Monday, April 28, 2008

just do it - talk to yourself

Professional athletes get advice from personal coaches and sports psychologists. A few weekend warriors do too, but most of us can't afford such a luxury. Try convincing your health insurance company of the medical necessity of improving your serve.

I'm lucky in that I get to take my own personal psychologist along with me to every tennis match. Some days she sleeps on the job. But lately I've been getting my money's worth. I've actually been practicing what I preach: Focus. Breathe. Plan. Positive self-talk. Win.

You can bring along your own personal coach too. If you follow Nike's three little words: Just Do It.

Do what, exactly? Here are a few of the tools of the sport psychology trade, basics that can help bring out your best performance:

1. Positive self-talk. Remember the Little Engine that Could? He was one smart little locomotive. He was using positive self talk. The rules of self talk that I recommend are The Three P's: Keep it Positive, in the Present, and Personal.

*Keep it Positive means giving myself encouragement. Saying nice things to myself instead of negative criticisms. But it also means telling myself what I want to do (sink this putt), instead of what I want not to do (don't miss this putt); telling myself what my plan is (move forward) instead of what I'm afraid I'll do (plant my feet). And positive talk is telling myself encouraging messages: "This jump shot will be nothing but net" instead of "Don't hit the backboard this time."

*Keep It in the Present means talking in the now, not the later, and definately not in the past. The most common mistake I see my partners make and hear in my own head is talking about our last mistake, our failed strategy, our goofs and our lost points. "What is wrong with me today?" "Here I go again." "What is my problem?!" Instead, decide what you are going to do next. What you will do to improve on the next shot. "I will breathe and I will keep my eye on the ball." Change it from, "I don't know why I did that!" to "I can do this." "I am turning this around NOW." "The game starts here."

*Keep it Personal means simply, use "I" language. People often talk to themselves using "you" statements. "You need to focus!" But replacing "you" with "I" helps your brain follow through better. Its that simple. When your brain hears "you" it doesn't always respond. It thinks you're talking to someone else. It tends to be a better listener when it hears "I can do this." "I will hit straight down the fairway." "I will hit a line drive." "I can win this point."

Here are several examples of the do's and don'ts of self talk:

DON'T: "Oh no. We're going to lose."
DO: "I can win."

DON'T: "Watch me double fault."

DO: "I am going to put this serve in the box."

DON'T: "Don't look up."
DO: "Keep my head down."

DON'T: "Why did I DO that?!"
DO: "I can put the ball where I want it."

DON'T: "Stop being so tense!"
DO: "Breathe. Stay loose. Shake it out."

DON'T: "Do not hit the ball so hard!"
DO: "Nice and easy. Keep the ball in play."

2. Absolutely no name calling. This includes telling yourself, "I'm such a LOSER," asking yourself, "Why are you so STUPID?" or the eloquent, "You SUCK!!" This kind of talk is the best way to guarantee your worst performance. So drop the negative labels, period. Clear your head. Look ahead to your next move. Look at your raquet. Ever notice how often professional tennis players look at the strings of their raquets between points? They've been coached to use their strings as a visual focus point. Look at my raquet - clear my head - let that last point go - what am I going to do next?

Focus on something else, anything else. A strategy. A game plan. It doesn't have to be a complicated one. Sometimes my strategy is simply, "keep my eye on the ball... eye on the ball... eye on the ball." Preferably something pleasant. Refer back to #3.

Almost anything is better than beating yourself up.

3. Breathe. Full inhales followed by long, full empty-your-lungs exhales. This helps relax and loosen your muscles. Relaxed muscles work better. When you are tight, your serve will make a bee-line for the net, your free throw will fall short, your baseball bat will swing and miss. So before each swing, serve, foul shot or chip shot, breathe.

One breathing strategy: Exhale as you make contact with the ball. Do you wonder why Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova grunt so loud when they hit the ball? This is a way of breathing, or forcing an exhale, upon contact. It helps them hit the ball harder and improves their accuracy. Again, the muscles will follow the brain's intent better when the muscles are loose.

