Are You Talking To Yourself? Are You Good at It?

Written By Aaron Weintraub

Dallas / Fort Worth Coaches Group

Are You Talking To Yourself? Are You Good at It?

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The most important coach any athlete will ever have is herself. During a softball game, each athlete has two roles: coach and athlete. A leader coaches herself, and sometimes others, between pitches. When it is time for action, she stops coaching and becomes an athlete.

Self-coaching is a product of self-talk. Self-talk is simply thoughts, the dialogue going on in a person's head. Self-talk is usually in the form of actual words, although it sometimes takes the form of pictures or concepts. Right now, your self-talk is the words you are reading, although if you pause from the text, your mind could venture off in a thousand different directions. Even while you read, you can have distracting self-talk or you can be focused singularly on the task at hand. If athletes could simply not think, their talent would probably flow uninterrupted into their performance, but humans think… a lot. Estimates indicate that the average person has between 25,000 and 75,000 distinct thoughts per day (and scary though it may be, that over half of them are negative).

A softball player has many, many thoughts during the course of a game and those thoughts affect her performance. Just like gravity affects a person who does not understand what it is, these thoughts will impact performance level whether she has awareness or not. The pertinent question is not, ”Will I talk to myself?” That answer is set in stone. The question is, “Will my self-talk optimize my performance?” That answer is very much a variable.

Self-talk impacts performance in many ways, including directly affecting attitudes (including confidence), communicating mind to muscle, directing focus, learning skills, making appropriate adjustments, and increasing or decreasing other mental skills such as intensity or toughness/courage. Personal demons can lead to the following obvious examples of poor self-talk:

I'm terrible.
This is unbelievable.
We have to win.
I need to score on this play.

In contrast, the world's greatest athletes think the following phrases right before they perform:

This is going to be awesome.
I'm ready. Let's do this.
I love this game.
This is a great opportunity.

The following irrational or distorted patterns of self-talk relate in some way to confidence, dealing effectively with pressure, or both. Discouraging these inappropriate patterns does not tacitly accept negative outcomes. Rather, it promotes putting “failure” or competition in a proper perspective and using each experience constructively. The first goal is awareness, thus allowing an adjustment to occur.

Many athletes are relieved when they realize that these poor patterns are not unique to them or even unusual. What is unusual is having the discipline to convert bad habits into new, better ones with a decision to change and diligent, persistent effort.

The Far From Perfect Perfectionist

I'm not what I ought to be,
Not what I want to be,
Not what I'm going to be,
But I am thankful that I'm better than I used to be.
-John Wooden

Elite athletes are notorious for being perfectionists. They leave out the last line of that little poem. The idea that perfection is essential is obviously false yet often believed. With perfection expected, the horrible self-coaching that ensues can be debilitating. It is often represented by the bad word “should.” Simply replacing this with “could” (e.g. “I could have made that play and would have if I had been at my best”) is incredibly healthier.

The degree to which an athlete is a perfectionist is obviously on a sliding scale, but there is a clear pattern that this is more common in female athletes than males. A typical high-level softball team is likely to have one-third to one-half of its players who are extremely hard on themselves. Perfectionists should know that this personality trait is fantastic because it causes them to work hard and pay attention to details. However, it also is a negative when it causes them to snowball their mistakes. This happens, particularly in games, because they beat themselves up and dwell on the past. They lose enthusiasm, confidence, and focus. They need to recognize and adjust by remembering that nobody is perfect, so it makes no sense to expect perfection. Forgive to forget, without settling for mediocrity. This is achieved by striving for perfection, but never expecting it.

All or Nothing

Outcomes are easy to judge.
Too easy.

Polarized thinking is the tendency to view each outcome as an absolute success or an absolute “failure,” which is almost never the case. For example, a hitter may miss the hitting the ball on the sweet spot by a millimeter. Despite doing nineteen of twenty things very well, she makes a “loud out” instead of hitting a home run. If the poor outcome is viewed as completely bad, the athlete may fail to repeat all the good things she did, thinking the entire process needs to be changed. If she thinks, “Another fly out? I'm horrible,” she may fail to make a subtle adjustment that could lead to a major change in outcomes.

