Self-Talk — How Champions Build Confidence & Learn to Believe In Themselves

Simon Boulter
Jul 17, 2017 · 18 min read

Despite what some might say, talking to yourself is not just for crazy people, we all talk to ourselves in our head with an inner dialogue almost nonstop. This is usually unconscious and occurs unconsciously, but a person can mindfully steer that inner dialogue by consciously choosing to think positive, productive and empowering thoughts to improve their state of mind.

There is an old Cherokee legend known as the tale of the 2 wolves, that is an excellent example of the struggle that goes on inside of the mind of an athlete, between their positive and negative self-talk.

A wise old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life and explains ‘A fight is going on inside me, it is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil, negative and destructive, he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, superiority and ego.’ He continued ‘the other wolf is good, productive and beneficial. He is joy, peace, love, hope serenity, humility and kindness. The same fight is going on inside of you and every other person too, these 2 wolves fight to gain influence and control over us.’

The grandson pauses for a minute to think, then asks curiously ‘Which wolf will win?’

The grandfather replies ‘The one you feed.’

Every athlete has two voices who compete for dominance, one is a positive voice of encouragement, the other is a negative critic. The voice you listen to will dominate your inner dialogue. How we talk to ourselves can greatly affect how we think, feel and perform. The voice that you focus on will usually become the loudest, you can choose to keep your self-talk positive and drown out the negative critic, feeding the wolf of courage and starving the wolf of fear.

Our thoughts can be our own worst enemy if we allow them to be. How might you be feeding your negative thoughts and allowing them to influence your behaviour and performance? Whenever you have a negative thought, catch yourself and stop it, immediately focus on a positive and empowering thought, to create more confidence and optimism.

Our thoughts and feelings influence our performance, athletes must be mindful of how they talk to themselves. The good wolf represents our positive self-talk and builds us up, while the bad wolf represents our negative thoughts and self-talk which tears us down, whichever wolf you feed will win. You must learn to build confidence by thinking positively about yourself and your skills. Use positive self-talk, affirmations and visualisation to always feed the good wolf. Any time you begin to have negative thoughts, that’s the bad wolf trying to influence you, interrupt those thoughts and immediately feed the good wolf instead.

Champions learn to starve the bad wolf, the wolf of fear and feed the good wolf, the wolf of courage. When athletes use positive self-talk and visualisation effectively, their fear begins to melt away and is instead replaced with courage. Negativity destroys performances, so it is crucial to starve the bad wolf and instead feed the good wolf. An athlete can do this by noticing negativity when it pops up in their mind, interrupt those thoughts and images immediately and redirect their mind with positive self-talk and imagery to something more positive and productive. This is how a champion starves the wolf of fear and feeds the wolf of courage.

Whenever you catch yourself thinking negatively, ask yourself ‘which wolf are you feeding champ?’ The simple act of asking this question interrupts any negative thoughts and presents you with the choice of feeding the wolf of courage.

Learn to identify your negative and unproductive thoughts and shut them down right away. Typical negative thoughts an athlete can have are things like ‘I can’t do this,’ ‘I’m not good enough,’ ‘I’ll never be able to do this’ or ‘I don’t belong here.’ It’s normal for us to have thoughts like this at times, but you have the choice to consciously identify them and shut them down before they do anymore damage. What are some negative, self-destructive thoughts you have regularly during training or in a competition? Any time you have them, challenge these self-critical thoughts and feed the good wolf to build more confidence. If you can do this then you’ll improve your mood and as a result, most likely your performance. When the bad wolf comes hunting, stop it in its tracks.

Self-talk can help produce significant improvements in performance, whether instructional self-talk or motivational. Both beginner and experienced athletes can benefit from practicing self-talk, in fact there are few successful high-level athletes that don’t practice some kind of positive self-talk. Although you won’t be able to eliminate all negative thoughts from your mind entirely, you can challenge these thoughts and replace them with positive and productive thoughts. In times of stress, aim to quieten your mind, improve the quality of your thoughts and continuously feed the good wolf.

