Mental Health for Athletes: 4 Strategies to Improve Self Talk

As a swimmer I often struggled with self talk. Being hypercritical of myself played havoc on my esteem, my emotions and as a result my performance and my life.

As a coach self talk became one of the things I focused on most with athletes. Teaching them how they could use self talk to develop confidence, learn skills more effectively, sustain levels of effort and ultimately perform better was a priority.

Through teaching these skills I learned how desperately I needed to develop different habits when it came to my own self talk.

In the last few years I have used self talk strategies to help with depression, social anxiety and at times low self-esteem. Addressing this has been incredibly powerful in reducing the impact that depression and social anxiety have had in my life.

Addressing this need has helped me create a more enjoyable way of life.

Below are four ways that I have found to be effective in improving self talk.

1. Build Awareness

What do you say about yourself during the course of a day?

How often are you critical of your behaviour when it is unnecessary?

You may be surprised.

Choose one day to record each time you criticize yourself. Note the time and the statement(s) you use. Don’t judge these thoughts, don’t analyze them, just record them.

Understanding what type of self talk you use consistently is a strong lesson itself. It is also a necessary step when looking to make a positive change.

2. Change Your Language

When coaching I tried to ensure that athletes knew the difference between person and performance.

For an athlete to accept criticism in a healthy way I believe that you have to let them know your criticism is focused on their behaviour, not their character.

“You are being lazy today” not “You are lazy”.

I have often found myself accepting negative behaviours as something I was and positive behaviours as something I did.

Changing my language made all the difference in the world. I started using the words ‘I am’ before positive actions and ‘I can be’ in front of negative ones.

I am confident, I am captivating, I am caring.

I can be pessimistic, I can be reactive and I can be lazy.

3. Embrace and Savour the Positive 

Rick Henson the author of Buddha’s Brain says the mind treats negative experiences like velcro and positive experiences like teflon.

Henson explains that from studies on neuroplasticity we know that thought patterns not only become habitual, they also change the make up of the brain.

Embracing and taking the time to recognize our positive experiences can change the brain’s structure in a very effective and powerful way.

All it takes is 10 seconds. By acknowledging, appreciating and feeling the emotion that is the result of a positive experience you can change the way you think and the neural pathways in your brain.

Do you honestly acknowledge, appreciate and feel the joy after a great practice? Or do you focus on the mistakes you made?

I always found that the ‘but’ comes into play for many people. “That was a good practice, but…”

Don’t get me wrong as athletes, coaches and human beings if we want to improve we have to analyze our mistakes and find ways to become better.

But! We also have to take the time to embrace and savour our victories.

Take the time to acknowledge your achievements, acknowledge a great practice, a great set. Give yourself the time, the seconds it takes to truly appreciate all the wonderful feelings that come from a positive experience.

4. Cut Yourself Some Slack

In the pursuit of worthwhile goals sport teaches athletes how to push themselves past their comfort zones. This is an incredible lesson that can be transferred into all areas of life and can be one of the main factors in achieving success.

It is a great habit, but it can be a double edged sword.

Too often the desire of many athletes to achieve excellence teaches them to be too hard on themselves.

Pushing yourself is one thing, but having unreasonable expectations is another.

None of us are perfect or have the ability to be at our best 100% of the time. It is important to understand that and cut yourself some slack at times.

Even the Drill Sergeant in your head deserves a day off every once in a while.

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About Jeff Grace

Jeff Grace

Jeff is a 500 hour registered yoga teacher who holds diplomas in Coaching (Douglas College) and High Performance Coaching (National Coaching Institute - Calgary). He has a background of over 20 years in the coaching profession, where he has used a unique and proven teaching methodology to help many achieve their …

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