So what psycho-babble can we use to help us with that?
Recently Stuart Lancaster spoke about monitoring the psychological or cognitive aspects of the practices we design. Where we speak of every game or drill in training having a psychological aspect. This is a crucial consideration. I go as far as weighing the various games I commonly use. Are they tactically, technically and psychologically challenging. I pretty much know the physical consequences, the research is there, my experience is also there. But for instance heavily psychologically challenging games at the end of a training 2 days after a hammering or 2 days before a big game may not be the wisest way to go.
Mental Skills we can work on, that will support improved performance and skill execution. Self Talk as a subject is facinating, way too deep to get into the extensive science here for a real deep dive but we will do some basics around it that may help the coach or athlete. The research in this area is improving all the time and while some people want definitive mathematical equations giving exact answers, or else they won't trust it, neuroscience and Neurobiology are 2 areas that are accelerating areas around human behavior of which subjects like self talk, imagery and resilience are being given more and more value, especially in the polarised, social media driven world we live in.
But our inner dialogue really is unbelievably powerful and dicates how we see the world. Outside of our control though is that this dialogue was heavily influenced by others for many years. So changing to good positive and effective self talk is not easy, so coaches and players, be patient here. It takes time. If someone has being talking to themselves negatively for 15 years we cannot expect to make a change in one conversation, and telling them to change and they have to change is certainly not going to work.
What is it?
Self talk is omnipresent in everyday life, not just sport. It is basically our internal chat with ourselves.
There are a few different variants of Self Talk , but we are not going to delve too far into that here, i would suggest reading The Handbook of Applied Sports Psychology Chapter 53 if interested in a real deep dive.
In lay mans terms
Self-Talk is what i say to myself and it is how i evaluate myself, my goals and my performances………….
Self-Image which forms my identity, my attitude and opinion of myself then…..
My Performance and how i act and perform based on my present self-image….
……..That stimulates behaviors and performance
As we see above this is a perpetual cycle, getting deeper and deeper reinforcement positively or negatively as we go. Remember the 25 year old who wouldn’t take a shot with his left leg because of what a coach said 12 years previously? Thats a perfect example of it. On the flip side something that was positively reinforced is in there too, so we all think both ways although many people will dwell on the negative more.
If you are a player that does this, or a coach who has players that do this regularly, just like if they were unconditioned and a stone overweight - they do not know or have the opportunity to unleash their potential. You can help them do that
I have believed for a long time - if the physical conditioning is lacking you have no idea how good you are, athleticism underpins performance.
But now i say if your Physical and Mental Conditioning are not maxed out, you do not know how good you are. Maxing out is arguably unachievable really, but continuous growth in both these areas will open the floodgates for skill development and consistent performance excellence.
The other benefit of self talk discussions that's important is the fact that very often the person you are coaching will be practising alone. Supporting them and introducing to this area of preparation will help support them not only on match day performances but when they hit sticky parts of skill development or technical mastery of some sort.
We all have a script in our minds, built up over years, for us coaches to think a few words can adjust that for someone is not going to be a very successful strategy. Self Talk is not thoughts though, and this is an important distinction - so what we think is largely uncontrollable or certainly can be impressed upon us by others - however self-talk is ours, we control this. Even if a coach delivered this simple message to his athletes it would be a huge win.
This said - its important we do not do it for the sake of doing it.
Is there an actual need?
Research suggests that highly skilled (Leary & Tate, 2007) athletes may actually decrease performance if a over analysis intervention took place. I would suggest to introduce slowly, where there is a clear need and want and the athlete does not have well embedded processes themselves. As 99% of us coach in sub elite though its unlikely the numbers of these athletes will be high, but we certainly do not want to blunt performance. The other part is we don’t want to interfere too much with the psycho-social element of the individual or team. Some members of a team at sub elite, no matter how talented, might just be there for exercise or social reasons. This can even happen at the highest levels if the physical and technical abilities are very high. In this case also you may actually decrease performance with too aggressive an intervention.
