Think back to a time in your life when you made an embarrassing mistake… Locking your keys in the car while it was still running, racing to a staff meeting to be on time, only to find out that the meeting was scheduled for the day before, or, an athlete’s worst nightmare, scoring a goal for the opposing team.
Whatever the mistake was, think about what you said the moment you realized the mistake. Were you kind or cruel? Were you quick to forgive yourself or did you berate yourself every time you thought about it?
Whether you were positive or negative about the mistake, you were engaged in what sport psychologists call self-talk. Any time you think about your own behavior, you are engaging in self-talk. Some of the most powerful messages that human beings receive are from what they say to themselves.
Most athletes are not conscious that they are engaging in self-talk and many athletes do not realize the impact this has on their self-esteem.
Helping Athletes Help Themselves
If a coach can help athletes engage in positive self-talk, athletes can help themselves increase self-confidence, focus, and ultimately improve their performance.
Positive self-talk is not wishful thinking. For example, “I will not allow my opponent to score” is a courageous thought but it is not positive self-talk. Positive self-talk must be about a specific action that is under the athlete’s control.
“I will keep my feet moving to stay on the goal-side of my opponent” is an example of positive self-talk because it gives athletes a focal point that is, in most situations, under their control.
There are five steps that coaches can take to help athletes use self-talk:
1. Have your athletes write down what they have said to themselves after a success or a mistake in practice. Self-talk usually occurs after an athlete receives feedback for a specific performance. The feedback can be the result of the performance (like scoring or not) and verbal or non-verbal messages from coaches, teammates, fans, officials and relatives. Have the athletes label each instance of their self-talk as either positive or negative.
2. Talk with your athletes about how their self-talk made them feel. Most negative doses of self-talk fuel feelings of anger, hopelessness, and increase muscle tension, which can impede fluid, biomechanically-correct movements. Positive self-talk (if it is sincere) can enhance feelings of optimism, calmness, and effortless movement.
3. Teach athletes how to restructure negative self-talk… “I’ve missed the last two penalty strokes… if I don’t score on this one, what will everyone think?” The first step to restructuring negative self-talk is to engage in a technique called thought stoppage. Have the athletes actually say “stop” to the negative thought and replace it with a constructive focal point that is under their control: “I am going to pick a spot in the net where I want to shoot the ball and I will follow through to that spot.”
4. Help athletes script their own positive self-talk. Start with one of their strengths. If the athlete is a strong shooter, have the athlete write down the reasons for that strength, as in, “I lift weights three times a week, I put backspin on the ball with my strong release, I am able to block out distractions by focusing on just the perimeter of the rim, etc.” Then to work on a weakness and have the athlete write down specific actions that are under the athlete’s control that will enhance performance. “If I make a ball fake before I pass, I can penetrate the defense; if I build my upper body with weight training, I can increase the speed of my release and my pass will be harder to intercept.”
5. Have the athletes create their personal mastery tapes. Once the athletes have written at least ten examples of positive self-talk, have them write a narrative that describes their preparation for an important game. The narrative should describe their actions and reactions using all five senses. This personal narrative can evoke feelings of confidence, calmness, and concentration on what is under their control. Have them write several drafts. Their language in each narrative should be just like the language that they use in casual conversation.
Coaches should help them work through several drafts so that the narrative contains all the essential elements of positive self-talk. It also should contain a strong, personal meaning for each athlete. Then each athlete can make a recording of the narrative and this mastery tape can be used for game preparation. Many athletes come to appreciate these tapes as their “secret weapons” and may want to make a different tape for each game.
Successful coaches usually model the behaviors that they want their athletes to exhibit. Coaches should not only monitor their own self-talk to build their confidence, they should also be conscious of the feedback that they give to their athletes in practices, meetings, and games.
Does your feedback give your athletes a constructive focal point that is under the athlete’s control? Does your feedback send a message to the athletes that you are confident that they can improve? You might want to have your assistant log your feedback that you give in a practice, just to see.
Does this scenario sound too familiar? A player commits a costly turnover and the coach screams in disgust, “Don’t throw away the ball.”
All this feedback does is show that the coach is upset with the athlete’s performance. Where is the instruction? This non-instructive, emotionally-charged feedback can also be an open invitation for the athlete to engage in negative self-talk: “I really blew that pass and I think the coach is going to take me out. Maybe I just don’t have what it takes to be a starter.”
Negative coaching can be devastating to an athlete’s confidence and motivation. Positive coaching conveys instruction for improvement and reassurance to the athlete that not only is success achievable but that a mistake is not fatal.
A more effective response to the athlete’s mistake might be, “Make sure that you use a bounce pass next time, play tight defense now… We’ll have plenty of chances to score.”
Some athletes and coaches might take the approach that John McEnroe used when he was the number one player in the world of men’s professional tennis — using his anger to get psyched to try harder. While this worked some of the time for McEnroe, he did lose important matches and he fought major injuries over the course of his career.
If research shows that negative self-talk decreases confidence, fuels hopelessness, and creates muscle tension that can impede performance, why not develop the habit of positive self-talk? Who couldn’t use a boost in concentration, motivation, confidence, and muscle efficiency when the pressure is at its greatest?
Dr. Susan Langlois has more than 20 years of experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sport facilities consultant. She is currently the Dean of Sports Science at Endicott College. Her undergraduate education was at the University of New Hampshire in physical education. She earned her Master’s and doctoral degrees from Springfield College. She is active in several professional organizations including NASSM, AAHPERD, ISCHPER, AAUP and NACWAA.
Sharman Hayward has directed sports camps at every developmental level, and has coached intercollegiate field hockey and lacrosse for 11 years. Sharman earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Business from Colby-Sawyer College and has a Master of Science Degree in Athletic Administration from Springfield College. Sharman currently serves