“I’ve got this”… The Power of Self-Talk on Performance

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Laurie Hernandez, gymnast at the 2016 Olympic games, knows this is her one chance. She has been practicing tirelessly to win a medal, but recognizes the unnerving obstacles: the 4-inch balance beam, the judges, her competitors, the millions of people watching her. The pressure is high.

How does she cope? As she presents to the judges, Laurie mouths “I got this” before mounting the beam.

And guess what? She does have it. Nerves don’t get the best of her. Just like she practiced, she sticks all of her skills and ends up with a medal.

Laurie is not the first athlete who has used motivational self-talk to get pumped up or to reduce nerves. In fact, it’s the secret to optimizing performance. Athletes have long recognized the power of thoughts on physical reactions and consequent behavior, which is why you often see coaches providing motivational speeches before games.

 

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We don’t need to be athletes to understand the effects our thoughts have on our bodies and behavior. Have you ever watched a scary movie, and then imagined scenes from that movie? What happened to your body? Did you notice yourself getting tense, or your heart racing? Did you notice yourself scanning your environment for possible danger? Alternatively, have you ever imagined transporting yourself to your favorite vacation spot? Maybe try it now. Do you notice your body relaxing or your heart slowing?

Since just thinking about an event, even if it’s not actually happening, can affect our body sensations and our reactions, how we talk ourselves through situations can have enormous consequence. Think about how you talk to yourself before and during a performance. What do you tell yourself before your presentation? Before an exam? Before asking someone on a date? Let’s look closer at some contrasting examples.

How might “I’m going to blow this” affect your physical reactions and behavior? When you go into a performance with the assumption that something is about to go wrong, you’re likely to feel defeated and anxious, decreasing your motivation and effort levels. It can also alert your internal alarm system – more technically known as the “fight, flight, or freeze response.” The FFF response sets off a chain of physiological reactions to prepare you for life-threatening danger, so you can literally fight, run away, or freeze. This system cannot tell the difference between run-for-your-life danger and the sort of social misfortunes we envision may (or may not) happen! So when you think something along the lines of “I’m going to blow this,” you might notice your heart start to race. You might feel shaky, tense, and choked up. Your body expends energy preparing for the perceived dangerousness of the situation and then you start to get distracted by these physical sensations, making it harder to focus on the task at hand. This increases your chances of wobbling or falling off the metaphorical balance beam, turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not exactly helpful if you’re trying to present at a meeting, take a test, or ask someone out!

Alternatively, let’s imagine a new scenario. Before your presentation/exam/date proposal, like Laurie Hernandez, you tell yourself “I’ve got this.” You remind yourself that you’ve prepared and practiced this many times before, and you are ready for the challenge. This line of thinking might make you feel motivated, calm, energized. Since your body is not preparing for danger, it can harness its energy into the performance itself. When you notice nerves creeping in, you might remind yourself “I’m okay.” This comforting statement is surprisingly effective at turning off your body’s fight, flight, or freeze response, which can reduce the likelihood of experiencing excess physical reactions that get in the way of what you’re doing.

Thoughts are so powerful, which is why we need to mindfully pay attention to how we talk to ourselves and understand how what we say affects our physical reactions. Once we start to notice what we are adding to a situation before we go into it, we can make the changes needed to bring us closer to the outcomes we desire.

Try it out…See what happens!

Nicole Reiner, LMHC

Coordinator of CBT Division

 

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