The champion’s mind-set is largely about self-belief, it is this confidence that all great athletes have in common. Most high achievers believe that with enough hard work and with the right strategy that nothing can prevent them from achieving their goals. The only way you’re going to be successful in sport, in fitness and in life is if you first believe that you can.

We all doubt ourselves sometimes, but what separates successful people from everybody else is how they talk to themselves whenever that internal critic pops up.

One thing many athletes who underperform compared to their capabilities have in common, is that they end up having a lot of negative self-talk going on internally when under pressure. Sometimes a performer has negative self-talk causing them to doubt themselves and when things go wrong that internal critic says ‘see I told you that you couldn’t do it’ and that self-doubt snowballs, setting them up to perform even worse.

At the exact moment when you need to believe in yourself the most, that internal critic will try to tear you down and sabotage your performance. This is precisely why it is vital to practice visualizing overcoming adversity and correcting mistakes rather than visualizing only flawless performances. You must practice interrupting and blocking out the negative and focusing on positive self-talk in order to overcome adversity. Shut out the internal critic while you encourage and empower the champion within you, both in training and when it matters most in competition.

Self-talk is the conversation that goes on in your head and what you tell yourself can have a significant impact on your self-confidence, motivation and performance. The average person has around up to sixty thousand thoughts in a single day, unfortunately many of them tend to be full of negativity and self-doubt which adversely impacts performance.

In terms of mental strength, one of the most effective ways to improve performance is to build self-confidence and one of the most efficient methods of developing self-confidence is using positive self-talk. An athlete’s inner dialogue can influence their performance more than they realise, so keeping self-talk positive is vital to keeping them focused and motivated to increase their chances of success. Positive self-talk can help an athlete through challenging times and adversity, help them stay focused on the present moment and on the current task, rather than allow negativity to take over and impede their performance. This isn’t limited to just athletes, a person going into an important business meeting, first date or talk on stage can sabotage themselves with negative self-talk and destroy their self-confidence. Working on your self-talk can help your mind and body get in synch with one another and calm your nerves, while still getting excited about the event and remain in the moment.

Champions understand that a positive attitude and mental strength is vitally important to their success, especially when the events going on around them are negative or stressful. They also understand the importance of stomping out the internal critic and interrupting negative thoughts and images, immediately replacing them with positive self-talk, visualisation and affirmations. In an ideal situation, an athlete would be performing on autopilot without thinking about much at all, with no need for self-talk as they flow from one technique to the next. Unfortunately outside influences and pressures don’t always make that possible.

Mental toughness isn’t very natural for some, we don’t all naturally or consciously interrupt negative thoughts and immediately replace them with positive and empowering ones. Mental strength is a lot like physical strength, you must practice and emphasise mental toughness in order to build it, just as you would when you go to the gym to build physical strength. Regular mental workouts help to build and maintain mental strength, if you neglect your mental muscle then it will atrophy and become weak again.

Mental toughness is in part the ability to stop negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts, continuing with your work and maintaining self-confidence. An athlete can do this with positive performance cues and positive self-talk. You must identify the thoughts that improve your state and performance, once you have done so you will be able to train your mind to focus on those thoughts during training and competition. This sounds simple enough in theory but becomes difficult under pressure, so mental workouts offer an opportunity to practice and prepare your mental game for competitive pressure. How many people actually make an effort to stop negative self-talk? A lot of people often call themselves negative things in their head such as stupid, useless, fat, ugly or incapable and absolutely trash their own self confidence as a result.

Interruption and thought replacement is a useful method of preventing self-doubt and negative thinking, focusing on what you want to happen and what you can do to make it happen. Replace all thoughts of doubt and negativity with confidence building thoughts, think about what you can do rather than what you cannot. Focus more on what it is you want to do, what you are capable of and all of the hard work you have put in to prepare and you are more likely to perform well. It is important to come up with some positive performance cues and positive statements, then practice them regularly so that when you are faced with adversity you are well practiced using them and they can have more impact. Think about the path to success more than the obstacle standing in your way, forget what is out of your control and instead focus on what you can control.

The key is discovering which thoughts help you to perform better. Remember that you cannot focus on two things at once, not with complete focus at least. So the best way to block out self-doubt and negativity is to give your mind something positive to focus on. If you are completely focused on what could go wrong and avoiding it, then you cannot think about what could go right. Make sure that your self-talk keeps you in a positive mindset and focusing on what you need to do in order to get the job done.

