Perform Positive Self-Talk

Feature by Tonya Nascimento, Swimming World intern

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, October 16. IT's a close race, 200 freestyle, and your teammate is neck-and-neck with a long-time rival. You know how much he wants this race. You know how hard he has been practicing for this. Your teammate starts to pull ahead into the last turn. You go crazy yelling. He is picking up speed. The rival seems to be fatiguing. You yell even harder. Then oh! He misses the turn. The rival has a great underwater push off and comes up ahead, ending up winning the race by less than a tenth.

After the race, what do you say to him?

Now, imagine you were the swimmer who missed your turn. In that sort of situation, directly after the race, what do normally tell yourself?

Are the two responses any different from each other?

Chances are you are encouraging to your teammate. You search your brain for the most comfortingly truthful and optimistic statements you can muster. You try to help your teammate see the good – however small – in the race, and remark that next time he will easily beat his rival.

Do you do the same for yourself?

Or do you "mentally beat yourself up?"

Develop resilience.
Resilience is stepping right back up after feeling defeated. It is bouncing back after perceived failure. It is needed in swimming due to the typical race schedule at meets. You finish one race, and you have another coming up. You swam a race in prelims, and you have to do it again in finals. What a great opportunity to develop resilience!

After a disappointing race, go ahead and feel the disappointment. This is natural given all the work you've put in and the passion you have for your sport. Let the tears fall in your goggles as you warm down. But if you have another race coming up, keep the grief short. By the end of warm down, start turning your thinking around.

Reign in any defeating thoughts following a disappointing race. Acknowledge it wasn't all that you hoped, but don't make it worse than it was by catastrophizing. That's a fancy word for making a catastrophe out of something that wasn't really the end of the world. When Ian Thorpe ended up in lane 5 for a final, he told reporters, "There is water in every lane, so it is okay."

Visit your coach to get some perspective on your race. Make sure you ask for things you did well. Then ask for some pointers for the upcoming race (or upcoming season if it was your last race that meet). Purposely direct your thinking forward.

If teammates offer encouraging words, resist the temptation to counter them. Accept compliments even if you don't believe them. Then indicate that you have moved on. Say something like, "Thank you. I'm disappointed with how that one turned out, but I believe I can make this next one a good one." Verbalizing your attention to the upcoming race can help.

Remember, drowning in past disappointment does not help future performance. To develop resilience, use the disappointment as a motivator to step up again and do better.

Play your success movie reel.
Contrary to how it feels directly after a disappointing race, you have had many successes in your swimming career. Developing a mental movie reel of your past success, whether in practice or meets, can help you regain the confidence to step up and succeed again (see PRACTICE POSITIVE SELF-TALK). It can remind you of just how mentally tough you are, and of how prepared you are to swim well. Just "press" play!

Fill up on positive fuel: mantras
Your thoughts are the mental fuel in your motor mind, which propels your body. A mantra, poem, or inspiring quote might be the fuel you need. In high school, I was sometimes intimidated by the stature of my competitors. I had personal mantra I frequently repeated to myself, "They may have the strength, the height, and the talent, but I have the will, the want, and the PMA." PMA means "positive mental attitude." When I was confronted with competitors taller and bigger than I was, I recited this mantra to myself to remind myself of my mental strengths. Whatever your edge is, take full advantage of it to confront doubt and ready yourself to race your best.

I like the quote (with no attributable author) "They never said it would be easy, only that it would be worth it." There are thousands of quotes to choose from. Just pick something, or make something up, that is relevant to you and will inspire you to go for it.

Fill up on positive fuel: positive affirmations
The easiest way to do fill up on the positive is to use positive affirmations. Positive affirmations are simply statements affirming the goodness of you. Reaffirm your ability to rebound from disappointment. Positive affirmations should be in the present tense, as in what you are now, not what you will be, unless indicating your immediate upcoming performance. And to be effective, you need to believe in them. They need to have a profound impact emotionally.

