Are you feeling frustrated because you’re training for your triathlon…but you still have that devil on your shoulder whispering unhelpful and negative things in your ear?
While training your body for your upcoming triathlon is of course crucial to achieving your goals, sport psychology research consistently shows that cultivating a performance mindset is vital for success. This means training your mental fitness also needs to be part of your program.
If you’re prioritising training your physical fitness over your mental fitness, you might find yourself really wanting to quit during long training sessions, feeling anxious on and before race day, and your performance could take a hit.
That’s why it’s vital to remember that you actually need to train your mind too - and the best place to start is with the language you use and your inner voice.
Changing our self-talk positively impacts our performance
Changing the way we unconsciously talk to ourselves makes a huge difference to our performance, as our self-talk influences cognition, emotion, feeling, action and the wellbeing of our body (Hardy, Oliver and Tod, 2010). This is because our brain changes, develops and grows as a result of how we use it (our language) - this is called neuroplasticity.
Our brain is like a group of muscles: if you exercise one group of muscles, they get stronger and stronger, and if you neglect another they become weaker and weaker. Neuroplasticity means that when we talk in negatives, we are making that part of the brain more and more active, so these negative pathways become stronger, better and faster at their jobs. As a result, these unhelpful and negative pathways are more easily triggered and help us to think in negatives.
Equally, the less we use that negative pathway, the weaker and weaker it becomes and the harder it is to trigger. The good news is that we can simply and quickly change the way our brain is wired, so it becomes easier for us to think in positives - and this largely comes down to changing our language.
By changing our language from negative to positive, from de-motivating to motivating, and from unhelpful to helpful, we can powerfully impact how we feel before and during a race and training in a productive way, ensure our focus is on the ‘right’ thing, and therefore increase our chances of success.
[Learn how to focus on the ‘right’ thing by reading my blog: ‘How to improve focus and concentration during triathlons']
Research in sport psychology continually shows positive, helpful and motivating self talk improves performance across all sports, from darts, football, basketball and tennis to swimming, cross-country skiing and water-polo (Hardy, Oliver and Tod, 2010).
The power of language
When I first start working with my athletes, I ask them “How would you love to feel?” or “What's your ultimate goal?” What they don’t realise is that when they answer, they're actually telling me what they don't want!
They may say, ‘I don't want to feel stressed about the world championship competition’, ‘I don't want to be distracted’, or ‘I don't want to fall off the climbing wall’.
The problem with these sentences is that our brain cannot directly process negative words or phrases, such as ‘I don’t want to feel stressed’, without first getting in touch with those feelings/thoughts, so it understands what not to think or feel about.
As a result, an instruction containing a negative has the complete opposite effect to the desired outcome.
For example, for the next 2 seconds I do NOT want you to think about Einstein riding a purple elephant juggling three pink moneys.
Did you notice what happened? You immediately thought about it, because your brain is creating that image in your mind, as it prepares not to think about it!
This is what happens with our feelings and thoughts, when we say 'I don't want to feel stressed' our brain triggers the pathway for stress.
We therefore want to point our brain in the direction we want to go in, using positive, powerful, productive language and experience the magic happen.
[Discover 6 pre-race anxiety remedies to help you feel really great before your next race!]
What results can you expect?
One of the main things I’ve been working with Allan Hovda, one of Norway’s most successful endurance triathletes, is positive self talk.
Among Allan’s many achievements is winning the Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon three times! Norseman is an extreme triathlon in Norway, which starts by jumping off the back of a ferry at 5am into freezing fjord water temperatures, then a 3.9km swim, followed by a 190km cycle and 42.2km run, and athletes gain over 5000m in elevation. It’s not for the feint hearted!
[Read more about the 2018 Norseman race in my race report here]
Although Allan won the 2018 Norseman race in an incredible time, he felt he failed. This is because in the last 20km of his race, Allan's mindset switched from a killer to victim's mindset, he was beating himself up and calculating in his head how he could come to lose, despite having a 21 minute lead.
One of the most significant factors that influenced Allan's performance, was what he was saying to himself and how he was saying it.
[Read Allan’s blog about his 2018 Norseman experience here.]
The words we say and use are the structure and architecture of our thoughts, feelings and experiences. They can make the difference between winning and losing, hitting our PB and achieving our potential.
This is why it’s so important to use positive, productive, powerful language and become proficient at guiding our thoughts to achieving our goals.
As we’ve been improving his self-talk he has gone onto smash his Ironman Barcelona time by 8 minutes, achieve second place at Patagonman with his best ever swim, broken the Norwegian Ironman race record at Ironman Texas and crush the Halv-Fet half ironman distance triathlon including coming out the water first for the first time ever, and break the course record and his personal record by 7 minutes!
Here’s how Allan ensured his self-talk was focused on the ‘right’ things during Halv-Fet:
“I didn't feel great during the run and losing roughly 1:30 minute of my 2:30 lead during the first 4k. I was sure I was getting caught up.
Focus on your competitors is not helpful, because it's nothing you can control.
For that reason I said a loud and clear NO and focused on what I could control. Relaxing my face, shoulders, arms and getting my hips forward. Dialling in the correct intensity and follow the nutrition plan.”
[Find out how to use the ‘No’ process in my blog: ‘3 Steps To Improve Your Inner Voice’]
How to change your inner voice
To start creating change, you first need to become aware of your thoughts. This exercise enables you to recognise the Unhelpful thoughts in and around your training and racing/matches/competitions, and create Powerful, Productive, Positive thoughts that will help you to trigger and activate the best neurology to enhance your performance (and happiness!).
Below are some common examples of Unhelpful thoughts and Powerful, Productive, Positive thoughts. In the left hand column, write down all of the unhelpful thoughts you say to yourself in and around training/racing/matches/competitions and in the right hand column, optimise these thoughts to powerful, productive ones - remember you must write them in positives!
Now you’ve completed the exercise (you may want to add to it over time), when you hear yourself saying something that is unhelpful, say no and replace it as quickly as you can with a Powerful, Productive, Positive thought.
Over time, and it will surprise you how quickly you can make the change, the negative neuropathways that you used to use will become weaker and weaker, and the positive neuropathways will become stronger and stronger, and soon, thinking in positives will be an unconscious process for you!
If you would like to find out more about how you can change your inner voice, send me an email to email@example.com or book in a call using this link.
Hardy, J., Oliver, E. and Tod, D. (2010). A framework for the study and application of self-talk within sport. In: S. Mellalieu and S. Hanton, ed., Advances in applied sport psychology, 1st ed. London: Routledge, pp.37-74.
Stuart, G. (2018). Video: Get mentally ready to race with triathlete Lucy Charles' mind hacks. [Blog] Red Bull. Available at: https://www.redbull.com/gb-en/triathlon-mental-training-videos-lucy-charles [Accessed 13 Jun. 2019].