#194: How to Encourage Positive Self-Talk in Your Athlete So She Can Play Confidently Without Beating Herself Up

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You know the feeling – the crowd buzzing, the adrenaline pumping, that intense pressure to win.

It’s tough out there for young athletes, but what about the battles going on inside their heads? The struggle against those negative voices?  As a parent or coach, you’ve seen it… your athlete can be their own best supporter or their toughest enemy.

That’s why we need to talk about self-talk. You want your athlete to play with confidence, right? To bounce back from mistakes without getting stuck in that downward spiral of self-criticism? Well, a big part of that is learning how to manage the conversations they’re having with themselves. Let’s dive in and get you some tools to help your athlete build a stronger, more positive mindset.

From Average to Elite: Understanding the Athlete Mindset

Imagine two athletes facing the same setback: a missed shot, a fumbled catch, a dropped race. Athlete A dwells on the mistake, replaying it in their mind with self-deprecating thoughts. Athlete B acknowledges the error, focuses on the next play, and maintains a confident demeanor.

The key difference? Their understanding of self-talk.

Average athletes often get swept away in a current of negative thoughts, believing everything their inner critic whispers. On the other hand, elite athletes recognize the power of their internal dialogue and have developed the ability to choose their thoughts. They understand that negative self-talk can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, hindering performance and dampening motivation.

The Thought Wheel: How Our Perception Shapes Reality

The Thought Wheel, a powerful tool in sports psychology, helps visualize the cyclical nature of our thoughts and experiences. Here’s how it works:

  1. Situation: This is the event itself, often outside of our control (e.g., a missed shot, a bad call by the referee).
  2. Thoughts: This is what the athlete thinks about the situation.
  3. Feelings: The thoughts trigger emotions (e.g., frustration, disappointment, anger).
  4. Actions: Emotions drive our behavior (e.g., giving up, arguing with a teammate, losing focus).
  5. Results: Actions ultimately lead to outcomes (e.g., playing worse, getting a technical foul, losing the game).

The wheel highlights how our thoughts about a situation can dramatically influence our feelings and actions, ultimately impacting the results we achieve. When caught in a cycle of negativity, athletes can become discouraged and perform below their potential.

Shifting the Gears: Techniques to Counter Negative Self-Talk

The good news is that negative self-talk is not a life sentence. Here are some strategies to help your athlete develop a more positive inner voice:

  • Notice. The first step is becoming aware of negative thoughts. Help your athlete recognize self-criticism by asking reflective questions: “What thoughts are coming up for you right now?” or “What inner voice are you listening to?”
  • Reject. Once they identify the negativity, it’s time to let it go. Imagine thoughts as items on a conveyor belt. Your athlete gets to choose which ones to hold onto and which ones to let pass by. Phrases like “Thanks, but no thanks,” or “I’m letting that thought go,” can be helpful.
  • Choose. Encourage your athlete to replace negative thoughts with more empowering ones.  Even a neutral thought can be a positive step forward. For example, instead of “I can’t do this,” a more productive thought might be “This is challenging, but I’m going to keep trying.”

Here are some additional tips to promote a positive self-talk environment:

  • Focus on effort, not outcome. Focus on the process and the effort put in, rather than the final score or winning/losing.
  • Celebrate small victories. Acknowledge and celebrate progress, even small improvements. This reinforces a growth mindset and fosters confidence.

Your Role as a Supportive Parent or Coach

As a parent or coach, you play a vital role in shaping your athlete’s self-talk. Here’s how you can create supportive environment:

  • Don’t Force Positivity. Avoid shutting down or minimizing your athlete’s negative emotions. Let them express their frustration without judgment. Phrases like “I hear you, that must be tough,” or “It’s okay to feel disappointed,” can go a long way.
  • Validate Their Feelings. By validating your athlete’s emotions, you create a safe space for them to express themselves. This fosters trust and strengthens your bond.
  • Model Healthy Self-Talk. Athletes learn by example. Be mindful of how you talk about yourself, your challenges, and your own body. Utilize positive self-talk in your own life, and your athlete will subconsciously pick up on these habits.

Beyond the Basics: Advanced Techniques for Positive Self-Talk

Here are some additional techniques to take your athlete’s self-talk journey to the next level:

  • The Power of Visualization. Visualization helps athletes train their subconscious mind and improve their mental game. Guide them to create vivid mental images of themselves performing successfully, feeling confident, and overcoming challenges.
  • Present-Moment Focus. Encourage mindfulness techniques to help your athlete stay grounded in the present moment. Remind them that dwelling on the past or worrying about the future is unproductive. Teach them to focus on the next play, the current task, and what they can control.
  • Creating Affirmations. Work with your athlete to develop personal affirmations – short, positive statements they can repeat to themselves when negativity strikes. Examples include: “I am strong,” “I am capable,” “I trust my skills.”

Final Thoughts

Developing positive self-talk is a skill that takes time and practice. There will be setbacks and days when negative thoughts creep back in. Be patient with your athlete and continue to offer support and encouragement.

By actively guiding your young athlete to recognize, reframe, and harness their inner voice, you’ll empower them to face challenges with greater resilience, enjoy their sport more fully, and ultimately, unlock their full potential both on and off the field.

Episode Highlights: 

[00:00] Helping athletes overcome negative self-talk and move past it quickly.

[02:26] Helping athletes develop positive self-talk and navigate negative thoughts. Discover the importance of positive self-talk in athletes, emphasizing its impact on their mental game and overall performance.

[07:35] Shifting thoughts to improve mental game in sports. Athletes learn to focus on enjoyment and improvement by shifting their mental attitude, leading to better performance.

[09:58] How thoughts and beliefs affect athletic performance. Learn more about the “thought wheel” and how it relates to athletes’ situations, thoughts, feelings, and actions.

[15:06] Shifting negative thoughts to productive ones in sports.

[17:12] Helping athletes shift negative thoughts and build self-trust.

[22:27] How parents’ self-talk impacts their daughters’ mental skills and physical abilities in sports. Negative self-talk from parents can contribute to a daughter’s negative self-talk and impact her athletic performance.

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