There are an unlimited number of similar examples. Perhaps a pitcher has great movement and velocity, but misses location by six inches. Perhaps the entire team is focused and committed to the plan, but they are not having fun, so they do not find their ideal state. Leaders consistently gain confidence even through adversity by remembering the good things they did and by making an effective adjustment on their singular mistakes.

Never Say Never

Never lose hope.
Dreams do come true.
Just believe and never say never.

Related to the all or nothing mentality, athletes tend to overuse the words “never” and “always.” Examples: “I always screw up in that situation” or “I can never run a mile in under six minutes.” Athletes should avoid these words because they are usually not true. Unfortunately, they are likely to become true if the athlete believes in them. They will return to being false as soon as she ends that belief. Self-fulfilling prophecies are real and common. Almost every athlete has limiting beliefs about herself, and they are just that: beliefs that keep her from approaching her potential.

Of course, exceptions to this rule exist (e.g., never say never). Therefore, every time a competitor is tempted to use an absolute, she should ask the question “Must this be true, or could there be an exception?” If an exception is even remotely possible, she should phrase the idea differently. She can at least change “I'll never do that” into “That's a tough one. I don't know if I'll ever be able to do that.”

Can't Say Can't

Positive self-talk doesn't always work, but negative self-talk does.
-Trevor Moawad, Mental Conditioning Coach

History is full of success stories about people who believed they could when conventional wisdom said they could not: man cannot run a mile in under four minutes, man cannot walk on the moon, or a team that barely reached the playoffs cannot win the championship. In professional sports, it is quite common to see the “Wild Card” team win the Super Bowl or World Series. Athletes must be careful not to allow self-fulfilling prophecies to prevent achievement. This often occurs subconsciously and then continues indefinitely because without awareness, no adjustment is possible.

Athletes must also be wary of another, sneaky version of “I can't.” “I'm not” means the same thing. Examples of this “yellow light” include “I'm not good enough to compete here,” “I'm not tall enough,” and “I'm not smart enough.” Instead of saying “I'm not,” or “we're not,” an athlete should express the idea as a challenge. Instead of “We're not going to be able to win this,” she can think, “It will be an awesome upset (or comeback) if we pull it off. I'll do my best and see what happens.” At the very least, she can say, “I don't know if we can do it.”

Hate the Word Hate

Forgiveness is the economy of the heart… forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.
-Hannah More, English Religious Writer and Philanthropist

Exceptions exist. Hate is a strong word- usually too strong. Many people use this word carelessly or haphazardly: “I hate running,” or “I hate getting out of bed so early.” Athletes should say what they mean, even when speaking to themselves. A leader does not “hate” running because she weighs all the positives and negatives honestly. Running leads to improvements in skill and condition, which lead to winning. She loves winning, so even if she finds running tedious, she will not say that she hates it. It is natural to dislike some things (or traits in certain people), but athletes will have more positive energy when they avoid the word “hate.”

There's No Crying in Softball (Catastrophizing)

Distance not only gives nostalgia, but perspective, and maybe objectivity.
– Robert Morgan, Poet

Catastrophizing means imagining the worst possible thing that could happen and thinking that this outcome is terrible and would be difficult to ever overcome. This perspective leads to large waves of emotions, rather than the even keel that marks the tough-minded leader. There are no catastrophes in sports, other than a rare severe injury or death. With a proper perspective, no single loss or “failure” will ever be viewed as a catastrophe, because it will have no direct impact on the athlete's identity. The pressure-inducing thought “I need to” is then replaced with the thought, ‘This is a great opportunity to” or “I would like to.”

Brett Favre said, “Football is important but not as important as you once thought it was. When you lose a family member or something tragic happens, that stays with you forever.” Baseball relief pitcher and Hall of Famer Goose Gossage said, “Every time I come into a game, I think of my home in the Rockies, and that relaxes me. I tell myself the worst thing that could happen is that I'd be home fishing there tomorrow.” Losing is bad, but it is not a catastrophe. Often, asking “What's the worst that could happen” will help an athlete realize that she is catastrophizing and is therefore likely to let her fear negatively impact her behavior.

