Self-Talk: Your Own Private Coach

Written by | Posted under Exercising, Health and Wellness | 6 years ago

You have 200 meters to go in the biggest race of your life and you’re leading. You’re exhausted. Your muscles feel like JELL-O. You don’t have anything left in the tank. You start to see a competitor drawing closer and closer to you from behind.

Where are you going to get that extra push?

You’re in the middle of a long workout. It’s cold and rainy. Your body hurts and you just want to stop.

How are you going to finish that workout?

Self-talk is that little voice inside of you — that little coach — that is constantly chattering away-telling you what to do. It can be positive, such as “I can do this;” “I can handle anything;” “This feels great”. But it can also be negative, such as “This hurts;” “I don’t have it in me;” “I’ll never be good enough”. This internal talk has a HUGE impact on performance, and how you feel in life. Some psychologists have estimated that up to 80 percent of our self-talk tends to be negative.

In the above two situations, imagine how negative self-talk might affect your performance. If you said “I don’t have enough gas”, what would that do? Would that help you win, or get through that grueling workout? Unlikely. Now imagine what positive self-talk might do, “I’ve got this;” or “My body can handle this.” It may give you that extra boost you need to break through that wall. To accomplish your fitness goals or improve performance, you have to learn to be your own best friend. Negative self-talk is completely useless, it accomplishes nothing, and you might as well just forget about it all together. You’ll see how to do that later, but first:

Common Self-Talk Errors That a Lot of People Make

1. Focusing on the past or the future: “I can’t believe I let so and so beat me;” or “If I don’t reach my weight-loss goal, I’ll be upset.” Not letting go of mistakes or poor performances, or focusing on what might happen in the future takes your mind away from where it should be: the present. Right here, right now. What’s happened has happened. The future hasn’t happened yet. You can’t control these things. All you can control is right here, right now.

2. Focusing on weaknesses during exercise or performance: “I’m a terrible runner;” or  “I’m too overweight to even begin exercising.” It’s good to note weaknesses so that you can work on those things and improve. But while exercising or performing, they do you no good. During exercise or performance, you should be overloading yourself with positive statements and focusing on all your strengths.

3. Focusing only on outcomes: “I must lose 25 lbs. by next month;” or “I must beat so and so.” Famous psychologist Albert Ellis referred to making “I must” statements as “musterbating.” The only thing you can control is your own behavior. You can’t control what other people do or their opinions, nor can you always control external factors that influence whether or not you accomplish your goals. It’s best to focus your self-talk on things you can control, like what you need to do to be successful right now. The outcomes will take care of themselves.

4. Focusing on uncontrollable things: “I hate exercising in the rain;” or “I haven’t lifted weights in five years”. If it’s something you can’t control, and you’re worrying about it, you’re completely wasting your mental energy. You need to refocus on things you can control, like what you can do right here and right now to improve.

5. Demanding perfection from yourself: “I have to have a perfect body;” or “If I don’t look perfect, I’m not a good person”. It’s unrealistic to expect a perfection, and perfection doesn’t even really exist. Doing so will often leave you frustrated and angry with yourself, which will only hurt you in the long run. Striving for improvement is great, but demanding perfection is not.

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Changing Negative Thoughts Into Positive Ones (A Drill Called Thought-Stopping)

Here’s a simple, but effective, drill for changing those useless negative thoughts into more helpful, positive ones. The first step is to learn to become aware of your self-talk. Think of a situation in which you recently had a negative thought or a doubt (e.g.,  “This workout is too hard;” or “I might as well quit, I’m so far away from my fitness goals.”)

Identify that negative thought, visualize a big red stop sign, and say to yourself “Stop!” or “Knock it off!”

Then replace that negative thought with a more positive, but realistic one. The new thought should help you, instead of hurt you. For example: “I can get through this;” “I’m tough;” “There’s just a little bit more;” or “I’m getting better all the time.”

That’s it. Try to get good at identifying your self-talk. If it’s positive, great! Keep it! If it’s negative, get rid of it. See that stop sign anytime you have a negative thought or a doubt. Negative thoughts do you no good. Quickly replace them with more helpful, positive thoughts. It seems so simple, but it will work.

My personal favorite thought-replacement is very simple, but I find myself using it all the time:

I can and I will.

3 Comments

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  1. Kenon Carter said,

    Well written, Graham. I battle a lot of negative thoughts, particularly in the first couple miles of difficult tempo runs or speed sessions. You can certainly learn a lot about yourself under those circumstances and few things feel better than that final cooldown mile when you’ve given those negative thoughts a vicious stiff-arm!

    6 years ago
  2. amy said,

    I think this is an awesome article, Graham. Nicely put. A book that may help those who have too many negative thoughts I’d like to recommend is called Feeling Good by Davd D. Burns. It helps with mood therapy.

    6 years ago
  3. Graham Ulmer said,

    Thanks a lot. Glad you liked it. I think the mind plays such an important role in exercise and performance. I’ll have to check out that book, Amy.

    6 years ago

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