Negative thoughts lead to a negative performance; the connection is as straight forward as that. The solution is to focus on the race. This means firstly to keep the concentration as unbroken as possible, and secondly to try to change any negative thoughts into positive ones” Sally Gunnell, Olympic Gold Medalist and World Champion Hurdler.
Have you ever trained really well, slept really well, watched your nutrition before a race, only to come and have a so-so performance? If your answer is yes, and you are sure the performance had nothing to do with being sick, then maybe it’s time to look at your mind and at what you are –consciously or not- thinking about before, during, and even after the race.
In order to perform consistently, and to cope with the inevitable pressures arising from involvement in competitive sport, athletes must believe that they are capable of meeting the demands of the challenge before them. They must believe that they have trained sufficiently to perform at that level. And they must maintain this high level of self-belief throughout the competition period (1). In my job as a sport psychologist I have found that lack of self-confidence is the most common area in need of improvement in athletes of all ability levels. Even Olympic athletes experience self-doubt sometimes. So if this is a problem for you – don’t worry, you are in good company.
One of the most important determinants of developing and maintaining confidence is what athletes say to themselves. We call this self-talk and it is through this thinking that confidence is either enhanced or diminished (2). If you have a mental self-image of positive characteristics (“I am resilient”), positive perceptions (“I have trained well every day” “I deserve to perform well”), and positive traits (“I have been able to keep up during my long runs”), then you will be more confident and will perform better. If negative characteristics, negative descriptions, doubt about ability or preparation creep in, then confidence is bound to drop; and of course, performance suffers.
Self-affirmation is a process of directing self-talk to affirm both the positive abilities and skills of the athlete, as well as the appropriate training and preparation which have gone before. (3) Through the use of self-affirmation the athlete immerses in the conscious mind positive thoughts which are associated with producing excellent performance. Repeated use of this affirmations influence your perception of ability and skills. This enhanced perception increases confidence before and during competition, and ultimately performance is likely to improve.
So, all this sounds great in the paper but, what can you do about improving your confidence? First and most important: practice, practice, practice. Just as you wouldn’t go and try to PR in a marathon by just running once a week, you are more likely to get a stronger mind and to have more self confidence by practicing EVERY DAY.
Here are some techniques that seem to work well:
1. DEVELOPING A PERSONAL LIST OF POSITIVE AFFIRMATIONS:
It is a natural inclination to engage in negative thinking before and during competition, or to doubt personal ability. Creating a personalized list of positive self-statements is the first step towards overcoming this habit. Have it close to you and read it as often as you can. You can also record them and listen to it while you sleep. Some general sport affirmations are “I am strong”, “I can stay focused under pressure”, “I feel good about my ability”, “I like the challenge of competition”, “My training is going well”, etc.
2. DEVELOP PERSONAL SPORT ACHIEVEMENT REMINDERS:
Keep an up-to-date list of affirmations relating to successful sporting achievements. It doesn’t have to be a PR, or something big you have achieved (which, of course, you can use as well), but sometimes is just being able to remember how you can show up to each of your workouts; how you have trained despite being tired, or sick, or hungry, or sad; how you have finished something that was challenging to you (a long run, a race); how you stayed focus even when everything around you seemed chaotic… This list acts as a method of personal verification of performance, improvement, and worthiness.
3. CHANGE YOUR SELF-TALK:
Analyze the content of your sport-related thinking and look for any negative thoughts you may have. Reframe these statements and replace them with positive ones. This makes sense, of course, but it’s easier said than done. The key to successful reframing is first to acknowledge your negative thoughts, acknowledge that there is a real challenge in the situation, but attempt to think about the challenge from a different angle; and, second, always try to have a replacement thought ready which has been practiced and rehearsed previously. An example of this would be instead of thinking “I’m worried about cramping during the race today” change it to ”I’ll be ok during the race as long as I keep getting fluids every time I can (or every x miles)”. Change a negative opening (“It is difficult for me…”) to a positive one (“It is a challenge for me…”)
4. FOCUS ON GETTING THE BASICS RIGHT.
Don’t expect absolute perfection every time you perform. Control the controllables. The stuff you can’t control, well, you can’t control it!
5. REVIEW PERFORMANCE, learn from the negatives but then dismiss them and remember the positives.
6. MODEL yourself on other successful, confident runners who stay positive in pressure situations.
7. ENJOY THE CHALLENGE OF TOUGH COMPETITION:
Grit your teeth and hang in there all the way to the bitter end. Enjoy the whole process and compete with a determined smile on your face!
Have a happy run! Email me and I’ll be glad to help in any way I can.
Live with balance. Race with balance.
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