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    Self-confidence and Self-talk

    The relationship between self-confidence and athletic success is well-documented. Confident athletes believe in themselves. They expect to perform competitively and successfully when they take the field or the court and, when doubts enter their minds, they are able to rid themselves of these doubts by controlling their self-talk. The importance of self-talk has become more evident in recent years. Everyone has a "little voice" in their heads that provides almost constant commentary--often in very critical terms--on what they do. Unfortunately, many individuals are unaware of what they are saying to themselves and, even if they are, fail to question these thoughts when they are unrealistic, harsh, and critical. This seems to be especially true for athletes who often set very high expectations for themselves.

    There is a direct connection between how we think about things or how we talk to ourselves and our emotional reactions, as well as how we perform or behave. When we judge ourselves unfairly, evaluate our performances in excessively critical ways, or, in general, speak to ourselves in negative ways, there are predictable reactions. We are prone to frustration, discouragement, hopelessness, and depression. In addition to these emotional responses, inaccurate or inappropriate thinking often leads to poor or substandard performance. Conversely, athletes who think about themselves in realistic and positive terms learn to value themselves and their abilities in ways that enhance their performance.

    Thoughts can be categorized into groups: those irrelevant to the task at hand; those focused on the self; and those focused on the task. Thoughts focused on the self cause problems for athletes. As thoughts are internally focused and consumed with preoccupation about their own welfare and feelings, anxiety tends to increase. For example worrying too much about what doesn't feel right, what might go wrong, or excessive focus on minor somatic or physical complaints--either imagined or real--lead to anticipation of negative outcomes and anticipation of failure. In general, when thoughts are self-focused, they reduce the ability to anticipate, interpret, and process relevant external cues and information. Athletes must learn to control their thought processes so they can generate a mix of task-relevant content and mood-appropriate content to stay motivated enough to maintain concentration. Task-relevant thought content involves the thoughts related to what's going on, what is about to happen, and how you plan to respond. Mood-relevant thought content serves to keep you aroused sufficiently so that the appropriate psychological state is maintained in such a manner that the quality of the effort is controlled (i.e. involved, focused, and concentrating appropriately to maintain a high level of performance).

    Self-talk can be used in a number of ways including skill acquisition, changing bad habits, controlling focus and attention, changing mood or feelings, building confidence and self-efficacy, and controlling effort and performance. Regardless of the purpose, the steps for maximizing self-talk are similar:

    • Identify self-talk. Become more aware of what you say to yourself. Especially check in on your self-talk when you are feeling some negative emotion such as depression, frustration, or irritability.
    • Evaluate the content of your thoughts. Is the thought valid and realistic? What evidence is there that the thought is true? Is there evidence it is not true? Would you talk to your best friend or teammate the way you're talking to yourself? Even if the thought may have some validity, is it helpful or useful for you to focus your thoughts and energies on it?
    • Change the negative thought to something more realistic and positive. This may include identifying any patterns of irrational and distorted thinking that may occur with some regularity. Once the thought is identified, practice countering the thought with the evidence you gather and, when appropriate, reframe the thought by looking at your situation from a different perspective.

    Practice these steps daily. It may take some time to change the way you look at your world but once you commit to doing this, you will experience a greater sense of control in your life both in and out of athletics. Being successful athletically is often a result of playing with confidence and building self-confidence is a function of both recalling successful experiences and of positive thinking. Remember, life isn't so much what happens to you as it is how you interpret what happens and what you make of your circumstances. The one thing you can consistently control is your thoughts. Conversely, if you fail to control your own mind, you will likely have difficulty controlling anything else.

    If you would like additional information on improving your self-confidence and self-talk, contact us at sportpsych@vt.edu or at 231-2556.

    References
    Bunker, L., Williams, J.M., & Zinsser, N. (1993). In J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

    Harris, D.V., & Harris, B.L. (1984). Sports psychology: Mental skills for physical people. Champaign, IL: Leisure Press.
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