Strategy to Manage Negative Self-Talk in Sports

Learn two simple strategies you can use to manage negative self-talk as an athlete. Turning your mind into an asset

There are two main strategies for altering your self-talk.

One involves managing thoughts in the moment and the other involves reframing how you naturally think – knowing the beliefs that this will create.

When you notice yourself thinking negatively in the moment, your job is to alter what you’re saying and how you’re thinking.

The reason this is important is because we know that negative self-talk before or during a game will lower your confidence and hurt your performance.

So, at that moment, you need to work on changing your thoughts.

In addition, you also want to reframe how you naturally think. This is known as altering your natural thought patterns. Doing so works to build more positive beliefs and makes it easier to have more positive and productive self-talk before, during, and after games.

Altering Your Thoughts in the Moment

Imagine you’re getting ready to start a game and you realize you can’t stop thinking about how good the other team is. Do you think those types of thoughts are helpful?

Probably not.

More than likely, they will lead to feelings of doubt and possibly intimidation.

Or let’s say you just made a mistake and you notice a stream of terrible thoughts rush through your head – criticizing and beating yourself up over what just ahppened. Is that a helpful way of thinking that will get you refocused on the next play?

Definitely not.

Understanding the negative impact of unhelpful thoughts, the main goal whenever you realize you’re thinking in a negative way is to change your thinking.

But there are two very important words I used earlier, that, without them, altering your thoughts will be difficult…if not impossible. Do you know what those two words are? Realize and notice.

Now, why do you think those two words are so important? Well, think about it like this: if you aren’t able to realize that you’re speaking negatively to yourself, or notice hurtful thoughts in the moment, what are the chances you’ll be able to change the way you’re thinking?

Naturally, the negative self-talk may go away, but not likely as fast as you’d like or you need at that moment.

That’s why being able to realize and notice when you’re experiencing negative self-talk is crucial. This is known as self-awareness: the ability to recognize and understand your own thoughts, feelings, and actions.

With self-talk, self-awareness helps you recognize what kinds of thoughts you’re having, and the way these thoughts are impacting how you feel and how you play.

Going back to the example I gave earlier, self-awareness gives you the ability to realize you’re thinking too much about the other team and that those thoughts are leading to feelings of doubt and intimidation.

It also helps you quickly notice negative thoughts following a mistake, and how those thoughts are distracting you and lowering your chances of playing well moving forward.

So really, the first step to alter your thoughts in the moment is recognizing negative self-talk in the first place. Without this recognition, no change will likely be made.

Once self-awareness is present, and you’re able to recognize negative self-talk, then you want to apply a technique known as substitution.

The Principle of Substitution

The truth is, you cannot force a thought out of your head by thinking about it.

To better understand this idea, I want you to try something with me. Picture and orange in your mind. Really see it’s bright color and round shape.

Now, repeat over and over again, don’t think about an orange, don’t think about an orange, don’t think about an orange…were you thinking about an orange? How come? You were telling yourself not to think about an orange, right?

The reason you were still thinking about an orange is because our brains do not recognize negating words like don’t, can’t, or shouldn’t. Even thought you said, don’t think about an orange, to your brain, you may as well have said, think about an orange.

So, if you can’t force a negative thought out of your head by telling yourself not to think about the other team or that you shouldn’t be doubting yourself, what can you do?

Well, that’s where the principle of substitution comes into play.

While you can’t force a thought out by thinking about it, you can gently push it aside by beginning to think of something else.

As your attention becomes more and more fixed on the new thought, the old, negative thought, will fade away.

Going back to the orange example, if I really didn’t want to think about an orange anymore, my best bet would be to think about a pear or an apple.

In the same way, if you don’t want to think negatively anymore, your best bet is to think something that’s more positive or productive.

For example, if you are experiencing negative indirect self-talk, such as thinking about how good the other team is, you could substitute those thoughts for thoughts about yourself and your team.

Begin thinking about all your strengths and how good your team is. This will take your attention off your opponent and place it on yourself.

If your negative self-talk happens after a mistake and you’re beating yourself up, you can substitute those thoughts with more productive ones.

While you may not want to think that it was a great thing that you made the mistake, you can think about how you can learn from the mistake and what you need to be focused on for the next play.

The idea of substitution is to recognize negative self-talk is present, and then replace those thoughts with more positive and productive thoughts.

Something that becomes easier the more naturally you speak positively and productively to yourself.

Altering Your Natural Thought Patterns

Have you ever noticed there are certain thoughts you have that are repetitive? Ones that seem automatic.

After a mistake, do you think a lot of the same thoughts each time? How about before a game, do you find yourself having similar thoughts as the game before?

Each of us have certain patterns of thinking. Habits that have formed over time. These thought patterns involve thoughts that spring out of your subconcsiou mind automatically.

If you pay attention to other people, along with yourself, it’s easy to notice these patterns of thinking and speaking.

The reason these patterns of thinking are important is because of the fact that they are automatic.

The previous section involved a reactionary approach you can take to negative self-talk. Altering your natural thought patterns is a proactive approach.

Since we know that thoughts become habitual, we want to make sure the natural thoughts you have that are automatic and have become a pattern for you are more positive and productive instead of negative and hurtful.

That way, you don’t have to be so reactive in trying to substitute negative self-talk…since you will have less and less of it in the first place.

Now, altering your natural thought patterns takes time. It is not something you will have changed tomorrow or even by next week. That’s why it’s important to first have a strategy in place (like the one we just went over) to manage negative self-talk in the short-term.

But as you are applying such a strategy, you need to also be sure you are working to alter your natural thought patterns.

Changing the Way You Think

To change the way you naturally think, there is one word you must keep in mind: repetition.

Whether it was something you were aware of or not, the current thought patterns you exhibit formed due to repetition.

It could have been as simple as you hearing your coach say something negative, or heard someone else say something negative. Then, a seed was planted in your mind. Over time, you watered that seed unknowingly by thinking that negative thought over and over again.

As the seed sprouts and grows roots, more negative thoughts form. It branches out into different statements – all stemming from the originial seed and all adding to the natural thought patterns that are present.

Another way of thinking about your habitual thoughts is like programming a computer. If you program a computer with faulty software, the computer won’t work as effeciently. In fact, it may not even work at all.

In that case, what would you need to do? You would need to reprogram the computer with a better program or software. That’s exactly what you need to do to alter your natural thought patterns.

Now, back to the word repetition. How do you think our minds are programmed?

Well, think about studying for a spelling test when you were in school. What did you do to help yourself remember (program your brain to know) how to spell the words?

Did you repeat them over and over again? Then, did you have someone test you on them, once more using repetition to engrain the word in memory?

You see how it was the repetition of the word that helped you remember it? To the pont where, when the teacher said the word in class, automatically you knew how to spell it.

In a similar way you are going to reprogram your mind to naturally and automatically think more positively and productively.

To do so, follow this simple strategy:

  • List out all the negative thoughts/beliefs you have about yourself.
  • Create a more positive alternative for each statement.
  • Then rewrite each statement and reread it back to yourself at least once a day.

When altering the way you naturally think, you must focus on programming more positive and productive self-talk, trusting that, by doing so, the negative thought patterns will fade away.

Contact Success Starts Within Today

Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

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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