“Positive self-talk is one of the simplest principles in sports psychology, yet one of the hardest to master,” says clinical health and performance psychologist Leah Lagos, PsyD, BCB, author of Heart Breath Mind. “Research has shown that people who adopt positive self-talk techniques and motivational self-talk programs can perform better in physical activities, especially endurance.” Other studies have shown that athletes who used positive affirmations for fitness motivation scored higher on strength and endurance tests, he added.
Conversely, negative self-talk can hinder your performance. “On a physical level, negative self-talk can increase your heart rate, cause sweating, and increase muscle tension,” says Dr. Lagos. “It’s one of the most toxic things we can do.”
Why positive self-talk while working out makes it seem less difficult
Any type of stress can activate your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), known as your “fight-or-flight” response, and intensify your response to danger or physical activity (such as exercise). In some ways, this is beneficial: It increases your blood flow and breathing capacity, both of which can help improve your performance.
Excessive SNS activation can feel overwhelming, however, which is why it’s essential to be able to help your nervous system regulate itself, especially in situations that trigger it, such as intense exercise. Write: Positive self-talk. “Self-talk may work primarily by reducing performance-related anxiety in athletes,” says Dr. Lagos. “In addition, self-talk has been linked to greater enjoyment, confidence, and higher perceived self-efficacy.”
According to Dr. Lagos, the effectiveness of self-talk on performance depends on situational factors, the characteristics of the athlete, and self-talk. “For example, some researchers suggest that instructional self-talk may be more beneficial during training because it helps athletes hone their skills, whereas motivational self-talk may enhance performance in a competitive setting,” she says.
How to practice positive self-talk while working
There is a lot of room for personalization when it comes to positive self-talk. What works for one person may not work for another, but the general rule is to focus on what you should do rather than what you shouldn’t do, Dr. Lagos says. Think: “‘You’ve got a great pace,'” she says. “Or, ‘You’ve got this,’ rather than ‘Don’t slow down’ or ‘It’s too hard; I want to quit.'”
Dr. Lagos says the first step to improving your self-talk is to identify negative thoughts, and according to him, they usually fall into one of the following four categories:
You focus on the worst parts of a situation and ignore the positive parts. It may look like achieving a new PR but only talking about the part of the run where you didn’t hit your splits.
You see things as good or bad, black or white. “There is no room for a middle ground,” says Dr. Lagos. For example, you think you have to be perfect – if you make mistakes, you’re a failure.
You expect the worst. For example, you don’t have a good first set and assume the rest of the workout will be a disaster.
You blame yourself when something bad happens. Say your workout buddy is in a bad mood, you automatically assume it’s because of you.
Being able to name negative thought patterns can increase your awareness of them, which can help flip the script when you see them happening. This process is simple in theory, but as Dr. Lagos points out, it is difficult to master, so take it easy on yourself. “Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to nail it on the first day,” she says. “It takes time to develop new habits.”
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