Its a bit like a physical intervention or the need for it - is there a need for lifting weights?
Well yes if it will improve performance and/or health. But too much, the wrong doesage or too much interfering can be a negative. I have seen too many fast explosive players have their strengths dulled and nervous system switched off with excessive training to realise it can happen in any modality of intervention.
It may also be prudent to introduce discussion around self talk well away from important competition. Bring it in in a very small way, let it sit there and return again after a obvious period of time.
“When applying these findings, performers may want to try using positive self-talk to see how it works. If positive self-talk appears to be helpful, then continued use makes sense. If not, then other strategies might be worth considering. (Hanrahan, 2016)”
What is important to also realise is that we are not necessarily trying to get rid of negative self-talk and we certainly can not rid ourselves of negative thoughts. What we are trying to do is deal with them as they come, accept them but then squash them like Ants (Automatic negative thoughts) (Dan Abrahams, 2020). We just want to get really good at coming up with solutions - not just coming up with a phrase or loose positivity and ignoring ourselves. We will talk a little more about this in Mindfulness in the section below around different types of Self-Talk.
This kinda plays into an ecological view of sports coaching and session development. We want the players to become really good decision makers and we may use a repetition without repetition approach in mini games and efficient at processing information, not just being good at processing specific closed tasks (like unopposed drills).
Managing thoughts and self talk is quite similar in my mind. Improve the processor and the filters like designing a better algorithm so that the options we have become more and more useful and specific. Not that we have a pre-conceived idea of a solution to each task.
A journal to help improve our inner conversations
Another important aspect which i encourage with all athletes, but especially the younger ones, is keeping a little journal. I’d tend to suggest this to 12-14 year olds who are starting to show a real interest in a sport or pursuit. The strategy in how they use it is personal but i would guide them towards writing down 3 things that went well and 1 think they need a bit of work on. Thats in itself is starting a positive inner discussion with yourself. So even a parent helping their teenager work out the back on his left side passing could introduce this. It could be as simple as “i hit the ball clean off the wall 5 times in a row today” or at a higher level “ i made 3 excellent passes with my left when forced onto that side in todays game”. Thats what many will go to, but when working on development and someone needs guidance or indeed you are the athlete themselves, burrow down into areas around the skill that will sustain you. An even more specific positive line might be “despite kicking a wide off my left the first time, i showed my confidence to take on the same shot again when the moment arrived” or “even though i forgot to go through my free throw routine for the first throw today, i readjusted and went through the process on the 2nd shot”
As coaches we can emphasise this in micro-interactions on an on-going basis - forget “great score” or “what a save boy” and change the language to “i really like the effort to get yourself in a great position to take that shot” or “i really liked the way you positioned yourself and closed the angle on that guy coming through to give yourself the best chance of making the save". You see what we changed there was our language. But what we are doing is giving the player the tools to repeating these feats - we are emphasising the process and not the result. Because the same could happen again and the player may just not execute well and kick the ball wide or the incoming player hits a brilliant shot into the corner of the net with great accuracy. Should those results ambush the hard work previous to the result? Of course not.
The same is relevant to practicing a technical component of skill out the back garden,lets say like planting your foot when striking a ball in hurling. Encouraging that element and the follow through in times of frustration will be of invaluable help. There is a whole rabbit hole of attentional focus (focus external or internal) as well here but lets leave that for another day.
While this blog series is long, heavy on a number of areas i feel these are blogs i hope people read, put down, get on with coaching and then have a moment where they see something happen and they go “oh i kinda know what he is on about now”. Because that is how many of us learn. The joining of the dots comes over time.
What does Self-Talk look like in sport?Well negative Self talk can look like this;
But blind positivity doesn’t work - we have to strategically analyze performance, even the little micro performances.
"Its ok, you'll get the next one" really has limited value.
What do we have to do to get the next one?
Repeat the process. If the process is a problem we can refine in practice.
When an athlete does that they can bounce back quickly and more intelligently.
