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Positive self-talk

“The only difference between the best performance and the worst performance is the variation in our self-talk and the self-thoughts and attitudes we carry around with us”. Dr. Dorothy Harris, professor of sport psychology

(Photo by Pablo Guerrero on Unsplash)

We talk to ourselves on a daily basis for several reasons: to provide us with instructions, to motivate us, to interpret our actions, emotions, thoughts, and to make sense of what is happening around us. It is important to talk to ourselves in a caring positive way as it influences our attitude, behavior, and of course our performance. Having a positive self-talk is one way of cultivating a positive attitude. Instead of saying sentences like: ‘I cannot do it, I am not capable’, we can turn them onto something more positive like: ‘I’m am getting better’, or ‘I am trying my best’.

However, in order to get used to having a positive self-talk, we have to practice it. You can write down a list with positive sentences for your training like:

  • ‘I love running’
  • ‘I am going to make it’
  • ‘I do not care whether it is raining today, I am going to train anyway’
  • ‘Once the session is over I feel so invigorated’
  • ‘I feel like I am progressing’

The key is to have a list of five of your favorite sentences so you can repeat them every training day. The best times to read your list are in the mornings or before the training sessions, and once you are starting to doubt yourself.

Our self-talk could be constructive and help on our performance, or it can distract us while performing.The first step for managing our self-talk is to notice when and how do we talk to ourselves. Reflect on the way you talk to yourself depending on the different situations happening throughout the day and think whether this way of talking is helpful or not. If your self-talk has sentences like ‘I am just not good at this’, ‘I do not want to fail’, think how can you say something more constructive such as: ‘well, if I practice I can manage’, ‘it is fine to make mistakes, I can learn as a result, and that is what matters’. 

Common negative sentences that people say can be replaced by the following:

  • ‘(…) is too difficult, I cannot do it’: 

‘I have met other difficult challenges like (…), if I practice, I can achieve (…)’

  • I cannot do (…): 

‘I chose to do (…), or ‘it is my choice to do (…)

  • ‘I do not want to fail / make mistakes’

‘It is all about learning and it is okay to make mistakes and try our best’.

  • ‘Who cares if I do well?

‘I care how I do (…)’

  • ‘I cannot stand the referee’

‘Ruminate on stuff that annoy us is a waste of time and effort’.

This exercise can be extended by thinking on those situations where your performance has been successful and when it has not. Think whether your self-talk was different depending on the result. Use a diary to reflect on the following: 

  • ‘What do you say to yourself before, during, and after the sessions?’ 
  • ‘What do you say to yourself after a good performance?’
  •  If the performance was not as good as you wanted to be, do you keep dwelling on the mistakes? 
  • Is your self-talk made with more positive or more negative sentences?

By practicing these reflections you could anticipate a negative sentence that you were about to say and change it for a more constructive one. Do remember that we all have negative thoughts and they are absolutely normal, what matter is not to be enmeshed with them.   

Visualization

“When I train, one of the things I concentrate on is creating a mental picture of how best deliver the ball to a teammate, preferably leaving him alone in front of the rival goalkeeper. So what I do, always before a game, always, every night and every day, is try and think up things, imagine plays, which no one else will have thought of, and to do so always bearing in mind the particular strength of each team-mate to whom I am passing the ball” (…) Ronaldinho

Visualization, also referred to as imagery, is one of the most popular tools of sport psychology. It consists in creating or recreating an experience mentally. Ideally, athletes create a clear image and are able to control it. All senses could be employed, so it is not just the sounds or sights being elicited, but touch, smell, and taste, can also be used. When we practice visualization we are reinforcing the memory of the muscular and nervous systems about the movements required for a specific technique. 

Doing visualization exercises is another way to enhance training, and the more we practice the stronger that circuit about that skills it gets between the brain and the relevant parts of the body, and that skill will be perceived as more fluid.

There are two visualization perspectives that can be taken: either us being the protagonists, or seeing ourselves like we were a third person. Some athletes have preference for one perspective over another, or they choose a perspective depending on the skill they are training.

(Photo by Oleg Ivanov  from Unsplash)

We can use visualization to train some physical or psychological aspects like the following:

Physical training, to practice:

-A specific skill, like for instance imagining the perfect tennis pass, or to train a game strategy.

-In places where we have never been, to prepare for competitions.

-If we cannot do the exercises physically, if for instance we are injured.

Mental training, to motivate ourselves:

-For a specific result, e.g., completing a marathon.

-About a challenge, for instance imagining that we have self-confidence just before starting a race. 