4. Visualize. I admit, this is my least favorite exercise. I'm not good at visualizing. I have trouble holding an image in my mind, let alone seeing myself doing a sequence of things. But I'm working on it. Because it works.

Many have heard of the landmark visualization study. It was conducted at the University of Chicago. Researchers divided basketball players into three groups: those who practiced free throws, those who visualized themselves making free throws, and those who did nothing. The group who visualized improved as much as those who practiced. The group who did nothing, as expected, did no better.

Studies have repeatedly shown that the brain does not know the difference between what you imagine and what you're actually doing. If I visualize myself hitting the ball the correct way, my brain makes neurological changes as if I AM doing it the correct way. Pathways that help me "Just Do It" next time. Does it get any easier than this? Improving without lifting a finger?

5. Smile. Enjoy yourself. One of my favorites is to look up, focus on the beautiful blue sky, smile as I think about what a wonderful feeling this is, being outside, away from my desk, away from housework, playing my favorite sport. Life is good.

So it turns out, you can be lucky, too. The best instructor, the best coach, and the best psychologist resides right inside your own head. So bring her along and Just Do it.


Leesa said...

I think coaches have an important role in society. Sometimes they teach us that there are things we cannot do today. But with conditioning and practice, we can achieve things that we may have only dreamed about.

I think that is the recipe for self esteme.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I do some of that quite a lot - the pep talks to myself side of it. But I think I do talk to myself as "you" I shall have to try not to do that. I actually thought this was a bad thing to do - and generally don't mention it to others incase they think I am bonkers!!!

I would be no good at the visualisation thing though - it's just not me.

But I do try to be very positive with myself these days and it does work. It also rubs off onto how I deal with my children which is a good thing. It's easy to get set into negative ways of thinking and whilst the talking to yourself thing can feel a bit weird to start with it is an easy thing to do when you get used to it.

Radical Reminders said...

awesome lesson in CBT :)

shrink on the couch said...

Leesa, excellent points. Positive self talk is the necessary ingredient for good self esteem.

shrink on the couch said...

RB, self-talk out loud? enter at your own risk.

I wasn't always one to practice what I was preaching, I'm sorry to say. Its only been in the past few years that I have used positive self talk consistently. Its slow to yield results at first but eventually its a self-contained system. And yes, it does get easier over time.

shrink on the couch said...

thanks, feministgal.

David said...

Too many of us focus on the negatives "My second serve is always weak, I need to work on it". Instead of "I have a good backhand, I think I'll make it great". It was the key to Tiger Woods going from good to great when he went to his coach and said, my second shot is weak, I want to make it better. To which his coach replied, "Tiger, your strengths is in your driving and putting, lets make those better".

e.beck.artist said...

oh my gosh ... i love this post! i'm gonna send the link to my whole tennis team!!

shrink on the couch said...

Thanks, e. Foward away!

This positive talk really does work. Or I could say, self-bashing is a sure fire way to the loser circle.

Inspiration for this post: I partnered with someone recently, a lot of negative self talk .. we were in a 3rd set tie breaker, down 2-6, she kept saying, "I hate tie-breakers." and "I never can win a tie-breaker" Argh. So I kept getting her to focus on "the next point" and "we're going to do this." I told her to just think about "plowing through". And sure enough, we won. She turned to me, "OMG, this is the first match I"ve won all season!"

shrink on the couch said...

David, I have heard often that Tiger works on his mental game. I googled and almost used him as an example. Thanks for stopping by.

Susie Derkins said...

great advice. easier said than done, though! you know in your head life often turns out the way you think it, but somehow it's not always easy to think positive, whether it's in sports, fitness, or life.

adding you to my blogroll! :)

shrink on the couch said...

It's definately not easy, Susie. It takes perseverance. One of the reasons I like using it in tennis is that I get to see results so quickly. Not every point, but many.