I did not complete my 20 mile run on Sunday. A combination of heat, tired legs, and my own attitude combined to not only cut the run off at 17 miles, but to make most of it pretty miserable. Heat and tired legs are easy to understand, but what about my own attitude? How did that contribute to my poor performance?
Listen for a moment to what was going on inside my head during my run.
Mile #1: Wow, my knee kind of hurts. It’s going to be a long run if that keeps up!
Mile #3: These stupid shorts are going to drive me crazy. I know that I will be chafing so badly by the end of this run.
Mile #6 (uphill): Dang I hate this hill. My back hurts, I can barely lift my feet!
Mile #10: I can’t believe I’m only halfway. My legs are so dead, another 10 miles is going to kill me.
Mile #12: It’s getting hot. Let’s turn back, I just can’t do this.
You get the idea. Then after the decision was made to cut the run off, my self talk continued, saying things like: You should be able to do this.; If you can’t run 20 how are you going to run a marathon in a month?; I may as well walk, it doesn’t matter anymore.
Wow! Talk about carrying the weight of my own expectations (fueled by the idea that I would have to write about my failure)! I always call myself a glass half full type, but that person wasn’t showing up that morning.
How Negative Self Talk Affects Performance
Imagine a talented track athlete. She has the skills to go far in her sport, but she seems to always choke in the finals. When questioned, she says that she knows that she should be winning, that she has the talent, but when she gets to the starting line the feeling of “having to win” starts to weigh on her. She tells herself that she should “just run,” but by this time she has made herself so anxious, that she tries to “push through,” which is not an ideal way to run a race.
This demonstrates how negative self talk can have an impact on performance. A great performance is related not only to talent, skill, and practice, but mental preparation as well. Just as an athlete practices getting out of the box, improving endurance, and their finishing sprint, they need to practice controlling their self talk, and learn to use their thoughts and expectations in a positive way.
What is Self Talk?
Self talk, as it relates to athletic performance, is all of the purposeful and random thoughts that go through an athlete’s head before, during, and after their event. Self talk can be positive and motivational (you can do it!). It can also be negative (you’ll never win, this is too hard, they are better that me). Pessimism and self-criticism can easily drag an athlete down, making it impossible to achieve their goals. The key to change is to recognize negative self talk and to practice turning it into positive self motivation.
There are several ways that negative self talk can slip into our thoughts. These include:
Focusing on past performance: This can happen as our runner stands on the start line and thinks things like, “I raced so poorly here last time,” or “I can’t believe I started so slowly.” Not letting go of previous mistakes or poor performances can take focus away from the current event.
Focusing on weaknesses: While every athlete has many strengths, even the best have a few weaknesses. Worrying about those can take your attention away from your strengths and erode confidence.
Focusing only on the outcome: To stand at the start line and think “I have to win,” can set an athlete up for failure in a big way.
Focusing on uncontrollable factors: Like my complaining about the weather, stressing out over a late start, worrying about the hills on the course, or anything thing that is beyond the athlete’s control, is a waste of energy and can stress an athlete out about things over which they have no control.
Trying to be perfect: Every race cannot be a PR. Yes, you want to train to be perfect, but to expect perfection at every competition is unrealistic.
Changing the Negative to the Positive: 5 Tips to Turn it Around
Just like improving time in the mile, controlling self talk is a skill that must be practiced. For some athletes who have fallen into the habit of negative self talk, changing can be hard. Here are some steps that can be taken to change the negative into the positive.
Self awareness of the negative talk: Before anything can be changed, an athlete needs to realize that they have been using negative self talk. Listen to what you say to yourself as you run or race. Are you focusing on your weaknesses? Trying to be perfect? Are there certain points in a run or competition that your original motivation turns to self doubt? If necessary keep a log so that you can analyze your thoughts and see where your troubles spots occur.
Stop the negative: Once you are aware of the negative talk, you must stop it. This is, of course, easier said than done, but it is an important part of the process. You can actually visualize a stop sign when the negative thoughts start to creep in. Just turn them away.
Replace with the positive: This takes practice, but it can be accomplished. Before your run, visualize your positive thoughts. Practice saying them out loud. By doing this, you will be ready to replace that negative self talk with your positive thoughts. Replace the negative, “I can’t keep this pace up,” with “just hold this steady pace and you’ll finish strong. Or “I hate these intervals, they are so hard,” with “these 800s are challenging but they are going to improve my race.”
Tell yourself what you CAN do: Sounds easy, right? Then why do we focus on what we can’t do? I can’t pass this person, I can’t run any faster, I can’t finish this race. What if you said, I can hold my pace, I can work hard up this hill, I can surge here and pass several people. Taking control of your self talk and focusing on what you can do is a much more effective strategy.
Prepare a positive self talk plan: Just as you plan the physical aspects of your race, creating a mental plan for competition will help you to prepare yourself to defeat negative talk and successfully manage the mental aspects of your race. Prepare your self talk in advance, and practice, out loud if necessary, to reinforce your strategy. Part of competition preparation should include your positive self talk practice.
Using these techniques, you will find that you can stop the negative thoughts from impeding your progress, and instead use positive self talk to improve performance and achieve success in your training and racing.
Do you find yourself using negative self talk? Were you aware of what you were doing? How can you use positive self talk to improve your performance?