If you cultivate something in your mind, you give it a life. It’s really that simple.

Laird Hamilton, champion big wave surfer

Let’s talk about self-talk.

How’s yours? 

Not so good? 

Welcome to the human race. 

Especially the race of people whose chosen activity by its very nature has benchmarks and measurements and goals (WEIGHT) baked right in.

Words have power. 

My friend Casey, who is without a doubt one of the most badass broads I know, discussed self-talk in a recent Instagram caption. She explained that one of the phrases she lives by when training squats, specifically, is, “Squats suck, BUT I DON’T.” 

She went on to say it’s taken her a while to speak kindly to herself. “I’ve always referred to myself as a Sh$t squatter,” she wrote, “and sometimes that still slips out of my mouth. But words are powerful and I do my best to choose them wisely.”

Let me repeat that bit. 

Words are powerful.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

What we continuously hear, we manifest.

When a parent repeatedly tells a child they’re fat or lazy, the child learns to believe that “truth” and comes to identify with it.

If a teacher or coach calls out an underachieving student or athlete, especially in front of their peers (something that has happened to people I know), the target often carries that sense of failure with them for years; sometimes for life. 

People who believe “I’m bad at math” or “I can’t catch” typically stop TRYING to do that thing, or get half-assed/give up quickly/sabotage their efforts if they do continue to try. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So imagine what happens when you hear something negative or limiting all day long—in your own head? 

Self-talk matters. Like, REALLY matters.

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

I can’t overstate how important it is to stop staying “I’m bad at X” or “I can’t do X.” 

What makes this language a problem? It may seem subtle, but where self-talk is concerned, choice of words matters.

“Being bad” at something is a permanent state of being. The operative word there is “being.” The verb is “to be.” YOU ARE. I AM

If I AM bad at something, part of my mind (a deep, unconscious part) “knows” that I can’t possibly get better at that thing, any more than I can change my eye color or make myself taller. I’ve integrated it into my identity.

Performance psychologists refer to this as a “fixed” mindset.

If you have a “fixed” mindset about a behavior or a skill, you will on some level cease giving your best effort to improving it. “After all,” your deep reptile brain thinks, “why expend valuable energy on something that is doomed to fail?”

Instead, we want our self-talk to reflect a “growth” mindset: I’m working on Xor I’m getting better at X.” 

Because, as the Daily Stoic so aptly puts it, “Having flaws does not mean you ARE flawed.”

Positive self-talk reduces anxiety and improves performance

As you might expect, the research shows that positive self-talk enhances athletic performance, increases confidence, and reduces anxiety in a competitive setting.

As you also might expect, anxiety hurts performance in competition, and self-confidence helps. (See the references at the end of this post if you’re interested in the research.)

So, especially in competition, or even if you’re just trying to set a PR in the gym, you want to be talking to yourself in a way that will make you feel as confident and capable as possible. If ever your own belief matters, it matters when you step up to a heavy loaded bar, either to pick it up or to get under it!

My self-talk journey

In my humble opinion, one of the many side benefits of lifting is that it forces us, at some point or other, to confront our inner critic and its nasty attitude head-on.

I’ve personally learned I need to work very actively on my own self-talk, especially where deadlifts are concerned. I’ve struggled for years to make real progress with those. Only in the last 12 months or so do I seem to have somewhat cracked the code enough to start eking out some PRs. 

Nevertheless, my deadlift still lags compared with my peers.

Now, in the past, I believed that would never change, and my self-talk was atrocious. I walked around identifying as a bad deadlifter and reminding myself of that “fact” quite frequently. My inner voice kept up a constant barrage of, “You suck. You’re weak. You’re never going to get better at this.” 

“I love deadlifts,” I used to say, “but they don’t love me back.” 

 As you might imagine, this mindset did not help me progress.

And then, one day, I read something from a coach on social media that essentially said what I’m saying to you here:

You will become what you tell yourself you are. So stop telling yourself you suck.

That hit hard. At that moment, I realized just how toxic the voice in my head had been. And I made a conscious decision to change it.

Every time I caught that critic in my brain sneering at me, I began gently correcting it. “I do NOT in fact suck,” I’d say. “I’m working on this, and I’m getting better.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I haven’t completely silenced my inner critic, not by a long shot. I’m not sure anyone ever can.

But every day I get better at recognizing her attempts to sabotage me. I’m learning how to clap a hand over her mouth and make her change her tune.

Oh, and lo and behold… my deadlift has been progressing, slowly but steadily.

So, in fact, the inner critic DID have it wrong, and that’s just further proof that I shouldn’t listen to her bullshit.

Your self-talk challenge

If you have a particularly nasty voice in YOUR head, try a little self-talk Duolingo. Whether it’s a particular lift that frustrates you, or your nutrition, or something else (in my case, I can add baking and tying knots to the list along with deadlifts and, more recently, bench press)—work on teaching that voice to speak to you in a different language. 

You can’t completely stop it from running in the background, but start paying closer attention to what it says, and notice when it’s spewing negativity.

When you catch it yelling “bad, can’t, suck at, NEVER!” take a pause and consciously shift it to “working on, getting better, improving, SOMEDAY!”  

This especially applies to the things you actually say about yourself out loud. Stop talking/writing about your “poverty bench,” if that’s a term you use. Stop telling your training partner yet again how pathetic your squat is. Speak more kindly and constructively about yourself.

This will probably feel artificial at first. That’s ok. Over time, it will start to feel more natural and the shift will become easier.

I challenge you. Try it for a day, a week, a month. See how it goes. See how it makes you feel.

And while you’re trying, remember: your self-talk doesn’t suck.

“You’re working on your self-talk—and it’s getting better.”

References

Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Galanis, E., Theodorakis, Y. (2011). Self-Talk and Sports Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Perspectives οn Psychological Science, 6 (4), 348–356. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691611413136. Free PDF: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Antonis-Hatzigeorgiadis/publication/221689919_Self-Talk_and_Sports_Performance_A_Meta-Analysis/links/5743787d08ae9f741b3a1a2d/Self-Talk-and-Sports-Performance-A-Meta-Analysis.pdf

Walter, N., Nikoleizig, L., & Alfermann, D. (2019). Effects of Self-Talk Training on Competitive Anxiety, Self-Efficacy, Volitional Skills, and Performance: An Intervention Study with Junior Sub-Elite Athletes. Sports (Basel, Switzerland)7(6), 148. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7060148

Woodman, T., & Hardy, L. (2003). The relative impact of cognitive anxiety and self-confidence upon sport performance: a meta-analysis. Journal of sports sciences21(6), 443–457. https://doi.org/10.1080/0264041031000101809 Free PDF: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/10673394_The_relative_impact_of_cognitive_anxiety_and_self-confidence_upon_sport_performance_A_meta-analysis

Featured Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

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