Don’t let your opponent’s rattle you, replace their negative comments, actions and gestures with positive self-talk, affirmations, stay in the moment, breathe and focus on the task at hand. Don’t let your opponent’s actions make you angry and affect your performance, stay focused and perform your job as perfectly as you possibly can.

Ask yourself the right questions. It doesn’t help to psyche yourself out and tell yourself that your task is impossible, your opponent is unbeatable, or that you’re not good enough. Maintain your mental clarity and stay optimistic, keep your mind clear or melodramatic thoughts. There is no point in piling on more pressure than you are already feeling, perform at your best from a place of inspiration and optimism, not desperation and pessimism. Regardless of the situation, be sure to always do your best, no matter what the score is, all you can ask of yourself is to give your very best effort. In sports and in life there will be times that you struggle no matter what you do, in these situations you must believe in your ability to overcome whatever comes your way and use it to become stronger and more resilient.

Affirmations

Affirmations are a conscious effort to control your minds dialogue to change the way you think and feel in order to overcome your limiting beliefs and succeed. Affirmations are essentially power up phrases for building confidence and conditioning the mind to believe in your ability to succeed. Repetition of these phrases is what leads to belief, when a person believes in themselves with a deep conviction, they can make massive progress toward their goals.

Develop a list of affirmations that fill you with confidence and self-belief that will help you unleash your inner champion. Make sure that each affirmation is meaningful and personal to you so that it has more impact, the more often you read them with energy and conviction, the more real and powerful your belief in yourself will become. Practicing your affirmations every once in a while, will have little desired effect on your confidence, for these power phrases to have an impact you must practice them regularly with intensity and conviction, again and again. I believe that using the present tense in affirmations is far more effective that the future tense, because we live in the here and now, in the present.

You can write your affirmations based on the traits that you already have and need to develop to achieve your goals. Repeating affirmations with passion and conviction will train your mind to accept them as truth, to establish the habits and beliefs that you want to have. To perform like a champion and experience consistently high levels of performance, you must cultivate the mindset of a champion and develop the mental side of your game, I believe that affirmations are a very important part of doing so.

Here are some examples of affirmations an athlete might use:

I act, think, feel and perform like a champion, because I am.

The next game/competition/workout will be my best one yet, I am committed to giving my best effort every day.

I train with purpose, tenacity and ambition, every day I’m get stronger in every way.

I will do whatever it takes to achieve my goals, I will take the path less travelled and do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can do what they can’t.

I will start, stay and finish strong every single time I train and compete.

I will always be the hardest working person in the room.

Performance statement

Great athletes with a strong mindset make statements and do things that help them stay in the moment. Positive performance states for example are a specific form of self-talk that help an athlete focus on what to do, just as positive affirmations remind the athlete who they are and why they are there. Rather than focusing on the overall result, an anxious athlete would be much better served by focusing on the process, one step at a time.

A performance statement helps the athlete to focus on one particular thing that helps them to consistently perform well, reminding them what they must do in the moment. It is a simple but very clear thought that outlines what they must do in the moment to achieve success, reaffirming the process that leads to the outcome. For the boxer it might be something as simple as ‘hands up, chin down, in and out.’ Each athlete should identify a basic idea that describes what it takes to be successful in the moment during competition, that they can repeat in training which grounds them and reminds them of the task that needs addressing right now. If it is a fundamental idea that doesn’t require complex thought but reinforces good technique, then it will allow the athlete to not only reinforce good technique but also focus on something other than the nerves, distractions and pressures of competition. Keep it simple so that you can play relaxed and loose and flow with confidence, free of tension and anxiety.

Focus on what you need to do and less on what you want to avoid, too many athletes focus on the negative and as a result it negatively affects their state and performance. Too many athletes say things to themselves like ‘don’t screw up, don’t think about how nervous you are, don’t drop your hands, don’t get caught.’ This kind of thinking is inherently negative and might cause you to become even more nervous.

