present.
  • Be here. Breathe. Recenter.
  • Take a breath, focus on this play.
  • Quiet! Feel confident.

Use these examples, think for yourself, and come up with your own thought-stopping statement. What do you want to say to yourself whenever you become distracted?

Mindset Statement

To compete consistently, your goal should be to approach each game in a consistent mindset.

What that mindset looks like is specific to you.

I’ve known athletes who play their best when they’re angry. I’ve also known athletes who play their best when relaxed and enjoying themselves.

Your job is to identify what your optimal emotional state is when you compete. Then…create a statement that reminds you of that state going into a game and even as the game progresses.

Some examples of good mindset statements include:

  • Feel confident and relaxed no matter what.
  • I am focused and ready to compete.
  • Feel happy and enjoy the game.
  • I am a strong and relentless competitor.

When coming up with your own mindset statement, think, “How do I want to feel and how do I need to be thinking in order to perform my best?”

Mistake Statement

This will be very similar to a thought-stopping phrase, except it will be used whenever you make a mistake.

Now mistakes are one of the biggest distractors you face as an athlete. It’s easy to allow a past error to be carried in your mind throughout the game and even into future games. However, this only holds you back.

Therefore, you must come up with a statement to recenter your focus and let go of the mistake whenever mishaps occur.

Some examples of good mistake statements include:

  • Let go and move on.
  • Stay calm, take a breath, next play.
  • Relax and focus on the next play.
  • Let it go, I am a great player.

You know yourself best. What do you need to say to yourself following a mistake to ensure that one mistake doesn’t snowball into many more.

Final Thoughts

The way you speak to yourself and how you think as an athlete has a direct impact on how you feel. And your emotional state is a key factor to your ability to perform your best.

As a result, it’s crucial to learn how to take control of the way you think.

That can be done through the use of more positive and productive self-talk.

If your aim is to practice positive self-talk as an athlete, you first want to work on altering your natural thought patterns. Then, create your three statements and use them when appropriate before, during, and after games.

By doing so, you will be taking control of one of the most important pieces of your game…how you think.

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

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Eli Straw

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.

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