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What is the Single Most Important Mental Skill an Athlete Can Have?
Pretty simple answer: It's the way you talk to yourself. What you say to yourself in your head has a major impact on your performance. In part, this is because you're saying things to yourself all the time - without even realizing it. Coming up on a championship meet, there are a lot of ways you might be talking to yourself. Some of it may be instructional (e.g. pack spikes; drink water). Some of it may be technical (e.g. I'll keep my eyes back each time I'm in the circle, and I'll get to see my throws as much as I want later, because coach is recording). Some - maybe even quite a bit - of what you're saying to yourself may be positive (e.g. I'm ready. This will be fun. Let's see what I can do.) And some of what you're saying to yourself may be, well, less positive.
Negative is a loaded word in sports. Nobody wants to be negative. And I doubt there are many people out there planning to have negative thoughts. To make things even more complicated, sometimes we even try to tell ourselves that our negative statements are positive ones. (For a little dramatization of the difference between negative cues and positive ones, see this here. Rated PG-13 for language.) All of this means it can be difficult to recognize when you might be talking to yourself in a way that can weigh you down instead of building you up: I should be running this or that time. I should be All State. I should be racing as fast as that person I workout with every day. I should have jumped XX by now. These kinds of thoughts fix your mind on outcomes - future-fixations that take attention and energy away from present- moment efforts. And performances of a lifetime are made up of present-moment efforts.
It is totally normal to catch yourself throwing little negative statements around in your mind. Everyone does it - even the athletes you admire most. What matters is how you respond to those statements - how you bring your mind back to something positive and directed toward the present moment. So listen close to what you're saying up there. And when you hear the doubts and shoulds and expectations, respond to yourself with a cue to come back to what you've got in the right-now: I'm ready to try this; I'm strong enough to take a risk; I can relax my shoulders and control my breathing. The way you cue yourself back into the present is going to be different for every person, so it helps to have someone you can talk with about what will work for you - how you can take the specific doubts and shoulds and expectations chattering at you in your head and reframe them as things you can control. Just as in the rest of your training, the more you practice responding to yourself with positive self-talk, the stronger your skills become.
But start by paying attention to what you're saying to yourself. And give me a holler if you want to make a plan for giving yourself positive, present-effort-focused responses.
Margaret Smith, Ph.D. provides sport psychology consulting services to individual athletes and teams of all sports and all levels from elite youth to professional in Birmingham, AL and beyond. She ran at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has coached in NCAA Division I Cross Country and Track and Field programs at ACC and Big 10 schools. Now that she's in SEC country, you can reach this TarHeel born and bred at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DrMargaretAS.