Challenging that voice in your head
By Shelly R. Probber, Psy.D.
We all have that little voice in our heads that speaks to us as we are working out or training. You know that voice: the one that yells at you to run faster or criticizes you for not training more. Unfortunately, that voice has a lot to do with your ultimate athletic performance. Even when your body might be able to perform at its peak level, that little voice may undermine all your efforts. Humans are unique in that we can experience ambiguity and a complexity of thoughts and feelings that may not always be consistent.
When you experience conflicting feelings and thoughts, you will likely begin performing in a less than optimal way, thus compromising your performance. Imagine running or cycling down a hill, your legs turning over quickly, gravity pulling you along. It feels effortless. Your breathing is even and you feel relaxed and calm. Then, you start saying, “Wait. I am not a fast runner or cyclist. I can’t be going this fast. What if I can’t make it to the end because I am going so fast now?” Chances are that you will slow down and begin to lose confidence.
We all know we need confidence to perform our best in many areas of life. Just what is confidence? Within sports and athletics, confidence is basically your assessment of your own ability to perform to your potential. Thinking about the difference between what you think you can achieve and what you really achieve is when confidence can become shaky.
That critical voice in your head can be trained to become more positive. The use of positive self-talk can be a powerful tool to help you perform to your potential. Sports psychologists have demonstrated that when we say negative and self-defeating self-statements, we will become frustrated and discouraged. This leads to poor performance.
Try it yourself. Get on a treadmill or a track. Start jogging or running and say to yourself: “I can’t run very well. I am out of shape and I have no business trying to run.” Now get back on the treadmill. Start jogging or running and say to yourself: am a good runner. I train regularly and I deserve to become a better runner.” Notice the difference between how you feel when running the first time versus running the second time. If you tell yourself to be a better runner, then you are, in a sense, training your mind as well as your body.
Part of the benefit of examining your self-statements is that it allows you to challenge your assumptions about yourself. What do you believe about your own abilities? Do you believe that you can run? Do you believe that you deserve to compete in a particular race and try your best? What is your best? It is important to be realistic about your goals and not set them too high. Think about what you believe you can really achieve. Now go out on your training runs, and say to yourself, “I can achieve the goal I have set for myself.”
In part, this is why races are so much fun to participate in. The cheering of the spectators essentially challenges that negative voice in your head. Running the last few miles of a marathon or a triathlon, most athletes are not feeling their strongest. However, run by someone who calls out your number and yells to you: “You’re looking strong!” Suddenly, you believe it. If you watch people in a race as a spectator cheers him/her on, you will notice that the athlete begins to run taller and stronger and might even pick up the pace a bit. Of course, the body is still tired. But the image of being a strong runner has just affirmed your belief in yourself. Perhaps, for just a few moments, it has displaced the negative self-talk.
Most sports psychologists suggest that you invest equal time into mental skills training and physical training. It is generally an accepted fact that your mental abilities play a vital role in your athletic performance. This means that, in addition to getting yourself to the gym or to the track, you need to spend some time actively working on changing your negative self-statements into more positive statements that will allow you to push through during the tougher races and training days.
This is risky, though, for you might have to confront some unpleasant assumptions about yourself. For example, you may discover you are frightened of success or fearful of failure. Perhaps you are holding yourself back because you are apprehensive about confronting a view of yourself as a strong athlete, when for all your life you have considered yourself to be unfit. Of course, with risk can come enormous growth and self-discovery.
Shelley Probber is a licensed psychologist in private practice in San Antonio. Her practice encompasses children and adults, with a focus on athletes.