Acknowledge the miss, analyze quickly, and then positively reinforce yourself with a reminder that you have done this before and if you trust the process you will be successful the next time.
Now of course - is the process right? And we will touch on that a little in terms of developing a skill like hitting a free in hurling, Gaelic Football or Rugby for instance.We have to borrow from Skill Acquisition and Sports Psychology research here.
Another area around self talk that is worth talking about is fatigue - or the perception of it at least. Research has shown in Soccer that most goals are scored in the last 5 minutes of each half. It is suggested that this happens not because of actual physiological fatigue (highly trained athletes should not be physiologically fatigued) but because of mental. In very simple language the players are mentally back in the dressing rooms. Its why, conversely many teams have a habit of scoring late, famously Fergesons Man United and The All Blacks of last 20 years. That maybe became a self fulfilling prophecy in time where opposition built a fear of that and it in fact compounded their vulnerability.
However was it mental conditioning over physical conditioning? Probably a bit of both but certainly one wouldn’t have worked without the other.
“It has been shown in research that motivational self talk reduces perceived effort (Blanchfield 2013), (Wallace 2016)”
I always found a good approach here was with 2 mins left to get out and make sure everyone knew there was 2 minutes left but also to set little targets for the rest of that half - “we are going to have to clear 6 more balls yet” or we want to get 3 more shots at goal before half time”. I believe this helps players see out a half, concentrating on tasks that are most likely to happen and retaining focus. However i’d usually overstate this amount. The half time whistle should be a surprise to your players. They should be so engrossed in the game and winning every little battle that they hardly know how long is gone. Of course there is a game management element here as well and they should not be ignorant of where they are in the game, but sometimes players need little bits of guidance or indeed they have met a new level of competition.
Again at every juncture we arrive we see development is both physiological and psychological. Except for many its only the physical we concentrate on. When we do that we leave scores off the board, we reduce performance potential, we enjoy the games less and we lose more.
“it has been proposed that self-talk affects sport performance by causing emotional (e.g., mood, motivation, anxiety) and/ or cognitive (e.g., self-instruction, distraction reduction) changes (Zinsser et al., 2010).
Is there different types of Self-Talk?
This is the kind of self-talk that could be used when developing skills in a blocked technical or otherwise fashion. Something like mentioned above but instructional self talk could be something like “i love playing hurling and i want to be better at it, this practice is going to help, even if its hard”. This is going to be particularly helpful in a task like developing technical weaknesses. Its the kinda talk that will support you when things are not going well. For coaches themselves this is also of great benefit, lets say when introducing a new game or a new tactical set up. “I spent time thinking out this idea, it is worth sticking with, even if it may evolve as we experiment”. Remember when implementing new there are two learners - the players, but you as well. You are learning does your idea fit, how are the players adapting, is their new adjustments emerging from the practice that may even improve your idea. Your own self-talk in this process will be critical. It's just another way of getting back to the "why?"
Why am I doing this? Why am I practising?
Because I want to be better.
This is an area around people who get distinct negative self-talk. Its a method of flipping this around. Of course what is critical here is acknowledgement of their being negative self talk in the first place. If you or the athlete in question doesn’t want to deal with that yet, well then they are not ready and it would be a damaging pursuit. However usually its obvious. My basketballer in Part 2 was a good example of this. There was clear and obvious negative self-talk, so instead of trying to kill it, we tried to express it differently to hit a switch to get them back in the game immediately. “Half way” was one method we used after a missed shot. This had to fit into the technical, physical and tactical framework as well - as in if this player was one of the main offensive rebounders on the team then it would be madness to be cueing him to hit the half way line to get defending.
This is an area I personally worked on extremely hard on in relation to the players i coached, in fact it has become part of my philosophy, the 3rd part “Love every player”. Might sound a bit floury but what it actually is, is a thought replacement for when i might get frustrated with a player who may be underperforming or lacking focus. Before i approach them, or if my urge is to shout at them from the sideline is to remember what real top quality they have. Now that could be “he’s a brilliant defender” or “he can always get a goal” to something more personal like “at least he is very funny”. What i am really doing is disengaging myself from what i might need a few more seconds to think about saying. And what i need to say may still need saying, its just my delivery will be adjusted. Does it always work? No. But it gets better all the time. Some people are harder to love than others LOL.
