“When I’m godawful close to the edge — a cliff, a tree — I try to get through it by believing in myself and saying, ‘I can pull this off,’ rather than hitting the brake.” — Missy Giove, 14 national DH titles, 1994 DH World Champ
Competitive cyclists spend countless hours getting fit and honing technical skills. Not to be overlooked, however, is training to be a good conversationalist — with oneself.
I talked with sports psychologist Stephen Walker, Ph.D. about the practice of self-talk and how it relates to performance at his office in Boulder, Colorado.
“People talk to themselves all the time,” says Walker. “They just don’t know they’re doing it.”
In addition to being editor-in-chief of PodiumSportsJournal.com, Dr. Walker is a sports psychologist who has done extensive work in the fields of psychology and biofeedback.
“Self-defeating thoughts are all manifest in the way you talk to yourself. It alters the way you engage with yourself,” says Walker. As such, “self-talk can either help or hinder” your performance.
To help his clients gauge how they talk to themselves, Walker has outlined nine dimensions of self-talk. The categories aren’t tied to any order or a particular phase of an event, but are designed to help individuals become aware of how they talk to themselves and help them keep their mental conversations productive.
The following is a brief introduction to these categories. Ever found yourself in a similar conversation?
DON’T INTERRUPT ME
By Dr. Stephen Walker
1. Active vs. Passive Focus
2. Outcome vs. Process Focus
3. Purposeful vs. Random Focus
4. Past vs. Present Focus
5. Present vs. Future Focus
6. Constructive vs. Destructive Focus
7. Instructive vs. Evaluative Focus
8. Positive Self-expectation vs. Negative Self-expectation
9. Optimistic vs. Pessimistic Focus
“Self-talk can be active or passive,” explains Walker. “You want to be very active in what you’re saying to yourself.”
Basically you want to “drive the bus.”
“Passive self-talk is being receptive to other things that can either direct or redirect your self-talk,” Walker says.
When waiting on the line of your race, are you absorbing comments about how boring the course is or are you telling yourself you’re ready for a good race? Choose wisely, Grasshopper.
STAY ON COURSE
Or even if you direct the conversation, does your internal dialogue wander to thoughts like “Daaamn, my legs need shaving.” If so, consider keeping your self-talk more purposeful than random.
“Random self-talk is passive and allowing of a negative intrusion at a time when you really need to keep yourself purposeful,” Walker says.
In other words, you’ve got more important things to focus on than your furry getaway sticks.
DO YOU KNOW THE TIME?
Years ago I had a friend who, when asked what time it was, never failed to reply, “Now.” It was mildly annoying, but his repetition never let me forget: Always be in the present.
Which brings us to two categories of self-talk described by Walker as past vs. present and present vs. future self-talk. Say you crash in a turn lined by spectators. Do you berate yourself for making a total junk show of that corner? Or do you start envisioning your glorious redemption run on the next lap?
“You have to keep yourself in the ‘now’ moment… throughout the entirety of the race,” Walker says.
The past is over and future events are never guaranteed — for example the line you’re planning may not be open because of a crashed rider.
Staying in the present also keeps you engaged in the process, which is the difference between process vs. outcome self-talk.
Walker explains that he’s not big on the idea of being outcome-focused.
“Some athletes say ‘I’m going to win this race,’ which is an outcome goal, but my first question is ‘What do you have to… do really well in the process of racing that is going to contribute to the outcome of you being on the podium?”
Process-oriented self-talk, like, “I’m climbing this hill smooth and fast,” is positive, focused on the task at hand and leaves no room for self-defeating thoughts, he says.
ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE
But at least if you’re thinking of topping the cake, you’re on the right track. Keep a positive instead of a negative self-expectation. Walker used a quote from Henry Ford to explain this category: “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”
Is your internal dialogue constructive or destructive? Are you building yourself up or are you tearing yourself down? How you talk to yourself “can get you into to a deterioration of the relationship with yourself,” explains Walker.
And really, if you’re not in your own corner why are you even in the fight?
How you relate to yourself can be apparent in how you talk to yourself after making a mistake. If you make a mistake, Walker recommends being instructive vs. evaluative. If you crash on a practice ride, spare yourself the, “Good job, Stupid,” and focus on, “I know to stay left here.”
If technical coach Lee McCormack catches riders harshly criticizing themselves for a mistake, he’ll stop them and say, “Hey! I don’t let people talk to my friends that way.”
Moral of the story? Be your own friend.
Which leads us to the last category of optimistic vs. pessimistic self-talk. Do you think things are working for or against you? Among other things, “optimistic self-talk allows you process things and set yourself up for a better performance in the future,” says Walker.
“There is no bad race,” he says. “There are only races where you learn this or that and then go forward.”
And with all there is to do to get ready for a race, you don’t have time to be an Eeyore.
Habits can be hard to break. If you want to change how you talk to yourself, but catch yourself needing a course correction, Walker says to, “just acknowledge it, recognize it… and pay it as much emotional attention as unloading the dishwasher.”
In other words, don’t beat yourself up over it. Tell yourself you’ll do it better next time. Just remember when you do that it’s all in how you say it.
Thanks to Dr. Stephen Walker for his expertise and contributions to this post. If you have more questions on the benefits of sports psychology, you can call Dr. Walker at 303-530-4439, visit www.drstephenwalker.com.
Judy Freeman is a pro mountain biker out of Boulder, Colorado. In 2009 she represented the U.S. at the World Championships in Canberra, Australia. For 2011, she’ll be racing for Kenda/Felt Mountain Bike Team. Other sponsors for 2011 include Kenda, Felt, TrailMaster Coaching, Hayes, Manitou, Sun Ringle, Pearl Izumi, Voler, WickWerks, KMC, FSA, Crank Bros, Fi’zi:k, Pika Packworks, Smith Optics, TriFlow, 2XU, Action Wipes, Louis Garneau and Mighty Good Coffee.