The self-talk struggle is real: how to win at work with sports psychology

A positive mental attitude can make the difference between winning and losing on the sports field, but also has an impact at work. Here’s how to beat that negative self-talk and become more positive at work

This story was first seen on Trello.

In the 1998 NBA Finals, down by one point and with only seconds left in the game, Michael Jordan made the winning shot of his last game with the Chicago Bulls. The remarkable thing at that moment was what was going on behind the scenes – more specifically, inside Jordan’s mind.

Years before that championship game Jordan and his entire team had been working with George Mumford, a sports psychologist, on mastering mindfulness, including harnessing the power of self-talk.

What is self-talk?
Self-talk is anything you say to yourself, whether in your head or out loud. It can consist of positive statements or negative ones. It’s natural, but ignorance of its effects can hinder your performance. Mastering self-talk is already a major part of the sports world, helping star athletes train their brains to respond better to stress – they know that a huge part of winning the game is mental. In similar fashion, self-talk can affect your performance in the office.

How does negative self-talk affect you?
1. It can make you feel depressed.
Therapists know that one of the main things to look for in a client who may be depressed is the amount of negative self-talk the patient uses; in fact, one of the biggest predictors for depression is excessive negative thinking.

2. It can make you feel anxious.
One study of children aged eight-to-18 showed that negative thoughts were among the strongest predictors of anxiety. Another study of counsellor trainees found that high negative self-talk was correlated with high anxiety levels. Lower negative self-talk was associated with lower anxiety levels and saw improved performances in video-taped counselling interviews.

3. It can make you lose.
In  a tennis study researchers watched players in tournament matches and recorded their observable self-talk, gestures and match scores. The researchers found that negative self-talk was associated with losing, and the tennis players who believed positive self-talk was useful scored more points than the players who didn’t think it was useful.

The power of positive self-talk
While negative self-talk is linked to depression, anxiety and losing, positive self-talk is associated with improvements in performance and mood.

1. It can improve your health.
An Australian study of elementary school children found that positive self-talk was positively related to self-esteem, and a study in Denmark found that heart disease patients with a positive attitude were more likely to be alive five years later, although this might be because optimistic patients are more likely to exercise.

If you constantly tell yourself ‘I’m incompetent’, then feelings of worthlessness will soon follow, impacting your mental health and your work performance. Reframing your perspective with self-talk such as ‘Look how far I’ve come’ makes for a more optimistic view that might encourage you to seek opportunities to improve.

2. It can boost your performance.
 water polo study conducted two experiments to test very specific kinds of self-talk: instructional versus motivational. Experiment one had the participants complete a precision task of throwing the ball at a target, while experiment two involved them in completing a power task of throwing the ball for distance. Researchers found that, when precision was needed, instructional self-talk (‘elbow high’ and ‘hand follow the ball’) helped the most. However, when power was needed, motivational self-talk (‘I can’) worked best.

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How can you combat negative self-talk in the workplace?
1. Accept some anxiety as normal.
If your heart is racing before a presentation, instead of getting more worked up about it, acknowledge that what you’re feeling is natural.

One study of cross-country athletes found that those who experienced pre-competition anxiety, and viewed it as helpful, experienced less negative self-talk during the competition than those who perceived pre-competition anxiety as harmful.

The next time you’re feeling nervous at work, take a deep breath, recognise those anxious feelings, accept them and move on to performing at your best.

2. Challenge your negative thoughts.
In cognitive behavioural therapy one technique that helps individuals reduce their anxiety is to immediately challenge a negative thought when it comes up.

Challenging negative thoughts will cause them to loosen their grip on you, as you’ll begin to realise that many of them are irrational or untrue.

3. Speak to yourself as you would speak to your best friend.
Many things we tell ourselves, we would never say to a friend. Given that, a helpful tactic for combating negative self-talk is to speak to yourself the way you would speak to your best friend.

If you find this difficult, talking to yourself in the third person can help. LeBron James famously did this when, in an ESPN interview, he announced his decision to join the Miami Heat, by saying: “I wanted to do what’s best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy.”

4. Practice positive self-talk.
Sometimes it’s not enough to simply get rid of a bad habit; often, you’ll need to replace it with a good one. If you’re used to speaking unfavourably to yourself, replace that negative self-talk with positive self-talk. Practice this regularly until it becomes your new habit.

Positive self-talk should help you get rid of distracting thoughts so you can focus better on the task at hand.

Be kinder to yourself
If you still find yourself resorting to unhelpful negative self-talk throughout your workday – take heart. The goal isn’t to completely eradicate negative thoughts from your mind, but to have your positive thoughts outweigh them. As researcher Barbara Fredrickson writes in her book, Positivity, ‘Positivity doesn’t just change the contents of your mind, trading bad thoughts for good ones. … It widens the span of possibilities that you see.’

Even if you never find yourself under pressure to score the winning goal of a game, you can still take a page out of the pro athlete’s playbook and utilise your self-talk to score big professional wins.

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