Self-Talk in Athletes and Exercisers: 4 Steps to Rewire Your Thoughts
There is a lot to think about during exercise such as maintaining proper body mechanics and posture, controlling effort and force, and breathing properly. These efforts all occur at the same time we motivate and push ourselves to do more and work harder.
An additional factor to consider during exercise is our own self-talk, also known as our internal dialogue or chatter.
The thoughts we fuel our mind can impact an athlete’s sports performance and overall workout experience either positively or negatively. This is because thoughts impact feelings, which in turn impact our behavior. The quality of our thoughts can impact how productive or motivated we are — especially with exercise.
The good news is that the more we practice the steps listed below, athletes and exercisers can rewire negative self-talk to create new thinking habits.
What Negative Self-Talk Sounds Like
Over the years, I have heard clients share their negative self-talk in training sessions, or before and after class workouts.
I have heard self-talk statements such as:
- “I can’t do this!”
- “Exercise will never be easy for me...”
- “I’m not skillful enough...”
...and the list goes on.
As you might imagine, negative statements like these listed above do not motivate performance or propel individuals forward in the way that they need to meet goals, challenge obstacles, and create sustainable behavioral change.
Instead, they decrease our self-efficacy belief in ourselves, and the resulting outcomes become self-fulfilling prophecies.
4 Steps to Rewire Self-Talk
Due to its impact on our behavior and motivation, it is important to note when negative self-talk emerges. Doing so can help prevent the negative influence on motivation, exercise adherence, and sports performance.
Here are some tips on how to start cultivating mindfulness to notice self-talk, and reframe thinking to better enhance exercise behaviors.
1. Pay Attention Deliberately
Mindfulness practices start small and build over time. If cultivating mindfulness is new to you, start this journey by paying more attention deliberately to the thoughts you have right before, during, and after exercise.
Shift your attention away from external distractions, and pay attention to your internal experience. Notice what comes up for you in the moment, such as thoughts and feelings.
In mindfulness terms, this is called “staying present” in the experience.
2. Refine the Efforts Over Time
Refining new skills takes time, regardless of the skill. Keep this fact in mind as you practice staying present.
Since harnessing this awareness is a process, try not to put too much pressure on yourself to notice all of the time, and instead, focus on the self-talk statements you do notice.
Focus on the successes, and trust that the more you refine and practice paying attention deliberately, the more skillful you will become in these efforts.
3. Reframe the Unhelpful Thoughts
I suggest writing down the negative self-talk statements that come up for you.
What exactly are you saying to yourself? Be very specific in the wording that you write down.
Then, ask yourself, What might be a more helpful and adaptive statement?
For example, an athlete while running who says to himself/herself: “I’m so slow right now” could reframe that thought to: “I want to get faster, and will keep working on this”.
Both statements imply that one’s running is slower than where they want it to be, but the reframed version propels positive future action in a way that the original version does not.
It is important to give the disclaimer that the process of reframing does not mean to replace all negative statements with an overly positive one.
The goal is to reframe negative, self-defeating thoughts in a way that encourages growth and motivation. Doing so will have a positive impact on performance enhancement outcomes.
4. Reinforce and Repeat
The next step is to continue reinforcing the newly reframed thought in moments when the old, negative self-talk emerges.
In other words, when you catch yourself defaulting to negative self-talk, say your newly reframed statement out loud or quietly to yourself. Continue to repeat this each time the negative self-talk pops up.
The more you use the new statement instead of the older one, the more it gets reinforced and becomes a habit.
Do you have another negative thought you want to reframe? If yes, repeat this process outlined above. The more you practice staying mindful to self-talk and reframing negative statements, the more skillful you will become.
Overall, the process of paying attention deliberately to our cognitions in order to reframe negative self-talk can have a profound impact on goal outcomes. When we shift “can’t” to “can” and reduce statements which talk negatively on our current limitations and/or capabilities, it will have a positive impact on our athletic performance as well. This mindfulness process positively impacts exercise motivation and adherence and uplifts one’s experience and enjoyment of exercise.