But I picked that player, I have to trust them out there, and of things are going wrong they know it more than we do. And we need to reverse the truck a bit - why are they under performing? Do we know their full story? Maybe it's out of character, maybe something is up we are u aware of. Or maybe we haven't given them the required time and tools to completely focus for 60 minutes, maybe they aren't fit enough yet. Whatever it is we need to have that saving mechanism. Research on decision making and free will suggests what we say or the actions we take are set in motion before we reach a situation. So if we get to know our players well and concentrate on their strengths we will have drafted a story before we go to the big dance. The other thing this research suggested is that while we cannot control our thoughts we do have this one chance to halt ourselves, for about 300 milliseconds we have the opportunity to pull the handbrake. The thoughts we have no control over, but we can tell ourselves a different narrative and that includes the narrative we create of the players we work with. This for me is coaching prep and coaching self talk. This is a habit loop, and again research suggests we don't need to try and change the world when adjusting habits, just change the routine. A habit loop is cue-routine-reward. Think driving home Friday after work - passing the pub, the cue. The routine is to drop in for one. The reward is the socialisation and relaxation after the week.
When as a coach we see a mistake or something that is not helping the team it's a cue - the routine often can be to ignore it for a few turns with dangerous levels of passive aggressiveness, then we go over the edge and let one of them have it. A few fucks thrown. The reward, we feel a bit better after the pent up anger. However if we work on knowing our players, do our homework and understand where they and the team in general are in their development then we can change that routine in a game. The cue will be the same, but our routine could be "I need to help them more with the kickouts". The reward will also pretty much the same, you have released and immediately moved on. But they don't feel any worse. Now this is not to be confused with a lack of straight talking or clear goal setting and accountability. But it's more to do with the timing if it.
But it was an example of negative self talk, just that i was projecting it out upon others. The change in mindset was to take the responsibility - i haven’t coached him/her well enough if its repeatedly happening. Is that always true? No. Is it sometimes the player? Yes it is, but thats not the point here. You have to take responsibility for what happens out on the field.
"Mindfulness and acceptance approaches are based on the idea that self-talk and related internal cognitive and emotional states do not need to be replaced or eliminated" (Van Raalte,2016)
Mindfulness in a practice or sports arena is quite a particular thing. It's not to be mixed up with sportsmanship. Its is about accepting and being aware of our thoughts.
As a coach my own personal example above about reacting to a players performance on the field requires me to be mindful of that thought, accept it, maybe even file away how I can support the player to improve that area and return to observing the game in a critical way. Using a reminder sometimes of their strengths or even something they did positively already in the game will help.
For a player I think this is two-fold, and an area I put a bit of work into with teams, I have used for instance 3 phrases as reminders in preparation for games.
Player A makes a mistake
Player B comes over and says "what the fuck"
Player A confidence drops
Player B is focusing on the outcome and is distracted.
For me at a very basic level mindfulness in sport is as simple as that. Don't be excessively hard on yourself and don't be excessively hard on teammates. You can challenge them, for sure, but there is a time and a place and at the next training session, with some reflection seems the best place to do that.
This is my interpretation of self-talk, based on the players and athletes i have interacted with over the years and my general education formal and informal. Most people we coach will have many other things going on in their lives like school, work, exams, family, bills, work etc. So note that please. We certainly don’t want to add any additional stress.
Some More Solutions
This can manifest itself in a nervousness before a shot due to a previous failure. The trick here like above in a way is to have a mechanism or “Power Phrase” that can snap you out of that negative pathway and focus on the task at hand. That word could be as simple as “Process”. What the process is then as well has to be practiced.