The following positive affirmations are examples of statements you can repeat to yourself to fill your mind with resolve and rebuild your confidence.

"I am mentally strong."
"No one race takes me down."
"I keep a positive mental attitude."
"I am a better racer now than I have ever been."
"I believe in my ability and go for it."

Positive affirmations are helpful before any race, regardless of previous performance. In fact, building a strong mental store of positive affirmations that you repeat to yourself often will help you quickly draw from it what you need when you need it. What's more, you will perform to match your affirmed beliefs. Affirmations "fill you up" with confidence, belief, and strength and don't allow room for doubtful or harmful thinking.

"I told myself there was no way I was going to let this training go to waste. It was my time, and I was ready to go." – Katie Hoff

Construct what you want to do or be.
All of the examples of positive affirmations are constructed positively. That is, they are what you want to do, not what you do not want to do. For example, affirm "I am mentally strong" rather than, "I am not weak." Affirm "I keep a positive mental attitude" rather than "I don't think negatively."

If you were to tell yourself, "Don't think of a purple elephant" what happens?

Don't think of a pink bunny.

You probably just thought of a purple elephant and a pink bunny. When thoughts are stated negatively, our minds must first register that which is to be suppressed or not done before switching to the positive. This can not only inadvertently affirm the wrong message, it can be mentally time consuming. In swimming, time is of the essence.

Furthermore, to switch to the positive, you have to figure out what that is. "Weak" is the opposite of "strong." But not thinking negatively does not necessarily mean to think positively. You could give yourself self-instruction (which is neither positive nor negative), play a success mental movie reel, or even let your thoughts drift off to how school went last week or what's for dinner that evening.

To use a non-swimming example, if one of your parents was to tell you "Keep to yourself" rather than, "Don't kick your brother." The latter statement leaves open many more possibilities for what you can do to your brother – you can hit, punch, bite, punch, or spit – whereas "Keep to yourself" instructs what to do and limits other possibilities for unwanted behavior. Therefore, whenever you self-instruct or use facilitative self-talk, such as positive affirmations, make sure they are also constructed positively. That will keep your mental motor running smoothly and swiftly.

Cue yourself to perform well.
Cue words are just one or two words that trigger a response. You can have cue words for all sorts of behaviors.

A cue word can help you focus. My old coach used to tell a humorous story about a teammate of his in college, Gumby. To make a long and funny story short, Gumby typified the "starving college student" and so was not getting enough to eat. One practice he passed out and was revived with glucose gel. From then on, "glucose" was his cue word to focus because it meant "energy" and "alive" to him. At the conference championships, he was shaking on the blocks during a relay, and my coach reportedly yelled "glucose!" Gumby immediately calmed his nerves and honed on in the incoming swimmer. "Glucose" had a powerful emotional meaning for Gumby. Whatever word you choose, it needs to resonate with you.

A cue word can help you execute correctly. If you use cue words in practice to make sure you are using correct technique, then you can use them in a race as well. For instance, when approaching a turn, you might say, "speed up!" and as your head starts down, cue "whip it!" For a fast breakout you might say, "explode!" And you could cue "stretch" or "tight" off the walls. Again, positive construction is important.

By having cue words ready, you can focus in quickly on what you need to in order to perform well. It can help you improve and it can help you rebound.

Let it happen.
Most of your thinking needs to happen in practice. During mid-season meets, you can practice cue words, and you might need to think to make changes. But when the championship meet comes, put your thinking aside. Use success mental movie reels, mantras, positive affirmations, and cue words to put your mind in the right place before the race. Use your well-practiced automatic cue words during the race. Other than that, just get your mind out of the way and let your body do what it has been trained to do. If you end up missing a turn or some other mishap, be encouraging to yourself, get your mind ready, and step up again. The more you practice performing positive thinking and the more you step up after disappointment, the more success you will have!

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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