A positive performance statement based on performance is extremely powerful when used regularly and applies to you as an individual. For someone struggling to stick to a new fitness routine this might be something as simple as ‘stay consistent and dedicated, I am committed to my fitness goals.’ This is a statement focused more on sticking to the routine and staying consistent, rather than the technical elements of a sport, however it can still be very helpful and be used anytime a person feels negative feelings of laziness or temptations to quit creep into their mind. This statement reinforces their desire to achieve their goal and helps motivate them to keep going. While an affirmation is focused on who you are and what you can do, a performance statement usually highlights actions and what you should be doing to perform well.

The positive statements that you come back to again and again should be personal to you, use what you think will work well for you individually when creating them. For a grappler a positive statement using some technical cues might look like ‘be first, get top position, use your weight, impose your will. You own this.’ Take some time to come up with some of your own positive statements using performance cues, make them simple, easy to remember and relevant to you and your game. Practice your performance statements regularly, it’s better for nearly all athletes to know what to think about instead of trying to wing it and let it happen naturally. Practicing your positive statements and performance cues in your mental workouts conditions your mind to think positively and productively so that when you’re under pressure, you’ll know what to think about and what to focus on.

Concentrate your energy on the most important components of your training and performance, remember that where focus goes, energy flows. Be sure that your self-talk and your goals match up, and avoid negative language such as don’t cant and shouldn’t.

Instead of focusing on winning the entire fight and becoming a nervous wreck, a fighter might focus on the present moment and performing one step, one move, one punch at a time, using their mental tools to focus only on the next move. Perform each technique as perfectly as you can, with as much focus as possible and then flow into the next, then the next, and the next, instead of allowing the pressure of having to win the whole event crush you.

Where Focus Goes, Energy Flows

Focusing the mind on what shouldn’t be done doesn’t exactly fill a person with confidence, it is also often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A lot of young children learning to ride a bike see a lamp post or tree and tell themselves ‘don’t hit the tree, don’t hit the tree!’ They usually end up riding head first into the tree, because all of their attention is focused solely on that tree. Where focus goes, energy flows. In that vein, thinking about what you don’t want to happen is not helpful as it leads to stress, anxiety and intimidates the athlete making it difficult to perform well and often causes the athlete to do the exact thing they want to avoid.

The mind can sabotage a performance, our actions follow our thoughts, the things we say to ourselves and the images we visualise. If you tell yourself not to hit the tree while looking at the tree and thinking about the tree, you’re probably going to hit the bloody tree, because you’re telling your brain to focus on it. If you say ‘don’t hit the ball into the sand’ and think about the sand and think about trying to avoid the sand, well you’re probably not going to get a hole in one, let’s put it that way. Instead of saying something negative like ‘don’t hit the sand,’ try telling yourself something positive like ‘hit the ball into the green.’ Tell yourself what to do rather than what not to do, negative instructions fill your mind with negative thoughts. Rather than focus on the negative, concentrate on your keys to success, what you need to do right now in this moment to perform well. You choose how you think, changing your thinking can change your performance, for better or worse. Don’t look where you don’t want to go. Where focus goes, energy flows.

If you’re visualising something positive, then it’s impossible to visualise something negative simultaneously. If you’re imagining something negative, then you cannot imagine something positive at the same time. You’re either picturing something positive, or picturing something negative, the mind cannot fully focus on more than one thought at a time. If I tell you to look around the room for 10 seconds and find as many objects that are the colour red, then close your eyes and tell me how many objects in the room were blue, you’ll have nothing to tell me. If I tell you during a fight ‘don’t get knocked out,’ what will you picture and focus on? You’ll have a hard time picturing anything other than getting knocked out, it’s impossible to hit your opponent if you’re picturing yourself getting knocked out. What you think about can have a profound impact on your performance, if you’re focusing on a negative outcome, then you can’t possibly have a positive performance. Keep your mind focused on performing the current skill well in the present moment. Always give yourself commands in a positive way, always think, talk to yourself and visualise yourself in a positive manner. The way that you think and talk to yourself is as important as the words that you use, if not more so. Instead of thinking ‘Don’t get knocked out,’ think ‘hit your target.’ Telling yourself ‘don’t screw up’ is about as effective as telling yourself to ‘go screw up.’

