Practice Positive Self-Talk

Feature by Tonya Nascimento, Swimming World intern

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, October 10. "WE are what we repeatedly do." Aristotle said. I would like to add that "We do what we repeatedly think." To get the most out of your next practice, learn to think yourself better.

Self-talk is the thoughts you say to yourself. It's the silent conversation in your head. And, it's powerful. Your thoughts direct your actions. Perhaps you have experienced the power of self-talk. During a hard set when your body hurts, and thoughts of quitting kept trying to creep in, you might have beat them out with thoughts willing yourself to keep going. Or maybe you heard your coach call out a challenging set, and instead of giving up, you told yourself to go for it. If you repeatedly think you can achieve amazing feats, then you most often do, and you become a champion.

On the other side, many of us swimmers continually battle self-doubt and defeating thoughts along the way. No one can think positively all the time. The key is to learn to change the thinking around so that it becomes helpful.

I like to define positive thinking as that which helps your swimming, and negative thinking as that which hinders your swimming. Most swimmers are familiar with the distinction, and most swimmers readily identify the types when provided with examples. However, in some cases, what is negative for one swimmer is actually motivating for another. For example, saying to yourself, "He's big" when first seeing the lane 4 swimmer is most likely negative due to feeling intimidated. But some swimmers might see that as a challenge and be motivated to beat him. This is why it can be more helpful to delineate self-talk as either facilitative (helping your swimming) or debilitative (hindering your swimming).

The first step to improving your self-talk is to become aware of your debilitative thinking. You first have to identify what is harmful. If it makes you less confident, saps your strength, makes you doubt, or in some way weakens you or makes you not want to do the task, it is harmful. You can become aware of harmful thinking by wearing a rubber band on your wrist and snapping it when you catch yourself. Another suggestion is to put a pile of paper clips in one pocket and transfer it to the other whenever you have a harmful thought over the course of the day. Of course, these are for general awareness of your thinking as they cannot be done in the pool.

STOP harmful thinking.
While swimming, come up with a way to stop the harmful thinking as it arises. One way is to yell "STOP!" in your head as loud as you can.

Imagery can be powerful. You could imagine a large stop sign or a traffic light on red. One swimmer I worked with said she likes to use a crossroads because she stops at the fork and chooses the other, more positive, direction. Other swimmers have used imagery that is more emotion-based than logic-based. Because their negative thinking results in a lowered mood, they stop the thoughts with images that lift their mood, even using images unrelated to swimming.

You can also stop debilitating thoughts by singing a song. Swimmers I've worked with lately have picked "Don't stop believing" by Journey and "Magic" by BOB as great ones to start blasting in your head rather than letting the harmful thoughts go on.

Decode debilitative thoughts.
Some thoughts might not seem debilitative, but there is an underlying message that harms your swimming. Many coaches ban the word "can't" because the underlying message is "I won't."

The underlying message of "I'm tired" is "I want to slow down" or "I don't want to do this." Thoughts of tiredness result in a message to your body to slow down, and that harms your swimming.

Learn to notice how you are saying what you are thinking inside your head. Tone and word choice matter. Are you saying, "I want to do this" or "I hope I can do this"? The first sends a message to yourself that you are excited and looking forward to the set. The second sends a message of doubt. Are you saying, "I'm going to do this" or "I will try to do this"? The first readies your body to rise to the challenge. The second gives an out in case you don't succeed. What is the underlying message in what you are saying to yourself? Decode the thought to discover harmful underlying messages.

Change Directions.
Once you have caught the debilitating thinking and stopped it, you need to quickly move toward more positive thinking. To signal the start of this process, use your imagery. If you imagined a red stop sign, you could flip it around in your mind and show a green sign with the big letters spelling, "GO!" If you imagined a traffic light, it could turn to green.

If your negative thinking pertains to self-doubt or fear, you can switch to positive imagery. One way is to start playing a movie reel of all your past successes in practice. To get started on "movie production," it can help to keep a success of journal of your workouts. Write the date and any sets you did especially well on and why. Write down the improvements in your attitude, thinking, work ethic, endurance, mental toughness, and any achieved progress goals (see USING PROGRESS GOAL TIMES TO IMPROVE). The next step is to consistently reference your success journal and start putting together a series of success movie clips in your mind. Replay these successes before practice, before hard sets, and before races. Practice replaying them so that you can recall them easily when you need to the change the direction of your thinking.

Learn to Dispute.
Whenever you have a negative or harmful thought, argue with yourself and come up with all the reasons your thinking is deceptive. The key is to be truthful. You cannot convince yourself the harmful thinking was wrong by simply telling yourself it isn't true. You need to provide evidence. For example, if you catch yourself telling yourself, "I can't do that," rather than simply switching to, "yes I can!" dispute it by saying something like, "Wait a minute! I've done things before that I previously thought I couldn't do. What makes me think I can't do it now?" This changes the direction of your thinking to all the reasons why you can do it instead of simply applying an empty assertion that allows the self-doubt to continue. By writing a success journal, you will have readily accessible examples in mind to add to your evidence.

If your thinking is not necessarily wrong, you can challenge its usefulness. Ask yourself "How does this thinking help my swimming?" Then replace the thought with helpful thinking.

For example, if you think, "last time I did this challenge set I didn't make the interval at number 5" you can dispute with "True, but how does thinking that way help me this time? I am going to attack it and see how far past number 5 I can get."

Be on the lookout for failure thinking that is stable. Thoughts such as "I am not a good breaststroker" or "I am not good under pressure" have an underlying message of stability or resistance to change. Breaststroke may be your worst stroke, but there are bound to be plenty of swimmers slower than you are, and you might just surprise yourself if you change your thinking and attack the set. You may not have done well under pressure at the last few meets, but that does not mean you won't have a breakthrough. Use logic to dismantle those thoughts that threaten to harm your swimming.

Command excellence.
Decode and stop debilitative thoughts. Dispute to change directions. Then command excellence.

After you have come up with all the arguments against your original thought, end with a facilitative instruction to yourself. For example, if you thought, "I'm tired," you can dispute and then command, "Pick it up." Other good commands are "Go for it!" "Make it happen!" and "Get after it!"

You might want to have a personal cue word for focusing and getting your efforts going again. This can be any word that has a special meaning for you. It might work best to motivate if is tied to your goals. Perhaps you want to make to high school state. Your cue word might be "finals" or "state."

Changing your self-talk from primarily debilitative thinking to primarily facilitative thinking can be the most challenging mental skill you ever learn. But if you can master it, your swimming will likely improve dramatically. Our mind can limit us or spur us on to perform "out of our mind," meaning beyond what we thought possible. Make sure you are sending messages that will help you improve. Command excellence and you will perform with excellence!

Tonya Nascimento is a doctorate student in the sport psychology program at Florida State University. She was a competitive swimmer for 20 years, during which she swam for FSU. She also coached Maverick Aquatics for eight years and the Niceville High School swim team for four years.

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