Self Talk: The Way We Interpret Reality

Perception is Reality

Simply observing our environment and the stimuli in it would appear to show us reality, pure and simple; what we tell ourselves (self-talk) about what we observe, however, is the way we interpret reality. When things in our lives and our environments don’t go according to our plan we all experience stress. While we may not have control over the stressful situation, we do have control over our reactions to the stressful situation by way of what we tell ourselves about it. Being stuck in traffic can have us white-knuckling the steering wheel, gritting our teeth, and telling ourselves “why are people such stupid drivers?” On the other hand we could be stuck in traffic with smooth breathing, a calm demeanor, and telling ourselves “I don’t have control of this but I can control what I am listening to on the radio and what I pay attention to out my window.”

The Science of Self-Talk

We are constantly talking to ourselves. According to psychologists and neuroscientists we average between 45,000-55,000 thoughts per day. That breaks down into 150-300 words a minute! This constant chatter involves both words and images. Most of our self-talk consists of harmless thoughts that serve daily activities like, “I am excited to tell X about Y.” The danger, however, is when our inner dialog becomes negative or self-defeating: “I’ll never be as good as Stacy” or “I hate these drills” or “Why can’t I just do it right.” With repetition, these words, positive and negative, are etched into the neural pathways of our brain. The result is a hard wired tape recorder of beliefs — interpretations of reality.

Our mind and body work in harmony. Therefore, every thought we have is mirrored in our physiology (e.g., focusing on our heart rate can make it increase or decrease), emotions (e.g., concentrating on positive thoughts and things will increase positive emotions), and behaviors (e.g., attention to desires can direct and guide our behaviors). This also means that we will live what we expect. Changing your self-talk is one of the easiest ways to trigger a meaningful change throughout other areas of the mind-body connection. The result can enhance your confidence, motivation, focus, overall outlook, and performance.

Managing the Negative

The first step in changing negative self-talk is awareness; recognizing the self-enhancing and self-defeating things you say to yourself. Although this may sound simple, it is not always an easy task. Your thoughts enter into your mind very quickly and sometimes without you consciously being aware of them. Learn to become a scientist of your own thinking by observing your thoughts and images that come to you, and changes, details, variations, and consequences of your self-talk — especially while performing in your sport.

Once you have recognized your positive and negative self-talk in practice and competition conditions, write them down. Writing tends to bring more meaning and clarity to your thoughts. Once you have identified when and where you are using negative self-talk, you can begin to rationally dispute these messages and replace them with more productive and empowering ones. Especially pay attention to the times that you experience a negative situation and interpret it with negative self-talk. You can easily create a thought-log by first dividing a piece of paper into three columns. Mark each column 1) situation, 2) negative thought, and 3) new improved thought. Recognize how the situation can be observed, that your thoughts interpret the situation, and then identify alternative, more positive interpretations of this event. This simple and effective technique can be a tool against low confidence, fatigue, self-doubt, and pain. It is very important to acknowledge that this will not result in negative self-talk stopping all together. It is just as important to be comfortable with understanding that the same negative statements might remain present over time. The strategies outlined here are meant to help manage these negative aspects and refocus the mind to improve performance (simply ridding yourself of the negative would have been done a long time ago if we were capable of that feat).


An example might be:
Coach is giving me a lot of feedback today

Negative Thought:
Coach is disappointed in me because I am not good enough. I can’t do anything right.

New Improved Thought:
Coach recognizes my potential and wants to commit his/her efforts and time towards my development to help me become all that I can be.

How the Brain Works

Like technical skills, thought control is a learned skill that you can develop through practice. If your self-talk is negative, you may have become very skilled at being negative, which hurts your ability to perform. Creating new neural pathways in your brain — like recording a new tape — depends on your ongoing commitment to the process. Since you may already be skilled at negative self-talk, you’ll have to constantly remind yourself to be positive. At first, you may revert back to your old, negative ways, just like you would when learning a new skill to replace a less efficient one. Simply accept this as part of the learning curve and return to being positive. Soon you will be interpreting your reality as a much happier, confident, and inspiring place.

Your new, improved self-talk must be realistic as well as encouraging and empowering. Saying things like, “I love being out here” or “I feel so strong” when they are not true will be difficult to believe. A more realistic self-statement would be, “If I keep working hard, good things will happen” and “This hurts, but it will make me stronger in the competition” and “I’m capable of improving.” Again, your interpretation of this reality will result in significant benefits to your performance and life.

Putting it All Together

By putting this new tool in your toolbox you will see your confidence, consistency, attitude, and performance rise to a new level. Positive self-talk can help your mind persuade your body to keep going, overcoming fatigue and self-doubt.

Practice Techniques for Self-Talk:
1. Use awareness to understand what your mind is saying
2. Don’t judge yourself for thoughts (they happen so quickly they are not always intentional)
3. Recognize how your self-talk will interpret your reality
4. Retrain your mind to think the way you want
5. Have patience

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