Quieting the Inner Critic – Transforming Negative Self-Talk

How we talk to ourselves affects our performance – we all talk to ourselves, whether we realize it or not. Successful performers know how to use self-talk to help them enter their optimal zone of performance. If we understand self-talk and how it affects performance, we can use it to meet our goals.

The more a thought is repeated, the more automatic it becomes. Both positive and negative thoughts when repeated enough will become beliefs. Performers need to be in control of their thoughts, as the body will do what the mind tells it to. Knowing what to think and say yourself and when definitely beats letting thoughts occur naturally in the performance context.

What is self-talk?
Self-talk is a term used to describe what athletes say to themselves out loud or internally and privately (Van Raalte, 2010). As human beings, we are thinking almost non-stop while we are awake. Have you ever tried to think about nothing at all? Do it – not so simple…

Positive & Negative Thought Patterns
Positive thought patterns
Positive thought patterns help create the optimal mindset, which can boost confidence, maintain the right attitude, enhance concentration and attention, increase motivation, manage moods and emotions, and ensure performers are ready to handle the situation they are in.

Burton and Raedeke (2008) outline eight strategies that can help with using self-talk proactively and effectively.
1.Be an optimist, not a pessimist – Concentrate on what you can do rather than what you can’t
2.Remain realistic and objective – Self-talk is more than just thinking positively. Translate those dreams into specific, action-oriented goals
3.Focus on the present – Success and enjoyment occur when your attention is focused on what you are doing in the moment. The present is the only time where you can do anything.
4.See problems as challenges –Seeing problems not as threats but as challenges can help establish and maintain a positive mindset.
5.See successes as replicable and failures as surmountable – If you believe that your successes can be repeated rather than attributed to luck, you exert an element of control over the situation. Also, attributing failure to factors that are controllable (such as effort level, skill development, or mental preparation) helps performers stay positive and motivated. In short, attribute success to hard work and effort, and failure to low effort or the need to develop and improve skills.
6.Concentrate on the process –Use self-talk to focus on process goals (such as mental preparation, skill and strategy development, and hard work) that will achieve the larger outcome.
7.Concentrate on what you can control – This is the most vital aspect of self-talk. We create our own stress by trying to change things that are out of our control.
8.Separate performance from self-worth – How you perform has nothing to do with your sense of self-worth. Positive self-talk reminds you that you are not your behaviour or performance.

Negative thought patterns
Negative thought patterns interrupt performers’ optimal performance states. Negative thought patterns create a failure mentality by deflating confidence, promoting pessimism, reducing concentration and motivation, disrupting optimal arousal, and weakening mental toughness. To change negative thought patterns, you must recognize the five types of distorted thinking and five common irrational beliefs that your inner critic uses to foster negative thinking.

Your inner critic
Our inner critic does a number of things to us: it blames us when things go wrong, it compares us to others, it sets impossible standards of perfection, it maintains an index of our failures, and it never acknowledges our successes. The critic also calls us names and tells us that they are true; it can read others’ minds and tell us we do not measure up, and it exaggerates our weaknesses (Burton & Raedeke, 2008).

The critic is the most negative part of us and knows precisely where to attack us. It distorts our thoughts and highlights our irrational beliefs. Therefore, we must understand how the critic works in order to gain the upper hand.

1.Distorted thinking – drawing inferences based on inadequate or incorrect information, or failing to separate fantasy from reality (Beck, 1976). Think about the following five types of distorted thinking and whether any of them impacts your thought patterns:
a. Catastrophizing – expecting the worst and exaggerating the consequences of past real and imagined negative events.
b. Overgeneralizing – forming conclusions based on an isolated incident while ignoring broader crucial facts.
c. Blaming – holding others responsible for the negative events in your life.
d. “Mustification” – the rigid (“must” thinking) belief that life must be lived according to a strict set of rules and everyone must follow them, or that things in your life have to be the way you want them to be.
e. Polarized thinking – framing all thoughts in all-or-nothing terms. Taking extreme positions and affording little room to be a human being and make mistakes.
f. Fortune telling – believing you know what is supposed to happen before you train, try, and compete.

2. Irrational beliefs – involve cognitive distortions in the form of unsound evidence and questionable logic, but they are also based on partial fact, which makes them highly contagious (Burton & Raedeke, 2008). Think about the following five types of irrational beliefs and whether you have fallen into their trap:
a. Perfectionism – thinking you should be competent in every aspect of the game at all times.
b. Fear of failure – some fear of failure is normal. However, if it takes over your enthusiasm to compete and succeed it is irrational (i.e., without sound reason or judgment).
c. Social approval – most people want social approval, but when it is the focus to please others or fear disapproval, this desire is irrational.
d. Equity – irrationally believing and insisting everything should be fair and following our preferences. Sport and to a greater extent life is not usually fair, and believing that it should follow some sort of equitable preference is irrational.
e. Social comparison – one of the most harmful irrational beliefs in sport. Social comparison places too much emphasis on uncontrollable outcomes.

How To Quiet the Inner Critic
It important to notice when we are using negative self-talk. However, it is even more important to teach ourselves how to replace those negative thoughts with positive ones. Once negative thoughts are identified as distorted thinking (see distorted thinking, above) or irrational beliefs (see irrational beliefs, above) performers can engage in specific techniques – countering, reframing, or affirming.

Countering Distorted Thinking
Countering is used when you find yourself engaging in distorted thinking to counter that thought with a logical thought or counter-argument. Ask yourself: “Where is the evidence that tells me that ________ is going to happen?” or, “What is the proof that is leading me to think this way?” By countering your negative thoughts, you challenge their validity by asking logical, level-headed questions, which in turn causes the negative thought to lose its power and grasp on your emotions.

Reframing Irrational Beliefs
Reframing requires debate to convince yourself of the irrational nature of your thinking (Burton & Raedeke, 2008). Reframing works because it provides quick results, as you take your initial reaction and put a favourable frame on it to instantly improve your situation. Once you identify the type of irrational thoughts you are having you can begin to reframe your current perspective by altering your thought pattern in more positive terms.

Affirming lets you build and practise positive self-talk on a regular basis. Affirmation works, and significant changes can be made, by focusing on positive thoughts and repeating them frequently to build habits. Affirmation assists with confidence, focus, motivation, stress/anxiety control, and optimal performance. It is important to make your affirmation in the first person (“I/me”), present tense, specific, and positive (e.g., I am dedicated, I am strong and powerful, I have the skills and abilities to reach my goals). To utilize this technique, write your affirmations on cue-cards and keep them in places you will see on a regular basis (e.g., tape to your bathroom mirror, put them on your nightstand, etc.)

Main take home point – positive self-talk allows performers to enter a flow/smooth mindset where the probability of success increases, while negative self-talk leads to choking by allowing irrational and illogical thoughts to take over and decrease our probability of success.

Beck, A.T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and emotional disorders. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.
Burton, D., & Raedeke, T.D. (2008). Sport psychology for coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Van Raalte, J.L. (2010). Self-Talk. In S.J. Hanrahan & M.B. Andersen (Eds.), Routledge handbook of applied sport psychology (pp. 510-517). New York, NY: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.