The Power of Self-Talk

Elite athletes seem to have it all figured out, exhibiting honed physiques, technical proficiency, and unwavering mental strength during high-pressure situations. For young athletes (and their parents), the journey towards elite level competition can appear long and daunting, and there is often conflicting advice about the direction that should be taken. This is the beginning of a series of blogs that will share my own experiences and observations from years as an athlete, as well as giving guidance on how parents can help support their kids through the ups and downs of sport.

In the modern world, young people are faced with unprecedented opportunity, but also a number of challenges, whether from social media, negative stereotyping or educational pressure. What I have noticed is that kids who play sport seem better equipped to balance some of these demands. Sport facilitates collaboration with others, encourages problem solving and goal-setting and, perhaps most crucially, offers an hour or so a day where physical interaction takes precedence over screen time.

Despite the many positives of exercise, it can still be challenging to help and support young people with their sporting journey, especially if they are more committed than the average; training multiple sessions a week and competing at national (or even international) level. By the time I was 13, I was swimming 60km per week, with that dreaded alarm going off at 4:07am so that I could get a session in before school (sorry Dad!) My career progressed rapidly from there, and over the next decade I would go on to represent Great Britain at two Olympic Games and bring a handful of medals home from other international majors. When my parents and I reflect now, the early morning sessions seem worth it (mostly), but there were many kids back then who did the same training as me and who didn’t quite make it onto the international scene. I sometimes wonder how their adult selves look back on those years of commitment to their sport—I hope they have an awareness of how much they gained and contributed, despite not always achieving the shiny accolades. It would be true to say that many of my teammates who had a positive impact on our training group were those who couldn’t be found in the national rankings.

There are countless factors that influence the trajectory of any young person, and for young athletes this is no exception. Genetics, talent, commitment, environmental factors, geographical location, coaching, peer group, luck… and, of course, family influence. Parents, especially, will undoubtedly have a huge role to play in a young athlete’s support network, and parental interaction and encouragement will often be defining factors in the journey the youngster takes. This isn’t a parenting manual (I am definitely not qualified to be giving that kind of advice!), but I thought it would be useful to collate some of the experiences from my early days in sport with some of the recommendations that I give young athletes and parents today. First up, the power of self-talk and the importance of an athlete’s internal narrative…

Why does self-talk matter?

Sport involves an enormous amount of communication with others, whether it be coaches, teammates or competitors. But a crucial part of self-confidence in sport comes from self-talk, and it’s this internal monologue that can be the defining factor in how we approach challenges and react to events. By the time athletes are competing at an elite level, there’s a good chance that they’ve worked closely with a psychologist who can help them identify any self-limiting beliefs and manage their internal monologue. By the time they compete at a major event, they will be running a well-rehearsed script, ensuring their minds are as ready to perform as their bodies.

For young athletes, managing that internal monologue, or even understanding the impact of self-talk, can be really challenging. For parents watching, it can seem like some kids just have the knack of unerring self-confidence—even when things don’t seem to be going well—but, for others, just getting their child to the start line can be almost impossible, despite the youngster being adamant that they want to compete. For a long time, I fitted into the latter category, crying on the way to swimming galas despite usually winning most of the races when I did get there. I definitely didn’t appreciate quite how much stress I caused my parents as a youngster—it’s no wonder they usually found their way to the bar pretty quickly after dropping me off at the pool!

So, how can young athletes begin to mould their self-talk into a belief-system that will be beneficial, not only in sport, but in all areas of life? And how can parents or guardians guide them in the right direction? The good news is that young minds are brilliantly adaptable, and there are some fairly simple narratives that parents can use to steer their children gently towards the right path. The bad news is that it takes a bit of focus and time, so don’t give up your seat at the bar just yet…

Let’s start at the beginning, with values and belief-systems…

As children grow up, they start to create a set of values and beliefs about the world around them. This is completely normal and helpful—in the future it is this set of beliefs that will dictate our behaviour in various situations, our perspective on events, and our ability to deal with the highs and lows of life. Some of these values will be learnt at school, some from the media, and many from family life. They’re mostly fairly simple (and obvious). For example, children from a very young age will be able to tell you that it’s bad to hurt somebody, to steal or to lie. Kids also learn, relatively quickly, that it’s good to be kind to others, to share things and to help those that are in need. 

