Self-talk, or our internal monologue, often has contrasting effects; used correctly self-talk is one of the most effective methods of instilling self-confidence.
Negative self-talk involves thinking or saying anything that reflects a lack of confidence or a defeatist attitude. Circumstances where negative self-talk is common amongst athletes, are situations where they have previously failed, or where they perceive their ability to be below par when compared to their peers or against the perfect model within their sport (e.g. comparing your tennis serve to Rafael Nadal’s serve). An example of negative self-talk if you were playing a golf tournament and the weather turned would be, “I can’t deal with these conditions”. If you were not prepared for windy, rainy conditions, your confidence in your ability may fall, thus reducing your confidence levels.
Positive self-talk, done correctly, can instantly raise confidence levels. In situations of doubt, being able to change your mind-set is a fantastic skill, and vital at elite level sport. Motivation levels can be increased and therefore your willingness to exert yourself, therby increasing your performance. Positive self-talk can keep you relaxed and focused, which prepares you to combat anything thrown at you in competition. Successful positive self-talk will encourage your mind to persuade your body to keep going. An example of positive self-talk if you were struggling to continue at mile 18 of your fifth marathon would be, “I have done this before, I can do it again”.
“Hot Button” issues are events or situations that often occur in competition or training for athletes that create poor confidence levels, often also reducing ability due to a lack of self-belief. Instances that evoke feelings of fatigue, pain, boredom, frustration and despair are common “hot button” issues for athletes, although it could just be a particular part of sport that athletes are apprehensive about. For example, a Triathlete may be apprehensive and therefore lacking in confidence, about their ability to complete a successful bike dismount coming into transition; this could be due to previous bad experiences or lack of practice prior to competition. Positive self-talk in these predicaments is crucial in helping improve confidence.
Confidence is a skill that can be improved. Positive self-talk improves confidence, however to become successful at positive self-talk it must also be practiced. There are various methods of positive self-talk rehearsal. There are simple methods of rehearsal such as listing key positive words prior to competition that you tell yourself in situations of doubt, but I believe a more specific approach to each “hot button” issue is more successful. Below is a brilliant exercise (as detailed in ‘The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training’ by Taylor and Schneider) to complete in order to help you address your “hot button” issues.
EXERCISE: Take a piece of paper and split it in to four columns. The first column is titled “Hot Button Situation”, in this column list situations that you believe are your “hot button” issues. The second column is titled “Hot Button Cause”, here write explain why your “hot button” issues are “hot button” issues for you, for example, have you been injured in that particular situation before or do you just perceive your ability to be below standard? The third column is titled “Negative Self-talk” and is where you list any common negative thoughts that enter your head relating to your “hot button” issues, such as “I have been injured before in a tackle, I will get injured again”. The fourth column is the most important, titled “Positive Self-talk Replacement”, here you must think of positive replacements for your negative self-talk. These must be realistic, but also effective. For example, “Prior to my injury, I had never been injured in a tackle before, chances of injury are slim, and I know I can overcome injury if it unfortunately occurs, I can do this”.
The benefit of doing this “Hot Button” exercise is in addressing reoccurring situations of doubt and low confidence prior to meeting the negative situation again, which can help overcome or even prevent low confidence more quickly when the situation occurs in training or competition. As the saying goes “Proper Prior Preparation and Planning, Prevents Poor Performance”.
With all positive self-talk the key is being realistic. Telling yourself you are going to win the 400m Individual Medley at a gala when you have only just learnt to swim is not realistic; a more realistic aim would be to just complete the event (an event many of the most experienced swimmers would often avoid). Ultimately, be optimistic and remember to turn every negative into a positive.