A Tool for Confidence: Self-Talk
Affirmations & Positive Self-Talk: 3 Drills
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We're also featured on a podcast here about self-talk with Jen Chmiel of Face The Climb, a former collegiate lacrosse athlete and coach turned climber. Give it a listen.
*Some of these tools will overlap and can be used for other psychological aspects of your performance (i.e. arousal control and emotional regulation, energy management, motivation, attentional focus...) but this resource is dedicated to how the use of these tools specifically impact and increase your confidence. We have a saying at Inside Rival: Take what you need, and if it doesn't apply, let it fly. - Best, Inside Rival.
Self-talk is multidimensional, complicated, and an ever debated mental skill in the field of sport psychology. This resource will cover affirmations and how to replace unhelpful thoughts with positive-self talk but this is only the tip of the iceberg because self-talk is so layered and dependent upon individual differences (Tod, Hardy & Oliver, 2011). For example, some data suggests that seemingly negative self-talk may not be detrimental to performance (when discussing the execution of a skill) because some athletes may interpret or appraise their negative self-talk as motivational (Tod et al., 2011). Nevertheless, it’s a good rule of thumb to keep things positive. Think, if you’re performing well using negative self-talk, how much better could you perform with positive self-talk? We’ll break down the complexities of self-talk in another resource. What is understood about self-talk is that it can affect the way we feel, impact how we regulate our behavior, and has benefits on cognitive anxiety - a type of anxiety that some athletes experience as the pre-competition jitters or as nerves under pressure (Van Raalte, 1995; Sherman et al., 2009; Zinsser et al., 2010; Tod et al., 2011). Motivational self-talk appears to enhance confidence which is where our affirmations come into play and where we begin (Tod et al., 2011).
Affirmations: Affirmations are statements that help to challenge and rewire negative thoughts. These positive mental repetitions can reprogram our thinking patterns so that, over time, we begin to think and act differently (Cohen & Sherman, 2014; Cascio, 2015). Additionally, affirmations may be more effective when you pair them with other positive thinking techniques and work well alongside imagery and visualization (Szwarc et al., 2020). Start here to learn about affirmations but continue reading on to learn about self-talk and positive thinking strategies.
Drill 1: Affirmation Station
A word: There is evidence that the higher your sport confidence, the more effective affirmations can be (Wood et al., 2009). However, positive affirmations may make you feel worse if you have low sport confidence because it creates a conflict between the state you desire and the negative experience you're currently experiencing (Wood et al., 2009). That’s why we break up affirmations into two broad categories: 1) For when you need to meet yourself where you’re at. Maybe it’s better to find a balance between being realistic with the circumstances and finding compassion for yourself in a way that’s genuine. Once these start to set in and become practice instead of “wishful thinking”, then can you try affirmations in category 2) For when you’re ready to build confidence. This is when you can practice the positive affirmations you’re probably used to seeing or hearing about. Of course we’re talking about confidence in relation to sport and not overall mental health. If you’re struggling with low self-confidence, self-worth, or self-esteem we can work as part of a team with your licensed mental health professional to coordinate strategies to make sure everything translates between your two worlds, on and off the field/court/pitch/deck/ice/ green ...etc.
Affirmations are statements that typically target a specific area, behavior or core belief that you're struggling with. The following prompts can help you brainstorm and write the affirmations that best fit your personal goals and needs:
1. Think about the areas of your performance that you'd like to improve. For instance, do you wish that you had nerves of steel under pressure? Or didn’t dread strength and conditioning sessions? Or would you like to really nail a specific skill? Additionally, do you notice any recurring thoughts or beliefs about yourself that are bothering you? You can also choose an affirmation that is the opposite of that thought and belief.
2. Write down 2-5 affirmations you’d like to begin incorporating into your practices, training, and/or competition. Be sure that they are compatible with what you’re motivated to commit to (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). Regardless of which category they fall under (realistic or positive) an affirmation will not help if you say it and roll your eyes and don’t believe it or couldn’t eventually believe it (Van Raalte et al., 1994). A good affirmation could stretch your comfort zone a bit so expect it might feel unusual, but it won’t be inauthentic to you and your situation. Ask, ‘Are these affirmations conceivable and achievable’? For example, if you’re unhappy with the amount of playing time you currently get, you can use affirmations to raise your confidence with, “I give 100% effort” or “I am learning”, and so forth. It would be unhelpful to affirm yourself that you’re going to play the entirety of the next game. For most athletes on the cusp of starting vs. bench, it’s unrealistic to go from partial playing time to a starter overnight. Furthermore, that decision is out of your control. True, you can affect it in some ways (through effort, continued learning and mastery of skill...similar to the affirmations above hint hint…) so you want those affirmations to focus on what you can do and not what your coach or others can do for you.
3. Write affirmations in the present tense. Write and speak your affirmations as if they’re already happening. This helps you to believe that the statement is true right now. Again, for those starting in the realistic category, continue to take baby steps. Instead of “I am confident” when you don’t believe it, try “Everyday I feel a little more confident”. Reword the positive affirmation with....
I am beginning to...
I will try my best to… and my best is enough.
I am open to...
I am learning to...
Every day I am more and more...
...to better meet yourself where you’re at and bridge the gap when you need it. Avoid
writing affirmations with can’t, don’t, not, won’t or don’t. Instead of “I’m not scared” state “I am courageous”.
4. Affirmations are more effective when they are attached to emotion (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). Any affirmation that you utilize to shift unhelpful emotions or perceptions of a situation should be a phrase that carries feeling. For example, if you're worried about facing a competitive team or a competitor that outranks you, "I am excited to take on challenges."
