There is three minutes left in the match. My team was down two points in the Scottish schools final at Murrayfield stadium. I am standing in the pocket waiting for the optimal time to attempt a 40m plus drop kick to win the match. It was the moment I had always dreamed of growing up. Kicking the winning drop goal to win the final for my team. All of a sudden, a thought popped into my head for just a spilt second. I said to myself the worst thing I could, what if I miss?
Years later, I became curious about how our thinking effects not only our emotions but behaviours. It led me to study psychology for over eight years. Now I am a performance psychologist that works with elite athletes and business professionals. Part of my job is to coach people on the thoughts that come into our heads when we are performing. Specifically, I focus on the thoughts we have when under stress. I was working with a young cricket team through Eclipse and through normal conversation, one of the players mentioned how before going to the crease to bat, his thoughts would be different each time depending on the context of the game. When the score was in his teams’ favour, he was relaxed and thought he was going to perform to high level as the pressure was off in his mind. However, when his team was struggling and up against it his thought process was negative. The perceived pressure would lead him to think he needed to do more than required and cause lapses in concentration. This can be translated to not just sport but the working world. When under stress we are more likely to think negatively than positively to a situation where we are needed to perform in some capacity.
The player described how he would imagine the stories after the match such as headlines in the newspaper or on social media. Most were framed negatively in his mind. We discussed further the effect these stories we imagine have on our performance. I highlighted how we can only control what actually in our control. In sport psychology, we use the phrase “self-talk” which refers to the intentional statements we say to ourselves either out loud or in our head. We use it as a coping mechanism both positively and negatively. So, in the case of this player his self-talk backed up his own narrative. I talked him through two different types of self-talk (Hardy, Oliver & Tod, 2009).
- Cognitive self-talk focuses on the technical aspects of his sport or his goals and strategies. An example being “take the easy shots”
- Motivational self-talk focuses on increasing confidence, concentration and managing anxiety. An example being “You can do this, stay strong”
I explained it is not as simple as thinking something positive in the moment as saying it to ourselves. Although this does aid performance short term, self-talk needs practice outside of times of performance. The positive thought should be automatic on the pitch (in this case).
The player and I discussed what phrases would be memorable and powerful for him. These phrases need to be personal and not forced by a coach or manager. An example of what he used was using the phrase “slow”. He used this word to slow down his thoughts and aid in reducing his heart rate before playing. Though it seems a simple phrase over time it sparked a psychological and physiological reaction in moment of performance. It takes time and practice to shape the stories we tell ourselves. Whether it’s in sport or work, think of the stories we tell ourselves when we need to perform whether it’s on a pitch or a difficult conversation with a colleague.
Going back to my personal story, I had just told myself “what if I miss?” in the most important match of my life to that point. As soon as the thought came into my head I got flustered and did not communicate effectively. The ball eventually came my way to kick the winning drop goal. I passed it. The ball got turned over and we lost. The key for me is that this was one of the biggest learning points of not just in sport but for my professional career. It has taught me to challenge my thinking when under stress, to rationalise my thought process, reframe my thinking and teach others from my mistakes. The stories we tell ourselves shape us. Take time to practice challenging your stories for the better and notice the impact.
Stuart Kelly is a Performance Psychology Consultant at Eclipse. You can connect with him here.