Without knowing what to focus on and consciously making an effort to concentrate on it, it is easier for the mind to be filled with all kinds of mental clutter. In fact, even when some athletes know what they need to focus on their mind is still filled with mental clutter, because they haven’t trained themselves to focus under pressure. Mental clutter is all of the talk and thoughts that go on in your mind, that distract from the task at hand on which you need to focus. Specific talk related to a certain aspect of performance can help an athlete stay focused when they need to the most, this is often called a performance statement.

The boxer who says ‘stay loose, relax, flow, be quick, be first’ is able to reinforce good technique, stay calm and also avoid thinking negative thoughts. Focusing on what he needs to do, instead of focusing too much on what he needs to avoid, helps him to perform to the best of his ability without being hampered by negative thoughts or self-talk.

Keep It Positive

It’s important to regularly pat yourself on the back and tell yourself well done when you do a good job, if you’ve past an important milestone, achieved an important goal or mastered a new skill, you’re free to feel proud of yourself. Say to yourself ‘yeah that’s me. That’s what I do’ whenever you do a good job. Notice when you do something well and congratulate yourself, tell yourself well done and smile. Give yourself a pat on the back and then move onto the next play, doing so can help build your self-confidence.

It’s important to use positive self-talk when your train and perform well, to remind yourself that you’re on the right track and improve your confidence. What do you tell yourself when you slip up and make mistakes, or suffer a loss? Even when you make a mistake your self-talk must be positive and never negative, if you slip up then tell yourself ‘that’s not me at all, I’ll do better next time. I’ll adjust, make improvements and get it right.’

Champions win by not defeating themselves, avoid being too self-critical and believing that you are not good enough or don’t deserve to win. Get off of your own back and get out of your own way.

It’s difficult to keep a positive attitude when your self-talk is constantly negative, it’s difficult to stay optimistic if you’re constantly having pessimistic thoughts. You can’t do this, when you say don’t do that. Focus on what you want to happen, not what you’re afraid of happening, one example is the golfer who tells himself not to hit the ball into the sand, they focus so hard on not landing in the sand that the next thing you know they hit the ball right in the middle of the sand. Many athletes focusing on avoiding something end up doing the exact thing that they dread, sometimes it is best to simply empty your mind if it is racing and focused on all of the things that could go wrong. Don’t think about the consequences, if you do then you’re focusing on a negative result which makes it tough to relax and perform at your best.

Rather than trying to perform without fear, focus instead on performing with confidence. Affirmative self-talk is always much more productive then negative, use phrases such as ‘I can do this’ rather than ‘don’t blow it’ or don’t screw up.’ Say ‘keep going, you can do this’ instead of ‘don’t quit’ or ‘don’t give up’ and keep the phrasing of your self-talk positive.

Motivational Talk

In the hour and minutes leading up to a performance, giving yourself a motivational pep talk can help to get yourself fired up. Whenever you begin to have thoughts of self-doubt, a motivational talk can help keep them at bay and get you mentally ready to compete. Try to tailor your motivational talk to your personal needs and the competition, and try to keep it simple, use affirmations and statements that you practice at home and in training. Tell yourself what you need to focus on in the competition and what you need to do in order to succeed. Consider practicing a pre-performance pep talk at home, so that it becomes familiar and well-rehearsed, so that it will have more positive impact in the competition.

Your pep talk should fill you with confidence and help you concentrate on the task at hand. Imagine yourself about to compete in your sport, as you feel any self-doubt beginning to creep in, you shut them out with an empowering motivational pep talk. Here is an example of a pep talk a fighter might give themselves prior to an upcoming match.
‘I’ve prepared to the best of my ability and worked hard in training, I’m ready to fight and I have all the tools to win. My opponent has to beat me, not the other way around. I have what it takes to win, I have visualised landing the winning blow over and over again, now I will trust in my training and give my very best effort. I’m going to stay relaxed, stay in the present moment and give this everything I’ve got. I can do this, I deserve to be here, I’ve earned this.’

Simon Boulter

Written by

Author, Fighter, Trainer, Nerd. Crazy Cat Lady.

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