A peek inside the head of a novice runner during one of psychology researcher Noel Brick’s recent studies reveals a familiar refrain.
“Why am I doing this?” the runner asks herself. “Why am I putting myself through it? I hate this, I hate running! Why am I doing it?”
We all have an internal monologue chattering away in our heads, and that voice is often critical to a degree that seems absurd when you see the words written down. We brush it off but, as a pair of new books argue (and as sports psychologists have been trying to convince us for decades), the words in our heads matter. Learning how to change that internal monologue, it turns out, can boost your physical performance as surely and as tangibly as hitting the gym.
Brick, a researcher at Ulster University in the U.K., published The Genius of Athletes: What World-Class Competitors Know That Can Change Your Life with co-author Scott Douglas earlier this month. It’s a practical guide to the tools of sports psychology, adapted for a general and not necessarily athletic audience, covering topics such as goal-setting, focus, self-confidence and fear of failure. And all these tools, it turns out, depend on effective self-talk.
The idea that self-talk makes a difference – that the novice runner would go faster if she told herself “You can do this!” – is a long-standing platitude. But over the past decade, this claim has finally been put to the test in randomized, placebo-controlled trials, and passed with flying colours. A 2016 study led by Brock University’s Stephen Cheung, for example, saw endurance increase by 39 per cent in a group of cyclists who were given self-talk training on handling hot conditions before completing a ride to exhaustion in a heat chamber.
Brick and Douglas offer a step-by-step guide on mastering your self-talk, starting with identifying your goals and then figuring out what sort of self-talk you need to achieve them. This is a key point, because not all situations call for a rah-rah internal cheerleader. If you’re trying to hit a fastball or serve an ace, you’re better off with self-talk that focuses on technique or reduces anxiety.
In practice, this distinction can be difficult to observe among those who haven’t honed their self-talk game. A Danish study published earlier this year found that the most characteristic sentiment in amateur marathoners’ self-talk was “What will I do later today?,” while for badminton players it was “I’m going to lose.”
But there’s a lot more to self-talk than thinking positively or reminding yourself to keep your eye on the shuttlecock. These nuances are the subjects of Ethan Kross’s book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, which was published in January.
As the director of the University of Michigan’s Emotion & Self Control Laboratory, Kross has studied both how negative self-talk hobbles us and what the most effective ways are of defusing those spirals of negativity.
For starters, Kross suggests switching your internal voice from first-person to second-person or even using your own name, a trick that helps generate distance and gives you perspective on what might otherwise seem like an overwhelming problem. It’s the self-talk equivalent of imagining the advice you’d give to a friend in the same situation, and it helps you frame a stressful situation as a challenge rather than a threat. Sure enough, one study found that simply switching from phrases like “I can do this!” to “You can do this!” boosted performance in a 10K cycling race by 2.4 per cent.
All of these changes take time and practice to ingrain – and even then, don’t expect an uninterrupted stream of mental sunshine and rainbows. Negative thoughts will still crop up; to address them, Kross suggests, change “What if?” to “So what?” Whatever answer the voice in your head comes up with, it probably won’t be as bad as you feared.
Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.
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