Mental training, to relax:

-After the training, visualisation could be used to relax. The best time to do this type is after exercise when the muscles are tired.

It is normal to find difficult to do visualization if we are not used to. It could be hard to create, control the image, or make it vivid. Nevertheless, visualization is just like any other skill, so to get better at it we need to practice.

Relaxation in sports training


“Before the (Olympic) trials I was doing a lot of relaxing exercises and visualization. And I think that helped me to get a feel of what it was gonna be like when I got there. I knew that I had done everything that I could to get ready for that meet, both physically and mentally.”Michael Phelps

When the body is relaxed the muscles rest so the nerves associated stop sending and receiving messages to the brain. Relaxation exercises have to be included for a complete training plan because of its many benefits. Physiologically, relaxation exercises help to avoid fatigue, and psychologically it helps to sleep better, reduce sensations of anxiety, and it improves self-esteem. In terms of performance, when athletes are too tense their attention, optimal level of activation, and self-talk are affected and can have detrimental impact on performance.

There are two different ways to relax, from the body to the mind (e.g., breathing exercises, progressive muscular relaxation), or from the mind to the body (e.g., some types of meditation, visualization). The body-mind exercises are usually easier to practice for athletes and people who exercise regularly. Even with just one or two weeks of practice people can notice a positive difference. The best time to teach and learn any relaxation techniques are once the muscles are tired after doing exercise. 

Relaxation can be used for many purposes within sport, two very useful are: 

  1. To provide momentary relaxation for specific events:

-During a competition break to relax tense muscles or to manage worrying thoughts. 

-After competitions, to let the body get back to its usual state.

2. To regulate the optimal activation state of the body, and also to be aware of specific parts of the body being tense.

Breathing is one of the simplest ways to relax and release bodily tension. You can try this simple breathing exercise to relax:

  1. Seat comfortably or lye down. 
  2. Place one hand on your abdomen.
  3. Place the other hand on your upper chest.
  4. Inhale through your nose counting silently to 3. The hand on your abdomen should rise. The hand on your upper chest should not move.
  5. Exhale slowly counting silently to 4.
  6. Swap hands and repeat this breathing for 4 minutes pausing slightly before each breath.

Progressive muscle relaxation is another way to relax the muscles. This technique basically consists in contracting specific muscles, holding the contraction, and then relaxing them.

  1. Seat down upright, do not cross your arms or legs, put the feet flat on the floor and the palms of your hands on the thighs.
  2. Tense your right arm and hand, notice the tension. Do not tense the muscles as hard as you can. 
  3. Hold the tension for 10 seconds
  4. Let go of the tension and notice the difference on those muscles for 10 seconds
  5. Continue with the other arm and hand.
  6. Then face and head; neck and shoulders (bringing your shoulders as close as possible to your ears); legs and feet; finally the stomach. 

(Jacob Postuma foto from unsplash)

New Year’s resolutions – Make them happen!

“Set your goals high, and don’t stop until you get there”, Bo Jackson, baseball and football player 

With the start of the new year it is common to set up goals and resolutions, and one of the most common one is to do more exercise and enrol on a running race. To be successful with our goals it is essential to set achievable goals, with specific objectives and keep evaluating our progress.

Before starting the training it is essential to set a goal to motivate ourselves, and stimulate our learning journey. To set up a goal like completing a 10kms run, we have to identify what we want to achieve (e.g., completing the race on a particular time, or simply just completing it), bearing in mind the time and resources available, and our physical condition. 

When the goals are simply statements on what we would like to achieve, then we can get disappointed if we have not identified before hand the steps that are going to lead us to it. Another source of disappointment is when we include aspects that are beyond our control, like for instance the speed of the other runners. For these types of goals (e.g., finishing first on a competition), part of the effort is wasted by comparing ourselves to others. 

Once we have decided on a goal in mind, we need to identify at least three objectives on a short term, being as specific as possible and including a time limit to achieve them (e.g., doing core, quads and biceps exercises three times a week, and doing yoga on the rest days). We also have to identify the actions we need to do to achieve the objectives (e.g., going to the gym, consulting the personal trainer on stretching and warming exercises on the first week).

A continuous evaluation of our performance objectives is another important aspect to succeed. Some athletes find useful writing the objectives on a diary alongside the exercises completed to check whether they are meeting the objectives or they need to be modified.In this diary, they can also reflect on the obstacles they encounter and ideas to overcome them.

It is also worth remembering that the goal is the level of performance we want to achieve and the success depends on whether we achieve the actions related to the objectives.

Goals = objectives (short-term goals) + actions

(Photo by Ethan Sexton on unsplash)