The importance of "the process" actually gets mocked by the ignorant from time to time. They tend to be focused on the result, or the outcome (discussed in our skill practice scenario earlier). While having an eye on the big prize is not a bad thing, once we hit that pitch or court the our aim is to get to our pitch in our head, our arousal state that we have practiced and honed.
But where the process comes in is when our pattern is upset, our tactics disrupted, our keeper drops a ball into the net followed 2 mins later by a missed penalty. That's when the process matters. If at that point we look at the outcomes we are doomed. Our desired outcomes may seem too far away and the micro outcomes described my dent our motivation. However a process, reminded by a Power Phrase can drag us back from the edge, this will be self-talk in action.
"I am a exceptional athlete" (positive reinforcement)
"I am a quality defender" (specific message, get back to what I am good at)
"Get the ball back" (general thought but a specific task, changes the focus - no time to think)
"Earn another shot" (Very general, but it's a combo of all the above, but it immediately frames your mind to wanting the challenge again)
There are multiple phrases you can use, they have to be easy and personal to the person themselves.
The more we developed a challenging, figure it out mindset the more we almost actually wanted something to go wrong so we could fix it. We cherished the challenges" Ritchie McCaw, All Black
A Basketballer will often have this process as they get quite alot of free throws in a season for pretty much any player. One player i worked with who had a process that was a little shabby and was entirely outcome based became;
“Toes-Hands-Eyes” > THE
Feet - touch a toe on the line
Hands - 2 bounces of the basketball
Eyes - fixate on the back bracket (External focus of attention)
The issues previously had been seemingly a positive approach but were still outcome based, there was no routine to speak of and whatever one there was changed regularly. There really was only a routine after a missed shot. A "re-focusing", but no consistency. No script to return to.
For Irish people reading this, think Dean Rock. Easily the most under valued player in Dublins great team. That ice cold routine and mindset has won at least 1 All Ireland. There may not be player of the year awards, but his value is unbelievable.
But internationally we can think of many - Tiger Woods stands out.
But we want to teach other skills….
How can we use it?In developing a new skill or expanding on already developed motor learning we need to be able to focus on the task, but accept alot of failure.
Lets start with a skill taskWe want to kick the ball equally good off our left foot as our right.
Set some goals and targets.
"I will hit 30 balls off the wall with my left leg before the next training"
"Everytime I am pushed onto my left side in training i will go for the pass or shot"
"I am committing to this Improvement"
"I will accept failures and I will seek critique along the way"
Writing phrases like this down in a journal will be of great assistance to any player. Help a 13 year old do this (don't force, just facilitate) is giving them life long tools even outside of sport.
Coaches Note: Practising a skill in a closed fashion that will be tested in a open environment (unopposed v opposed) is a little bit trickier. Positive support from a coach in this scenario, before attempts or potential attempts and after challenges of failure, mistakes or poor execution.
Power phrases and journaling in general are useful, but specifically after a mistake or missed pass or shot, having a term to move on, get back in the game that is immediately actionable - as simple as “get the ball back” could be very effective. No time to dwell on the miss. Reflection can take place after and practice can be conceived to improve that element if needed (was a consistent negative performance habit).
Self talk and confidence are so closely interwoven. Negative self talk can sabotauge a play, a period of a match, a game, a season or even a career. Its the one tool thats reasonably easy to develop but can have monsterous effects.
Power Phrases are a tool i use more and more in coaching now. Having worked with sports psychologists and performance coaches either with teams, through courses or indeed for myself 1-2-1 i have found these are a common useful tool all the best use.
The power phrase can have a profound effect on an athlete, especially someone with poor self talk. That said i think its useful for anyone and can be very useful for building a team bond or inter-connection, which i will explain later.