No Fair, No Kidding

Things tend to turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things tend to turn out.

The fallacy of fairness is the idea that life should be fair. Thinking or saying, “This is not fair” (or, “Unbelievable” to mean the same thing) is often a disguise for a person wanting her personal preferences versus what someone else thinks is right or best. It leads to an emotional response that interferes with an effective rational response. Thinking that life should be fair is analogous to an athlete banging her head against a brick wall in an attempt to break the wall. It will not work, but it will hurt. Leaders recognize that overcoming obstacles that seem unfair is a necessary step towards success. Plus, they not only recognize that life is not fair, they emotionally accept it — even embrace it. They make unfair circumstances their challenge rather than their problem. Doing so gives them a competitive edge, and they know it.

It's All My Fault

The worst guilt is to accept an unearned guilt.
-Ayn Rand, Author

Many athletes assume disproportionate guilt, taking too much personal responsibility for a disappointing outcome. The weight of the world will not promote a relaxed peak performance. The idea that any softball player is solely responsible for her team's loss is false and can lead to dangerous conclusions such as “My teammates must hate me” or “I'm worthless.” Team games are exactly that- team games. It is easy to focus on the last play in a close game, but keep in mind what John Wooden preached: a free throw in the first minute of the game is of equal value and therefore equal importance to a free throw in the last minute. Like many of Wooden's lessons, this lesson is logical and simple, yet often forgotten.

Balanced Rationality is Bad (Permanence)

Great leaders not only emphasize the good and de-emphasize the bad for themselves, they vocally help their teammates to do it, too.

Permanence, or a one-trial generalization, is the idea that a single outcome is destined to happen over and over. This is actually a fantastic belief when the outcome is good, but horrible self-talk when it is bad. When an athlete executes a play perfectly, she should expect to do so the next time the same situation comes up. A balanced rationality would also expect bad outcomes to repeat, but this is not a useful expectation, nor does it need to be true. An athlete may perform poorly one time in cold weather and decide “I stink when it's cold.” This is obviously not the positive, relentless attitude that will lead her to perform up to her potential. The best athletes in the world emphasize one-time good outcomes as likely to happen again, but view a poor outcome as an aberration from the norm. Perfectionists tend to do the opposite, beating themselves up for each mistake and having thoughts like, “Here we go again” or “Today is not my day!”

Excuses Are Sneaky

The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely the one who dropped it.
-Lou Holtz, Football Coach

Acceptance of responsibility for personal behavior is critical. When confronted with a dilemma or tough situation, a person either will find a way or find an excuse, but never both. Excuses are like candy at Christmas: abundant but not healthy. As an athlete increases her acceptance that she is completely responsible for and in control of her behavior, which is all that can be controlled, she will develop an intolerance of excuses.

Most excuse makers agree with the preceding paragraph, yet they unwittingly continue to make excuses. These excuses sneak up on them in various forms and often include words or phrases from the poor patterns of self-talk listed above. Perhaps the excuse maker's ego is fragile, needing the protection of excuses. It will eventually teach her the benefits of accepting responsibility and the pitfalls of fearing ”failure,” hopefully sooner rather than later. Awareness is the first step because without awareness, no adjustment is possible. Leaders drop their safety net and do their best, one step at a time, regardless of environmental difficulties. No matter what potential excuses exist, she can always do her best.

You win the mental side of the game when you give your best effort one step at a time, accept whatever happens, and do it again. Your best effort is always good enough.

aaron Weintraub Aaron Weintraub holds a B.A. from Emory University (1993) and a M.Ed. from the University of Virginia (2000). He served as an assistant baseball coach for 13 years before starting www.CoachTraub.com, a consulting business whose mission is to over-deliver value on goods and services designed to help you win the mental side of the game. He works with teams and individuals, adding clarity to help them get what they want for their sport. CoachTraub.com also runs camps and clinics and has an online store.Weintraub is the author of Coaches Guide to Winning the Mental Game (Coaches Choice, 2009) and An Elite Athlete’s Manual for Training Mental Skills (self-published, 2011). He lives in The Colony, TX with his wife, Nicole, and their four children.

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