But there is also a more complex set of beliefs that become ingrained as a result of the experiences we have—our successes and failures for instance—as young people. When sport is purely played for fun, these beliefs again remain fairly self-explanatory. For example, someone enjoying sport for fun might internalise such beliefs as:

“Sport makes me feel energised and good about myself”

“Sport helps me interact and connect with my friends”

“I don’t worry too much about the outcome of sport, because the results don’t matter at this level”

It’s important to note that these ‘beliefs’ aren’t usually part of a conscious narrative—you won’t find a seven-year old sitting on the side-lines voicing the above statements in a cognisant way. Instead they’re part of a subconscious interpretation of situations, which in turn dictates how we feel and behave in response to events. The more frequently we experience a particular situation, the more firmly we establish our beliefs about that situation. We’ll continue to mould this belief system throughout our entire lives, gradually forming our own narrative, although experiences in childhood will largely be responsible for establishing the foundations.

Now let’s look at some of the beliefs that competitive sport can generate…

When the stakes become higher in sport, and a young athlete starts to compete at a county/regional/national level, suddenly there is more consequence attached to training and competition, and this can start to mould beliefs and values in a different way. Athletes who are successful begin to receive praise, high fives, special attention, local sponsorship and media interest. Athletes who aren’t performing as well can get lost in the crowd, feeling like they’re making up numbers in training sessions, with nobody paying much attention to them. This is the reality of mid to high level sport, replicated from club level upwards, and it’s unlikely to change any time soon. Sport, after all, is judged on hard statistics and results.

But when we look at some of the narratives that can be created as a result of an athlete experiencing these attitudes, we can start to understand why they may be damaging to the confidence of young people. Over a few competition seasons a young athlete who struggles with their self-confidence may start to establish some of the following beliefs:

  • “When I perform well, I get positive praise and attention. People want to be friends with me and follow me on social media. They seem to value me more when I succeed, therefore my self-worth is reliant on my results”.
  • “If my self-worth is based on my results, then when I don’t do a personal best, or win, I should be ashamed and embarrassed. I am a less worthy person when I don’t do well”.
  • “I like getting praise and attention, so if somebody beats me then I will take that as a personal hit”.
  • “Lots of people have invested in me (mum/dad/coaches etc)—and if I don’t perform then I have let everyone down”.

The above statements are really common and are actually very similar to some of the beliefs that I grew up with. Remember, these aren’t things that somebody had said to me directly—my parents were incredibly loving and supportive, through the wins and losses, and I also had great coaches around me. These are beliefs that I subconsciously established through my experiences of competing over the years. They’re not always logical, but teenagers aren’t renowned for being logical! There are, of course, a whole host of positive beliefs that are generated by competitive sport too, but for the following advice I’ll be focusing on the ones that limit our confidence and progress.

What are the consequences of self-limiting beliefs?

Self-limiting beliefs can, in the long run, be detrimental for young people. For example, as a young athlete, everything seemed fine when I was performing well, but having this internal story made poor performances really tough, as I took a very personal hit to my confidence and self-worth. I see this over and over again with young athletes who are incredibly hard on themselves when they under-perform, and it’s often because they fundamentally believe that a poor performance is a reflection of their worth as a person.

It also meant that I was often unduly anxious before races, because the consequences of performing poorly seemed to be so big, which is another trait I regularly see in youngsters. I started to hate racing because of the fear of what would happen if I underperformed (hence the uninhibited distress in the back of the car on the way to the sports centre…) With some perspective, this reaction doesn’t make any sense—competition day should be the fun part after months of hard training! But it isn’t for many young people, because in their heads the consequences of underperformance seem so disastrous. Again, remember this isn’t a parenting (or coaching) shortfall—it’s a narrative that the athlete has built entirely subconsciously. In fact, if you ask a young athlete why they suffer from debilitating pre-competition nerves, they will often have no awareness that this is such a self-limiting belief for them.

What often adds to the anxiety is that competition is, by its very nature, difficult to control, especially in an individual sport where each athlete has little or no interaction with the rest of the field. If the person in the lane next to us is going to break a world record, it doesn’t mean our performance has been a failure, just that the person next to us was better on the day. But when your entire sense of self-worth comes from reading the results and comparing yourself to others, it’s easy interpret this as a failure. Even at the Olympic Games, I interpreted a fourth-place finish as a failure for a long time, having been determined make it to the podium. With perspective, I started to see how unhelpful it is to continually compare ourselves to our competitors’ performance (over which we have no control). It’s important to try and see each performance in a neutral context, because otherwise this lack of control and ability to influence results can exacerbate internal pressure.

How can we help young athletes shape their values and beliefs in a positive way?

