Many years ago, as a full-time professor teaching sports psychology, I found that one of the most effective demonstrations of the connection between self-talk and physical performance involved inviting a strong-looking male student and two diminutive female students to the front of the class. I had the male student look deeply into the eyes of his fellow classmates while saying 10 times, “I’m a winner” as boldly and confidently as he could. I then had him hold his arms out to his sides, parallel to the ground, and resist the efforts of his two female classmates to pull his arms down. Almost every time I conducted this demo, the male students’ arms barely moved.
For several minutes, I would make some lecture points while the male student rested from his efforts. Then, I’d have him gaze deeply into the eyes of his classmates, but this time he stated “I’m a loser” 10 times just as loudly as he’d done previously. In 100 percent of the demonstrations, the female volunteers pulled down his arms with ease.
I often think of this demonstration in the initial stages of a sports psychology consultation with an athlete who has come to my office in hopes of elevating their performance. It turns out that words matter a great deal—especially the ones we direct toward ourselves. The words that we say to ourselves often serve as psychological bricks and mortar in the construction of our beliefs about the world. These beliefs, in turn, go a long way in shaping what we imagine we can achieve. To my way of thinking, beliefs about both what we view as possible and what we assume is likely to occur are just as important as any factor in determining the outcome.
To paraphrase Aristotle, we are what we repeatedly think. Within the context of improving performance—for professional and amateur athletes alike—if you haven’t practiced thinking and believing like a winner in the weeks or months before an important competition, don’t expect motivational phrases and visual imagery to make a big difference on game day. However, if you train your mind just as diligently and intently as you train your body, success is truly only a thought away.
Setting New Records
Take the example of the sub-four minute mile in men’s track. Before 1954, the vast majority of track and field experts flatly asserted that a sub-four minute mile was humanly impossible. Most fans, coaches, and observers accepted the experts’ disbelief in this feat as unquestionable fact—except, of course, for Roger Bannister. This brazen rebel routinely utilized visualization techniques to convince himself that the feat was not only possible, but that it would be he who would accomplish it.
After Bannister proved the impossible possible, a number of professional runners duplicated the feat. Nowadays, sub-four minute milers are common among the professional ranks, fairly routine for top college runners, and a measure to identify elite male high school runners. The concerted and indefatigable belief (which might also be thought of as conviction) of one man apparently went a very long way.
I recall working several years ago with a young but very promising female gymnast I will call June. Her parents brought her into my office to overcome paralyzing fears of falling that were preventing her from demonstrating various skills on the beam and the uneven bars necessary for her to advance to the next level.
In talking to June, it became clear that her mindset with respect to these events was consumed by memories of watching others fall, and especially by the visuals of a serious neck injury sustained by one of her friends and training partners. We talked about the importance of choice, mostly in terms of the thoughts and images she entertained. I explained that her thoughts about falling were actually the only thing that kept her from performing skills she already possessed. In place of negativity (i.e., thoughts of falling or of getting hurt), I taught her to visualize the exquisite details of successful performance and to view herself as a strong and graceful engine of gymnastic force. Finally, I had her look up and then write out by hand the definition of “poise,” and then spend one minute at the beginning of the day and again at the end of the day visualizing herself as the embodiment of this performance-related virtue.
I was delighted to learn that after three sports psychology sessions, June was not only able to perform the skills necessary to advance her level as a gymnast, but her newfound confidence emboldened her to practice with more vigor and focus. June learned to believe in herself through nothing more than a shift in cognitive focus away from failure, toward mental images of competence, excellence, and fearlessness.
If there’s any take-away I would recommend for you from this short article, it would be this: fight as vigorously as you can against the psychological riptide of cognitive dissonance.* In other words, do not ever allow failure, disappointment, or loss define you or what you assume you are capable of. Instead, cleave to a belief in and a commitment to excellence with all the tenacity and stubbornness you can muster. In this way, you put yourself in the best position to elevate the level of your performance in any walk of life.
*Defined in this context as the tendency to change what we believe to conform with what we do or how we perform.