Everyone hears voices, self-talk in the privacy of the mind. Some of these voices can be helpful and some can be irritating, taunting or critical. Fortunately, there are techniques for addressing unhelpful self-talk that are fast, effective, durable and easy to teach. Every coach and parent can help youth athletes learn to manage their self-talk for their sports and scholastic performance, family and friend relationships and their journey through life.

Self-talk is one of three major thought modalities, visual imagery and kinesthetic sensations being the other two. Self-talk is part of how we engage in thinking. Self-talk is one of the most powerful shapers of behavior, for the good or not-so good.


Unhelpful self-talk can impair a youth’s performance in training, racing, school and other walks of life. It can do the same to you. Here’s what you can do about it, and what you can teach your athletes to do.


Think of three unhelpful sayings that come into your head. They might be in an athletic context, a work situation, a home situation or any other context. Write them down. You will need real examples to use on the following techniques. Write them down now. I’ll wait.


The first set of techniques focuses on the quality of the voice and not the actual words. Here are three things you can do and can teach to reduce the negative impact of an unhelpful voice.


Turn down the volume. Listen to an unhelpful phrase from your list above in your mind’s ear. Now, reach over to the volume control and turn it down to the point at which you cannot hear the words anymore, just faint sounds. How did that change your reaction to the phrase?


Change the pitch. Take another phrase from your list. Now, before you say the phrase again, make it inhale deeply from a helium balloon. Now have the voice say the phrase in the helium balloon voice. How did that change your reaction to the phrase? (N.b.—Youth really like this one). You can dress up the voice in funny clothes before it uses its helium pitch for added silliness.


Move the voice behind you. Listen to another unhelpful phrase from your list. Now send the voice to a place about 50 meters behind you, and have it say the phrase again. If the voice won’t stay there, you can leave it where it is and you can run 50 meters ahead of it. How did that change your reaction to the phrase?


These are easy, effective and instantaneous ways of taking the sting or despair out of an unhelpful voice.


A great place to introduce and practice these techniques with youth is during high-intensity workouts at the track or the pool. One of the diagnostic characteristics of working above lactic threshold, in addition to burning legs and rapid breathing, is strong inner dialog. It’s always important, when giving athletes hard sets, to prepare them by explaining what to expect in the workout, why it’s important and what benefits the athletes will gain (Murray, 2013) https://www.usatriathlon.org/about-multisport/multisport-zone/multisport-lab/articles/rehearse-for-defined-purpose-061813.aspx. In addition, you can direct your athletes to practice one of the techniques above before starting the hard sets and have them use the technique during the workout if they need it. This gives your youth a direct connection to managing unhelpful voices when in high intensity mode and automatically transfers to race situations.


Special Case: “I can’t.”


Many athletes fall into a pattern of telling themselves, “I can’t.” “I can’t run fast.” “I can’t do that workout.” Please now think of a phrase that you sometimes hear in your mind’s ear that starts out with “I can’t…” Now, in the air in front of you, write, “I can not.” Now, reduce the size of “not” until it’s just a dot. How did that change your reaction to the phrase?
When athletes get down on themselves.


Sometimes youth’s self-talk focuses on themselves as a person. “I’m terrible.” “I’m a loser.” “I’m a quitter.” When this happens, instead of diminishing the voice as in the techniques above, listen to it and befriend it.
In January, 2015, I was swimming alone at Aquatic Park in San Francisco Bay. The water was cold, 49 or 50 degrees F, with a sharp, malevolent little wind chop. There were no other swimmers and no boats around. As I swam to the harbor entrance, about 800 meters from shore, I distinctly and clearly heard a voice in my head, my own voice: “You can’t swim.” This made me curious, as I was actually swimming at that very instant, and swimming hard, as I was trying to preserve the body heat I felt wicking from my core into the swirling, dark water and thinking about my ice cream headache and the pins and needles in my feet and hands.


So I conversed with the voice: “Hmm, that’s interesting. You know, we are actually swimming right this very second. So what are you trying to tell me?”


The inner voice, without hesitation, rushed out these words: “It’s really cold out here and rough and there’s nobody around and if you get in trouble you are a long way from shore so for Pete’s sake why don’t you go swim along the beach instead of way out here?”


“Hey, good idea,” I thought, and so I said so. And then I said, “Hey, thanks.” The voice replied, calmly now, “Oh, no problem.” And that voice has never come back.


Many people try to manage internal chatter by arguing with it (Ellis, 1997), silencing it (Tolle, 2003) or letting it rage (Marshall, 2015). These techniques don’t work. In addition, hard thinking uses a lot of glucose (Kahneman, 2011) that your athlete would better use in legs and arms, and it deflects concentration from performing to arguing.


Your inner voice has an important and worthwhile thing to say to you, based in its desire to help you (Andreas, 2015). Even when the voice has a nasty tone or the words themselves don’t make sense or are even false (“You can’t swim” while you are swimming), if you treat the voice as though it were another person with your best interest at heart (Andreas and Andreas, 1994), you get better results.


Your Best Friend1. Get the phrase. Think of an unhelpful phrase that starts with “I” such as “I’m a quitter.”2. Ask for positive intent. Now ask the voice, as though it were another person, perhaps your best friend, who clearly has your best interest at heart, “What is your positive intention for telling me that?”3. Wait for an answer, as you would if you were listening to another person.4. Evaluate the response. If you get an answer that makes sense, say thank you and carry on.5. Ask again. If you get an answer that doesn’t make sense, ask again, “And what is your positive intention for telling me that?” Do this until the answer makes sense to you.6. Say thanks. thank the voice and make any changes (such as, go swim close to shore for Pete’s sake). If you don’t get any answer at all, thank the voice and ask what it needs in order to tell you. Often, that will start the conversation.


