Our brain is alive with conversations with itself for almost all of our waking hours.

This self-talk is comprised of both the purposeful and random thoughts that run through our minds, and include all the things we say in our heads and out loud.

Self talk is comprised of both positive and negative thoughts. Positive self talk impact our ability to focus on a goal, motivation and enthusiasm. Negative self talk, on the other hand, is the "trash talk" we heap upon ourselves: self-critical and pessimistic thoughts that saps our energy and drive.

How many times before a big event have you thought, "there is no way I have done sufficient training for this event," even though you have followed your program to the "T".

Perhaps you are checking into the start of your first Ironman or a marathon, and you find your your thoughts awash in negative self talk like "I have no business being at this race" or "I'm probably going to come in last, if I finish at all" or all-consuming "Look at these great athletes - there's no way I'm as good as them."

Let me assure you that, from first time racers to Olympians, negative self talk invades the minds of every athlete, in every sport, from every country, at some point in their racing career. By pointing out how common negative self talk is, I am by no means downplaying its affect on performance. Negative self talk can significantly and negatively impact your race training and event performance.

So where does such negativity come from? There are any number of sources, depending on the individual, but these five seem to be very common amongst athletes:
  1. Reliving the past
    Reliving a poor performance or experience at a particular race is a common problem especially if it led to severe consequences such as not finishing the race or perhaps coming off your bike. These experiences are reinforced with their negative re-telling: "I can't wipe out like that again" or "Like an idiot, I went too hard on the hills and blew my race."

  2. Trying to control the future:
    On the other side of the coin is trying to control the future. Perhaps you find comfort in narrowly focusing on one or few parts of the race. By zeroing in on one aspect of the race, a strong marathon leg for example, what we gain in control, we lose in the big picture and for example, leave our swim and bike to chance.

    Along the same lines is another favorite of mine: the "What if..." [insert undesirable race condition here]. "What if it's too windy", "What if it's raining"... you get the picture.

  3. Focusing on weaknesses during competition:
    We all have a weakness or two that we continually fight to improve in training. For some athletes, this weakness can become a serious performance limiter, from a mental not physical perspective.

    Perhaps you really struggle with the start of the swim at a triathlon. In the days leading up to the race you end up spending so much energy playing all the scenarios through in your mind that come race day, you are riddled with anxiety and emotionally exhausted.

  4. Focusing only on outcome:
    There are two ways we can look at most things in life: outcome focused or systems focused.

    When we give all of our energy to the outcome, we lose track of the steps or the plan we need to follow to reach the final outcome successfully. We might neglect to rehydrate or perhaps fail to execute our racing strategy. Whatever the consequence, remaining in the present at all times is very important.

  5. Demanding perfection:
    Most endurance athletes are driven and highly motivated individuals, showing many, if not all, of the Type A personality traits. This is a good thing when it comes to being disciplined, focused, dedicated and committed to fitness and their sport.

    However, it's a bad thing if your personal bar is set unrealistically high. In my experience, performance perfection for even truly great athletes is completely unrealistic. And ultimately the pursuit of this perfection creates stress and feelings of failure, and misplaced pressure leading to doubt and negative talk.
So now we have a few ideas of where these negative conversations might arise from, and why they might occur, let's have a look at a few strategies that might help to overcome the negative thoughts , and build some positive energy.

  1. Work on increasing your awareness of self-talk, both positive and negative.
    Increasing awareness of these negative thoughts is the logical starting point for getting the upper hand over them. Remember, negative talk can occur in practice and during racing. Try to identify when thoughts begin to turn toward the negative, and be aware of when they are positive too.

    Perhaps thoughts lose their positivity in the days leading up to your competition. Is it when you are swimming at your Masters group and doing a tough set of intervals you become critical of yourself? Whatever the situation, being aware allows you to begin developing a strategy to deal with it.

  2. Stop the negative (easier said than done)
    Once you have learned to recognize what negative self-talk "sounds like", you begin working on ways to stop it before it before it escalates. A mental cue / key word such as "STOP" or "NO", will bring you back to reality and allow you implement your negative talk ending strategy.

  3. Start the positive (easier said than done)
    Positive thoughts and images are what you are striving to have in your head during training and racing. As soon as you recognize the onset of the negative, flip the mental switch that turns on the positive thoughts and messages in your head, and switches off the negative. Also, start looking for the style and content of positive self talk that works for you.

  4. Practice, practice, practice!
    Having identified the positive talking points above, it will progressively become a easier to replace negative with positive. But, and I can't stress this enough, positive self talk in athletes takes practice and has a training trajectory just like any part of a race.

    Start in the off-season. If you're in the midst of a long training and race season, you'll need to keep those thoughts as positive as possible.

    Do them at every opportunity, in training, through the course of your day and in racing. The increase in your self confidence and reduction in levels of anxiety and stress, will become clearly evident as your performance improves.
The psychology of sport has been gaining a lot more attention over the past few years as a component of athletic performance. And there are any number of other strategies out there that can be used to assist you improve your mental resilience and enable you to boost your physical performance.

Do you have a mental strategy which you have had success with? We would love to hear what it is and how you use it.

James Greenwood is a competitive tri and multisport athlete currently training for Ironman Canada 2009. A level 1 Triathlon Coach, he holds a post graduate degree in Exercise Science, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA. James is also currently the resident health and fitness programs expert at MyPypeline.com, and has starred in a number of multisport specific fitness videos.
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