Does this sound familiar? You are about to start a marathon, Ironman race, tennis match or basketball league game, and all you keep thinking about is that you “must be the best.” By the time you get to the start of your competition you are so filled with anxiety and pressure, that you feel frozen and have to force your way into your competition.

That’s where self-talk—the internal conversation that constantly runs through your head—comes in as a barrier or boost to your performance. In the above example, self-talk is obviously a barrier. Your performance hinges almost entirely on your thoughts, expectations, self-talk and mental focus, assuming a certain level of skill.

It’s been estimated that humans have anywhere from 15,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day. The diagram below shows how these thoughts impact us.Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 3.12.08 PM

Our self-talk includes all of these beliefs and thoughts—whether focused, random, positive, negative or neutral—that run through our minds every day.  They tell us what to do, where to focus our energies, and can be key sources of positive motivation. However, they can also be totally demotivating. It’s not “if” we have these thoughts, but rather we “do” have these thoughts – our task is to keep them rational, realistic, accurate and logical, in order to enhance our performance in sports and in life.

Often, athletes incorrectly focus on the past or future: “I was so bad in practice, I’ll do really bad in this upcoming event.” They focus on weaknesses while in an event: “Darn, I started too slow.” They focus on outcome goals instead of process goals: “ I MUST come in first!” They focus on uncontrollable elements: “I can’t stand that there are so many people watching me run.” Last, and worst, they often demand perfection: “My time MUST be perfect.”

So here you are in your most comfortable running shoes, listening to your favorite RockMyRun mix, with your friends cheering you on, and you realize that you are frozen and having to force your performance.

Enter thought stopping. 

With thought stopping you become aware of your self-talk and are able to manage it. The steps to do this are: 1) catch it, put the cover on the cage of that parrot that keeps chirping negative, inaccurate thoughts in your head, 2) challenge and check it, replace it with accurate, positive thoughts instead, 3) change it. Catch it, check it, change it.

The key is to stop your negative thoughts and change them to positive ones, then to use cue words to control your awareness if you happen to start down the negative self-talk path.

Keep in mind that the link is what you think when it comes to performance in athletics, and in life. What you tell yourself becomes your reality. Tell yourself you are too tired to go for a run or hit the gym, and guess what? You’ll start to yawn. Research at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, published in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise this past fall, demonstrated this principle with cyclists.

In the study, one group was taught to engage in positive self-talk while pedaling to near exhaustion, with phrases such as, “You’re doing well” or “I’m feeling good.” The researchers discovered that positive, accurate self-talk bolstered the cyclists’ feelings, made pedaling feel easier, and improved performance by enabling them to pedal longer, despite physiological measures showing the same high levels of physical exertion as their initial ride before learning positive, accurate self-talk. This study is the first to demonstrate that self-talk significantly reduces the rating of perceived exertion and enhances endurance performance.

Physical exhaustion develops in your head. Using the right combination of positive and accurate self-talk, as well as repeating the phrases consistently or even on a schedule, is motivating and improves endurance performance, compared to not using it, according to the researchers. The findings illustrate that psychobiological interventions, specifically self-talk, designed to target favorable changes in perception of effort, are beneficial to endurance performance.

Next time you go for a run, enter a competition or just hit the gym for a routine workout, be sure your laces are tied and your thoughts are tight too.

Post contributed by Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D.  Dr. Mantell has served as a long-time Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and today is the Senior Fitness Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for the American Council on Exercise, a behavioral sciences coach, an author and a national fitness-health speaker. In 2013, named Dr. Mantell as one of “The 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness.”