You can see the youth athletes who are getting down on themselves and engaging in unhelpful self-talk. Their posture slouches, their gaze focuses on the ground about 3 meters in front of them, they mouth words to themselves and they shake their heads and shrug their shoulders, all while inside themselves. When you see this behavior, take the athlete aside when convenient, and ask, “What are you saying to yourself?” Then, when you get the phrase, direct the athlete to ask that voice about its positive intention, just as you did with yourself above.


When the voice feels it has been heard, its job is done and often it will become silent and satisfied.


Special Case: MantrasMany coaches encourage athletes to develop a mantra or chant to help them during their racing and training. A mantra that tries to drown out or shout down other self-talk is doomed. A mantra cannot replace an unhelpful voice, it can only create confusion and inner conflict. Useful mantras, however, can generate the helpful voice that enhances performance. To give your athletes a useful mantra, first address the unhelpful voices as above and then install the useful mantra. Above all, the mantra must be literally true. Mohammed Ali could have a mantra, “I am the greatest,” but unless your athlete is Gwen Jorgenson, “I am the greatest” won’t work. It will only create inner conflict. Your athletes know the truth, and a part of them will reject the false mantra. “Wait, Cheryl is a much better swimmer than I am. And Denise is a beast on the bike. I’m not the best.” The false mantra is a ticket to admission to more unhelpful chatter. A true mantra could be, “I’ve trained hard and done my work,” or “I love this sport.” All parts of your athlete can agree and appreciate with these statements, if true, leaving the internal air space clear and clean.
ConclusionIf the coach’s job is to ensure youths safety, to teach the rules of the sport and the techniques of performing the sport, and to help youths grow into wonderful adults, then perhaps one of the most important, most useful, most helpful things you can do for your athletes is to teach them how to manage their self-talk.


References
Andreas, C. and Andreas, T. (1997). Core transformation. Boulder, CO: Real People Press.
Andreas, S. (2015). More transforming negative self-talk. New York, N.Y: W.W. Norton.
Ellis, A. (1997). A guide to rational living. Los Angeles, CA: Wilshire Book Company.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Marshall, S. (July 25, 2015). Overcoming your fear of open water swimming. Retrieved from https://home.trainingpeaks.com/blog/article/overcoming-your-fear-of-open-water-swimming
Murray, W. (June 16, 2013). Mentally rehearse your workouts to define purpose. Retrieved from https://www.usatriathlon.org/about-multisport/multisport-zone/multisport-lab/articles/rehearse-for-defined-purpose-061813.aspx
Tolle, E. (2003). Stillness speaks: Whispers of now. Novato, CA: New World Library.

s encourage athletes to develop a mantra or chant to help them during their racing and training. A mantra that tries to drown out or shout down other self-talk is doomed. A mantra cannot replace an unhelpful voice, it can only create confusion and inner conflict. Useful mantras, however, can generate the helpful voice that enhances performance. To give your athletes a useful mantra, first address the unhelpful voices as above and then install the useful mantra. Above all, the mantra must be literally true. Mohammed Ali could have a mantra, “I am the greatest,” but unless your athlete is Gwen Jorgenson, “I am the greatest” won’t work. It will only create inner conflict. Your athletes know the truth, and a part of them will reject the false mantra. “Wait, Cheryl is a much better swimmer than I am. And Denise is a beast on the bike. I’m not the best.” The false mantra is a ticket to admission to more unhelpful chatter. A true mantra could be, “I’ve trained hard and done my work,” or “I love this sport.” All parts of your athlete can agree and appreciate with these statements, if true, leaving the internal air space clear and clean.


ConclusionIf the coach’s job is to ensure youths safety, to teach the rules of the sport and the techniques of performing the sport, and to help youths grow into wonderful adults, then perhaps one of the most important, most useful, most helpful things you can do for your athletes is to teach them how to manage their self-talk.


References
Andreas, C. and Andreas, T. (1997). Core transformation. Boulder, CO: Real People Press.
Andreas, S. (2015). More transforming negative self-talk. New York, N.Y: W.W. Norton.
Ellis, A. (1997). A guide to rational living. Los Angeles, CA: Wilshire Book Company.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Marshall, S. (July 25, 2015). Overcoming your fear of open water swimming. Retrieved from https://home.trainingpeaks.com/blog/article/overcoming-your-fear-of-open-water-swimming
Murray, W. (June 16, 2013). Mentally rehearse your workouts to define purpose. Retrieved from https://www.usatriathlon.org/about-multisport/multisport-zone/multisport-lab/articles/rehearse-for-defined-purpose-061813.aspx
Tolle, E. (2003). Stillness speaks: Whispers of now. Novato, CA: New World Library.

*This article originally appeared on the USAT website in December 2015
Will Murray is a USA Triathlon All-American, USA Triathlon Level 1 coach, youth-certified triathlon coach and co-author, with Craig Howie, of The Four Pillars of Triathlon: Vital Mental Conditioning for Endurance Athletes. Will is the mental skills coach in D3 Multisport www.d3multisport.com

I need some help

Contact me please!