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Turn Negative Thoughts to Positive Results

By Dr. Michelle Cleere

multisport labI am working with a triathlete who is dealing with several challenging issues, but the most difficult issue for this athlete, as is true for many athletes, has been her negative self talk. Negative self talk is all the negative things you say to yourself, the thoughts you have about yourself and what you say to others about your performance.

Awareness
The first step in this situation is to develop awareness around your own self talk. It might be a good idea to keep a journal of your thoughts to become more aware and conscious of how you talk to yourself (about training and competition) and how those thoughts showed up in your body; how they physically manifested and impacted your performance.

Journaling
My client came back the following week and brought her journal with her. We went through it together. There were numerous negative thoughts going on for this athlete that she was not at all aware of and was actually a bit surprised by. She said she also recognized that these thoughts showed up in her shoulders, arms, stomach and legs. She could see how her negative thoughts were constricting her ability to run freely. Journaling will help you to pinpoint areas that are holding you back.

Negative into Positive
As we continued to talk I asked her to do an exercise with me. I asked her to make a list of some of the negative thoughts in her journal and we talked through coming up with a list of complimentary, positive thoughts that personally resonated with her. She came up with a list of some very good positive thoughts, but as we talked about the exercise and replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts, she wasn’t sure she could actually do it.

This is common in people and athletes in today’s society. Many times athletes do not have a conscious differentiation between negative thoughts and positive thoughts. What’s worse is, many times even after developing awareness and realizing that much of their mental focus is negative and how that negative impacts performance, athletes are unable to figure out how to talk to themselves positively. We are fed so much negative information by people around us and the media, that sadly it is becoming imbedded in us to a point of familiarity that is frightening.

Positive Thoughts or Cue Words
I asked her whether or not she felt she could utilize her list of positive thoughts before, during and after her workout. We agreed she would try it the following week, see how her body responded and whether or not her workouts got any easier. I asked her to keep a journal of what happened during the week and that we would make any necessary adjustments when she returned.

On her return visit, again she brought her journal. She began to talk to me about how difficult it was to change her negative self talk into something more positive. She said she thought it took too much energy and that she couldn’t remember what to say so she just let her thoughts go back to what was familiar; her pattern of negative thinking. I asked what she thought about breaking it down a bit further to make it easier and this is what I suggested: instead of countering entire sentences and phrases and trying to be responsible for remembering them, what if we used one or two motivating words to replace negative thoughts?

Although the brain was very high tech it can’t think about more than one thing at a time. Instead of trying to remember something countering that seemed long, come up with positive, motivating cue words that motivate you to think positively. Cue words can take your mind away from the negative into something positive but also keep you focused and motivated and feel good about running. Examples would be: fast, strong, powerful, light, etc. Make a list of positive words that reminded you of a good run or a good runner.

After my client made her list, I asked her to close her eyes, take a couple of circle breaths and listen to me as I slowly read the list. When I was done we talked about how the words made her feel. She said the words made her feel confident, excited and relaxed.

As the weeks have gone on my client has worked on her negative thoughts. She has seen a dramatic difference in her training and in her life. She asked me about “fake it till you make it” because although she was able to effectively change some of her negative thoughts others where a bit more challenging because changing them didn’t feel authentic. Here is what I said to my client and I’ll extend to you: all situations are positive and negative and it’s how you see situations; it is about perspective.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Have you heard the term self-fulfilling prophecy? Self-fulfilling prophecy means that what we think, say and feel about ourselves will actually to some extent come true. My triathlete, for example, was saying to herself [and others] running is hard and I hate it and the effects were that running was hard and she did hate it.

Next time you are on a run (or swim or bike), say the above phrase to yourself a few times and see how your body responds. Just off the top of my head without getting too psychologically sophisticated I envision muscle tension, increased heart rate and rapid breathing, all of which occurs from negative thinking. It also slows you down and makes it difficult to act, move or run. Second time out try consciously saying positive, supporting things to yourself and see if your body feels or responds differently.

Negative thinking is not something that you can change overnight. It takes time and practice just like everything in life. Do you remember when you started participating in triathlons? Remember how difficult it was initially but how much better it got and easier it became with practice? Mental preparation is similar.

If you think negatively hinders your life and performance let me suggest an alternative exercise for those of you who aren’t in to journaling. For one full day take a handful of paperclips and put them in your left pocket. Every time you say something negative take a paperclip from your left pocket and place it in your right pocket. At the end of the day count the paperclips in your right pocket. Why? First, you are going to be aware of the paperclips throughout the day which will make you more conscious of your thoughts. Second, this exercise will help you to become aware of how much negative thinking you are using. Third, thinking about how many paperclips were transferred from left to right will give you a rare opportunity for growth and reflection.

Dr. Michelle Cleere, PhD, USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, NASM-CPT, has coached hundreds of amateur and professional athletes who compete in sports that require a high degree of mental endurance, toughness and focus to get more out of their training, obtain better results and lead more balanced lives. You can find her at drmichellecleere.com and for a free initial consultation you can email drmichelle@drmichellecleere.com.

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