Like any new skill it takes practice and its non-linear how fast this power phrase will become embedded and consistent. What works well is finding something the athlete is exceptional at or one of their strongest traits. Or if very position or sport specific it can be an action to counter a common or destructive mistake. As an example, an attacking wing back in Gaelic Football is a common player, however what if they get turnover or caught of position? Can they dwell on turning over the ball? Ideally no as they need to get back into their own half quickly to reduce the possibility of giving away a goal. But what if they beat themselves up and start cursing and staring into the sky. The Gaelic Footballers i coach run usually between 7.5 and 9 m/s when they are playing, oppositions similar. Think about that, 1 second thinking about your mistake or feeling sorry for yourself and the opposition are half way down the field. Compound it with a few choice words from the sideline and it compounds the feelings and i would argue actually slows the attempted retrieval. Where as one term that might work, of these options, to get the wing back back in the game could be
The last one in particular could actually be a team phrase. Having a team phrase (doesn’t have to be shouted aloud) can galvinize everyone after a mistake and supports a collective responsibility with team mates picking their wing back up without hardly needing to say it.
One power word can let an athlete “access their talent” (Leath 2020). One word or quick phrase that stops overthinking or immediate reflection on a mistake or missed shot can have a profound effect on any player.
In 26 years coaching i have come to the conclusion that this is thee biggest factor holding back players and teams and something i was afflicted by myself - overthinking. Often this isn’t helped by coaches who double down on the mistake and making the mistake the issue. The reaction is the issue, and working with a player on this can have massively positive implications for both the player themselves, the athlete-coach relationship and the team as a whole.
Coaches note: A nice area around this to identify Power Phrases for a group is for there to be maybe 3 team phrases around the game plan or reactions to important negative occurrences - a turnover, a goal scored or a player sent off.
Another element of this that i have used with relative success is in a breakdown team meeting setting of groups of 4-6 players the group goes through each player individually and the group come up with that players best attribute on the field. This has a great way of building confidence and respect within a team. It makes it easier for team mates to then help pick up a player on the field in a time of stress.
So maybe a better question the next time a free taker misses a free might be “what do i have to do to make that shot the next time”
For the player, being honest helps
“I rushed my set up because the opposition player stood over the ball heckling me”
And a solution
“Next time i will inform the referee calmly of the obstruction and i will not start my routine until the player is back the required distance."
When a player see’s this process working it can be life changing. Its eureka moment where they realise, there are some things others control and there are some things I control.
But confidence is your responsibility. Practising self talk, practising being confident is no different to practising frees in hurling or kicking with your weak foot in football or free throws in basketball. If you went and told a coach “i need to get better at kicking with my weak foot”, they would create a drill and some blocked practice based on that depending on your level of competency. You should be able to go and ask for support around your confidence as well and an experienced coach or if you are lucky enough to have in a squad, a sports psychologist or performance coach, will be able to help you as well. However they will give you takes, it will be YOUR responsibility to practice them.
Coaches Note: There is a responsibility as well on coaches. Too often i hear “ah he is soft” or “he will let you down on the big day”. If there is ability there but the mindset is not 100% or consistency or confidence is an issue then that is workable. Players come to hear and expect the groans after a repeated mistake, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In my view while there is obviously personal responsibility a huge amount of under performance comes from anxiety. From my observations and undoubtedly in the past my own mistakes, this performance anxiety almost always comes from external factors - parents, coaches, club member, supporters etc. Heavy expectations. When you get to know athletes and sometimes their greater surroundings and family, friends etc you can really get an insight into why they are performing the way they are, positively or negatively. Over stating the importance of a game, putting unrealistic targets on players, expecting perfection are all major issues in this area. Remove performance anxiety and you will reveal a new team or athlete.
So alot there to chew on. There is no roadmap for this. But the absolute starting point for any of this to work is - do I want to be a better coach/player?
And am I willing to give this the time and effort and a chance to work?
If you have any hesitation to any of that, leave it for now. You may change your mind down the road, or you may never feel the need to investigate, and that's perfectly fine. In the next parts of the series we will look at goal setting for your development be it any of the 4 Co-Actives, Focus and imagery & visualization. And how any of these improve performance and skill development.
Research, Links 7 Credits to follow soon