Lastly, the power of affirmations lies in repetition. Once you have solidified your 2-5 affirmations, write a routine of when and how you will be incorporating them into practice, training, and competition. Are these written on your mirror and said when you first wake up? Are they repeated during a pre-performance routine? Are they used in game-time when specific situations arise? Have a plan to repeat them at least 3x/day and make them stick.
Research has found that self-talk and core beliefs are at the core of anxiety and reducing that negative or nervous internal chatter results in less anxious states (Tod et al., 2011; Greenberger & Padesky, 1995). So it follows that if we change the way we think about or appraise a situation, or if we change the way we perceive ourselves, we change how we feel, and thus change how we perform. Of course, one problem with thoughts is that humans have a lot of them a day. They’re quick, automatic, and sometimes we unfairly believe the ones that make us feel bad without questioning it (Greenberger & Padesky, 1995). By using a thought log, we’re able to practice recording the ones we experience often and get an opportunity to rewrite them (Greenberger & Padesky, 1995; Beck, 2011). The goal of positive self-talk isn’t necessarily to ‘think happy thoughts’ but instead to think accurately and see the situation for what it is, and find a more helpful thought (Beck, 2011).
Drill 2: Reframing Thoughts
To help you learn how to identify negative thoughts, check out this list of cognitive distortions below and 4* ways to reframe them.
Cognitive Distortions Explained (adapted from Beck, 1979; Burns, 1989):
You see things in black-or-white. If a situation falls short of perfect, and doesn't live up to your expectations, you see it as total failure. Example: You don’t run the time you were looking to hit and think, “Forget it, what was the point of all this training?” You might also here this as ‘Awfulizing’ or ‘Catastrophizing’ and is like the old saying, “making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Considered the extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. Instead of thinking “I made a mistake,” you attach a negative label to yourself, such as, “I’m a loser”. When you label others, you stop thinking about the behavior and see their character as totally bad, which leaves little room for constructive communication. People are not the same as what they do.
You see a single situation, such as a losing a competition or problems learning a skill, as a perpetuating pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it. Example: “I can never get this right” or “I always mess this up”.
4. Mental Filter
You pick a single detail and over attend to it and your perception of reality becomes negative. Example: You receive tons of positive feedback from Coach throughout practice but they point out one aspect of your game and give you critical comment. You obsess about their reaction/feedback for days and ignore all the positive feedback.
The last 6 are explained in depth in the 'Twisted Thinking' resource found in the Mental Tool box.
Four* Ways to Reframe Those Thoughts (adapted from Beck, 1979; Burns, 1989):
*Shown are four techniques favored and commonly used by athletes but know there are ten different ways to reframe and restructure thought. They can be found in the Twisted Thinking Resources in the Mental Tool Box.
Drill 3: Thought Log
Use the template (see download) along with the instructional worksheet below to help you track your thoughts and begin to rewire your brain so it works for you and not against you.
If you still get stuck on Step 5, “It makes sense, but I don’t feel any different” tell your Mental Performance Consultant (MPC). They will have suggestions that will help it clique or have a better mental drill for you to run through instead.
Note: Self-talk and other cognitive strategies may not effective for all athletes. There is such a thing as paralysis by analysis. Cognitive skills can help us with most types of performance anxiety but talk to your MPC first to learn about your sources of performance anxiety and see if cognitive strategies or somatic strategies may be best for you.
Reflection Questions for your Thought Log:
1. Take a look at your Situation column. What theme, if any, can you find?
2. Take a look at your Thoughts column. Label the cognitive distortion that each one could represent. Do you tend to fall into a pattern with one in particular?
3. Take a look at your Behaviors column. What would you like to do instead? What actions do you want to respond with next time? Imagine how that feels to perform in the way you want. What emotion comes to mind in that successful scenario?
4. Take a look at your alternative thoughts. How would you describe your new emotional state in light of the updated thought? With this new thought in mind, how do you feel about that situation now? How strong is that feeling on a scale of 0-10?
1. Tod, D., Hardy, J., & Oliver, E. (2011). Effects of self-talk: A systematic review. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 33.
2. Van Raalte, J. L., Brewer, B. W., Lewis, B. P., Linder, D. E., Wildman, G., & Kozimor, J. (1995). Cork! The effects of positive and negative self-talk on dart throwing performance. Journal of Sport Behavior, 18.
3. Sherman, D. K., Bunyan, D. P., Creswell, J. D., & Jaremka, L. M. (2009). Psychological vulnerability and stress: The effects of self-affirmation on sympathetic nervous system responses to naturalistic stressors. Health Psychology, 28.
4. Zinsser, N., Bunker, L., & Williams, J.M. (2010). Cognitive techniques for building con-
dence and enhancing performance. In J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology:
Personal growth to peak performance (6th ed., pp. 305–335). Boston: McGraw Hill.
5. Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 333-371.
6. Cascio, C. N., O’donnell, M. B., Tinney, F. J., Lieberman, M. D., Taylor, S. E., Strecher, V. J., & Falk, E. B. (2015). Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11(4), 621-629.
7. Szwarc, A., Lotfi, G., Tahmasbi, F., & Hossein Forghani, M. (2020). Effect of positive and negative dimensions of mental imagery and self-talk on learning soccer kicking skill. Physical Education of Students, 24(6).
8. Wood, J. V., Elaine, W. Q., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Journal of Psychological Science, 20(7).
7. Van Raalte, J. L., Brewer, B. W., Rivera, P. M., & Petitpas, A. J. (1994). The relationship between observable self-talk and competitive junior tennis players’ match performances. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 16(4).
8. Greenberger, D., Padesky, C. (1995). Mind over mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think. New York: The Guilford Press.
9. Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.
10. Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: Guilford Press.
11. Burns D. (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook. Harper-Collins Publishers. New York.
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