“I am the greatest” — Muhammad Ali
“I suck!” — unknown, unaccomplished tennis player
Top tennis players talk themselves into incredible performances. What goes on in their mind has a direct effect on their body. Our thoughts prompt certain emotions that in turn have bodily or physiological consequences. Thoughts about losing can lead to feelings of fear and anxiety.
In turn, those feelings cause various physiological responses: increased heart rate, shortness of breath, muscle tightness, narrow vision, and reduced blood flow to the hands and feet. All of these responses stand in the way of performing at our peak. It creates a negative cycle – anxiety and fear compromise the physiology, leading to poor performance that (in turn) creates more fear and anxiety. The same is true on the positive side – positive thoughts lead to feelings of alertness, fun, challenge — and these feelings (in turn) produce positive physiological responses. This cycle can be learned and taught through proactively training self-talk.
Self-talk is that little voice in your head — the one that may have just said, “What little voice? ”Self-talk messages often come from our childhood — we hear the voices of our parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, etc., anyone who influenced us in the past. Self-talk goes on all the time and is nearly impossible to turn off. Unfortunately, most of the messages are critical or negative.
It is almost impossible to eliminate negative self-talk. But it can be replaced. Pros often tell their players to, “Change your negative attitude,” “Stop saying that, it’s negative,” or “Be more positive!” While this may be good advice, it leaves the athlete with questions. “How do I change my attitude?” “What else should I say?” “How can I be positive when I just messed up?”
It is important that we learn how to change our attitude and how to transform our negative self-talk.
Here’s a powerful three-step process I helped develop with the Positive Coaching Alliance to transform negative self-talk. Let’s use the expression, “My backhand slice sucks,” as an example.
1) State the negative self-talk as a feeling:
“My slice backhand sucks” may or may not be true. What’s absolutely accurate is that she feels like she can’t hit her slice in the moment. Tomorrow is a new day and with practice feelings can change. “I feel like my backhand slice sucks today” would be more accurate.
2) Enlist the “Power of a Big But”:
What happens when the word “but” is used in a sentence? “Jan, I really like your shirt, but the color is a bit much.” Whatever comes before “but” is devalued leaving the recipient waiting for the negative ending. Usually, we say the positive first and then devalue it with “but.” BUT, we can turn that around by using “but” to devalue the negative self-talk. Teaching ourselves to use the word “but” to our advantage can help transform negative self-talk. “I feel like my backhand slice sucks, BUT...” Give yourself permission to say "I like big BUTS and I cannot lie!!" after a negative statement.
3) End with an “I’m-the-kind-of-person-who” statement:
“I feel like my backhand slice sucks,
BUT I’m the kind of person who never gives up.” Whenever you catch yourself using negative self-talk, use this tool to transform it.
NOTE: Coaches and parents plant the seeds for these positive statements. Our CHILDREN will rarely come up with them on their own. But they will repeat what they hear from people they admire. Our job as parents is to fill in the blanks for them.
Be prepared. Know your kids and plant the appropriate seed for each one – you’re the kind of person who “never gives up,” “loves to compete,” “bounces back,” “rises to the challenge,” etc.
Top competitors are extremely disciplined in what they think and say. It is important to teach our ourselves and our children to control that little voice in their head and to talk to ourselves the way a good coach or teacher would.