How self-talk can get you through the end-of-semester "race"

Presented by Spartan Race

Start Summer on the right foot

Summer is calling your name. But first: Finals season. Make it or break it b*tch. How can you really earn those #summervibes? Alison Levy, M.Ed. Sport Psychology, can teach us how to push yourself to make the grade, through some simple positive psychology.

In sport psychology, the internal conversation we have with ourselves is called “self-talk,” and it can have a profound impact on our ability to build mental strength in tough circumstances. In fact, when you’re up against your toughest obstacle, self-talk can determine your success even more than your physical strength. When your cramming for a Physics final, it can def feel like a marathon.

Here’s how you can use self-talk to your advantage in your “race.”

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1. Understand how you talk to yourself

Going into a study sesh with a defeatist attitude is not cute. The first step in developing your self-talk skill is to become aware of what you already say to yourself. Whether we realize it or not, we’re talking to ourselves all the time. From running through your ‘to do list’ in your head to telling yourself to focus on your work when you need to meet a deadline, our internal dialogue and stream of consciousness are constant.

One way to become aware of how you talk to yourself is to listen. Practice being mindful of your self-talk during training sessions. Begin to notice when thoughts “pop” into your head. Keep a notebook nearby during your workouts and jot down your internal dialogue throughout your training session. As you become more attuned to this, you can add more detail to the notes and gradually begin to redirect unproductive self-talk into productive dialogue over time.

The best athletes are not only aware of their inner dialogue, but they also practice what they say internally so that their self-talk helps and does not hinder their performance.

2. Understand why we talk to ourselves

Now that you are becoming more aware of what and when you talk to yourself—and remember that this is an ongoing process—you can start to dig into the reasons why you talk to yourself.

According to Sport Psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, “there are generally three reasons why we practice self-talk: to instruct, to motivate, or to evaluate.” During finals season, you should be using self-talk to teach and encourage yourself. Despite how big your study group is, you’ve got to be your own BFF.

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3. Encourage yourself as you would encourage a friend

In academic literature, self-talk is often referred to as either ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’ but I don’t think that captures the whole picture. Think of your self-talk as being ‘productive’ or ‘unproductive’ instead. Productive self-talk helps you work toward your goals; unproductive self-talk does not.

For instance, say you miss your spear throw and your instinct is to be down on yourself and dwell on the fact that you missed the throw and are doing burpees. Take a moment to consider whether those thoughts are helping or hurting your performance for the remainder of the race.

Same goes for studying, if it takes you exceptionally long to fully understand one concept, and you best yourself up for it, you’ll struggle for the rest of the study session as well. Always celebrate your wins, no matter how small they seem.

Think about how you would encourage your best friend or teammate if they were in your situation. Research shows that thinking of yourself as another person allows you to provide more objective, helpful advice than you may give yourself.

On or off the course, in or out of the library, one of the best things you can learn is how your thoughts impact your actions and how to use them to your advantage.

4. Use self-talk to build mastery

In a study of athletes, researchers from the University of Ontario found that self-talk had two main functions: cognitive and motivational. We talked about motivational self-talk above. Cognitive self-talk is what we use when we’re strategizing or solving problems. Mastery self-talk uses both cognitive and motivational functions of self-talk to help build concrete skills.

People who engage in mastery self-talk will use cues and phrases that fit a few basic core beliefs:

  • Failure is an opportunity to improve.
  • Improvement is success.
  • When you step up to the spear throw or find yourself having just missed hitting your target, mastery self-talk can help you to calm your nerves, refocus, and clear your mind. It leads you to say things like, “Stay focused, you know how to do this. Keep it simple,” or if you miss the throw, “Keep your eyes up next time and you’ll have it.”

Find cues and phrases that work best for you.

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5. Aim for excellence, not perfection

Nobody is perfect, but we can strive for excellence. Thoughts, like actions, can form habits. The more we practice productive self-talk, the better we get at it. And because self-talk makes up such a large part of our attitudes toward life, changing the way you talk to yourself is life-changing.

If productive self-talk isn’t your strong suit, it will feel pretty weird to say encouraging things to yourself. It might feel unnatural. Embrace that. You’re breaking new ground, and pretty soon, with consistent practice, you will get into a groove.

It is important to remember that even Olympic and world class athletes have to practice mental skills. Recognizing how, when, and why you talk to yourself during your training and races is not an easy task. It takes time and patience, and like building physical strength, it takes hard word and practice.

Next time you step up to the spear throw (or start that Physics study-thon), stop and take a breath and remember that what you say to yourself will set the tone for the rest of your race.

A revolution that will last your whole life starts with one moment, one decision. It starts in your mind.

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