One of the biggest messages I impart to all the athletes I coach is that language matters. The narratives you create and the way you talk to yourself has a significant impact on your emotions, what you believe you are capable of, your motivation, and your feelings of confidence…
And because it influences all these things, it also impacts the decisions you make and the actions you choose to take. Your words influence everything, and that’s why language matters.
I grew up battling so many negative thoughts about myself. I was not kind to myself at all. It wasn’t until I started studying the brain and then discovered sport psychology that I realized it could be different.
Are You Feeding the Monster or Feeding the Athlete?
You may have noticed that my social media handles are @feedtheathlete. It would be natural for people to assume that maybe I’m an athlete and I like to eat, or I am a sports nutritionist that helps athletes dial in their food choices. But some of you know that I’m talking about a different type of fuel. You “feed” yourself thoughts and your diet of thoughts is JUST AS IMPORTANT as your nutritional choices when it comes to performance. What food do you eat when you want to perform to your potential? How intentional are you with the food you choose to consume before a race or competition? Are you as intentional with the thoughts you are choosing to feed yourself?
We all have a little athlete on one shoulder and a little monster on the other. The Monster is filled with your fears, anxieties, and doubts and talks a lot about things that you don’t want, whereas your Athlete is filled with your excitement, confidence, and dreams and talks about what you do want. We all have both sides and whichever one you feed is the one that’s going to get stronger. Many of you are very good at feeding your monster, and not so good at feeding your athlete.
You Brain’s Negativity Bias
Your brain is wired to pay more attention to stimulus that could be a threat, and to feel negative events more intensely than positive ones. That’s why you could be speaking in front of an audience, in a job interview, talking to your kids, or performing in a competition and have 100 things that went well, and one single thing that didn’t, and you feel the impact of that one negative event much more strongly than the impact of the 100 positive ones.
Your brain has a negativity bias which means you are naturally wired to want to feed the “monster” and pay more attention to negative feelings and to negative events because the primal part of your brain is wired to protect you. Your brain is wired to have those things stick because when you are more tuned into danger are more likely to survive. Your brain is naturally going to have more negative thoughts and it takes deliberate practice to counter that.
It’s time to take stock of the thoughts and messages you are feeding yourself. Here are two simple and effective ways to practice feeding the athlete:
Flip Your Don’t to Do’s
Try this exercise:
Take a nice big deep breath and clear your mind.
Don’t think about a shark.
You can think about anything else, but don’t think about a shark.
I use this exercise in workshops when I talk about how to practice feeding the athlete. I’ll give you one guess as to what happens next.
“OK. Got it. Don’t think about a shark… Dang it!”
(I bet you thought about a shark too.)
Your brain doesn’t even process the word “don’t”, it skips right over it and jumps straight into the action. As soon as you hear the word “shark” an image pops into your mind of what that means to you. Any thoughts or emotions you have associated with the word are a part of that image as well. You only stop thinking about a shark when you give yourself something else to think of.
It takes practice thinking about what you want versus what you don’t want. Try and catch yourself when you are hooked in the moment, thinking about something you DON’T want, and ask yourself, “OK, so what DO I want?”. Then rephrase that thought by saying what you DO want instead of what you don’t.
When you want to Flip-the-Script from:
- I don’t want to feel stressed about work today.
- I don’t want to botch this interview.
- I don’t want to miss the cut off times.
- I don’t want to feel nervous before my competition.
Ask yourself, “OK, so what DO I want?”:
- I want to feel excited about work today.
- I want to nail this interview.
- I want to make the cut off times.
- I want to feel confident and prepared before my competition.
A great resource to check out for more details on this concept is the book Law of Attraction, by Michael J. Losier.
Create Psychological Distance
As you begin to understand how your brain operates, you also begin to understand that you don’t have to believe and buy into every thought that comes into your mind. Sometimes you need to stop listening to yourself and start talking yourself; stop listening to the monster and start “feeding” the athlete.
One powerful way to do this is to use your name and the second person “you” to refer to yourself. Making the self-talk shift from using the first-person “I” to the second person “you” allows you to get some psychological, or emotional distance and you relate to the situation differently because you have created some space to do so. Studies revealed that using this kind of distanced self-talk leads to less emotional activity in the brain, which allowed participants to view stressful situations as challenges that can be overcome versus viewing them as a threat. It also contributed to thinking that was clearer and more complex and shortened the time of rumination.
When you find yourself ruminating about something you are worried about or you are feeling stressed about a particular situation, try this method of talking to yourself to coach yourself through it. You can also take pen to paper and actually write a letter to yourself as if someone else is writing it to you; providing empathy and giving you some sound and sage advice.
A great resource to check out for more details on this concept is the book Chatter, by Ethan Kross.
Every day we have a constant inner dialogue running in the background. That dialogue serves many different roles: It provides a sounding board to help you to work out problems and process information; it can be a sounding alarm alerting you to something important to pay attention to, but oftentimes your thoughts are just running on auto-pilot in the background. The language you use is what runs the show.
Think about how many messages you receive from yourself every day and consider how many of those messages are lifting you up versus tearing you down. What percentage of those thoughts are inspirational and supportive versus judgmental and negative? Now think about how many messages you receive from yourself over your lifetime. It’s time to make the commitment to work on your self-talk.