Let’s look at how parents and guardians can help young athletes establish a positive narrative, with a resilient set of beliefs that contributes to both performance and wellbeing. In theory, some of these suggestions may seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget to actually vocalise the messages on a regular basis. Here are my ideas, based on both personal experience and observation over the years, but remember that every athlete (and parent) is different, so tweak as appropriate:

  • Take notice of the narrative

Firstly, you need to try and understand some of the narrative and beliefs that your young athlete already has. This is easier said than done, as there will be a whole host of ‘influencers’ as they grow up, including impact from some (un)helpful teenage hormones! Of course, every young person will also have had a different set of experiences and influences across their life. This will manifest in differing sets of values and behaviours, but start to be aware that every behaviour (good and bad) is a result of their belief-system. When you see things through this frame, it suddenly becomes a bit clearer why certain behaviours seem to be repeating themselves.

For example: A teenage swimmer is subdued, irritable and trying to pick a fight in the car on the way to a competition. It’s easy to dismiss this as classic teenage angst, but the reality is that the young athlete’s internal monologue may be something like this: “I am nervous about the competition. I know Mum and Dad have invested a lot of money to get me here and I need to succeed to prove that it was worth it”.

Their behaviour in the car suddenly makes more sense—withdrawing, creating conflict or having an argument is a way of attempting to control a situation in which they feel they have very little control. Take it one step further and see how arguing can actually be an attempt to diffuse their internal pressure—it’s much easier to feel like you don’t owe your parents anything when you’re mad at them.

As I mentioned previously, often the youngster won’t have the self-awareness to vocalise their belief-system in a particularly coherent way, so begin by just observing behaviours and communication without critique, instead of asking directly what they’re thinking. The key here is to try and avoid judging behaviours in isolation, but instead understand the message that is fuelling the behaviour.

  • Understand your impact as a parent

Start to notice your own self-talk, and the influence that your communication has. Your athlete will be internalising more than you realise. Again, every youngster is different here. Some athletes need a pre-race ‘pep talk’ to include motivational chat, someone telling them they’ve been looking great in training, a parent who says, “I have confidence that you can win, I believe in you”. For me, as a young athlete, this was the worst thing anybody could say. I was already putting a huge amount of pressure on myself, so to have someone else acknowledge that there was a high expectation was paramount to disaster. I wanted my parents to be nonchalant, to appear not to care one way or another if I won or lost, did a PB, or was miles off. All I wanted to hear before I raced was, “We love you no matter what, do your best and enjoy yourself”. Experiment with your communication, especially before a competition—what makes your athlete withdraw and go quiet? What makes your athlete become engaged and lively and excited about the upcoming event? More conversation that leads to the latter, less that leads to the former. Simple!

  • Ask how you can help

Of course, it’s helpful to ask your young athlete what they want from you, so have a dialogue with them. Don’t assume that they want the same cues that you would want, or the same cues that you received thirty years ago when you were school track champion. So, open up a conversation, away from competition day, and say, “I want to encourage you in the right way, what do you need from me?” The added benefit of this is that you put the athlete in the driving seat and allow them to take control of the narrative. Over many years I started to take responsibility for this, and by the time I was competing at an international level, everyone in my close support group knew the script. This included coaches, parents, boyfriends, friends and team mates, as well as the poolside physiotherapist and sports scientist. Young athletes don’t need to go this far, but as a start an athlete’s parents and coaches should understand what makes them tick before competition, and what comments are going to reduce them to a bag of nerves. During the latter stages of my career, I still had old friends who would send me messages around competition time—despite not having seen them in years they would still reference the script, telling me to “Go out, smash it, and just have a laugh!” whilst at the Olympic Games!

  • Help your athlete create a set of ‘Non-Sporting Values’

Work with your young athlete to help them establish a set of values, ones that are completely separate to their sporting performance. This is incredibly important and is often missed. Values are principles that your child wants to live by, and most importantly, they should be standards that they can reasonably judge themselves by. Some example values might be:

  • Being a positive influence on others
  • Being a loyal friend
  • Trying their best in everything they do
  • Being willing to learn and try new things

It’s super important for young people to create and communicate their own values (even if they sound really obvious!) For young athletes it can be especially beneficial to run through their values before competition—it helps remind them that they should judge themselves on these principles, rather than the results of their performance. They can still have values that are related to sport, but they must be about effort and process, not times and positions.

  • Remind them that you love them unconditionally

For you, it might go without saying that you love your children unconditionally (whether they win or lose, PB or not), but you’d be surprised how many young people believe (consciously or subconsciously) that their parents’ affection, support, and love, might depend on the outcome of a performance. And, in reality, your behaviour towards them will change, depending on their results. You will share their elation and you will share their disappointment—this is normal. My Mum, especially, shared the rollercoaster of my career in a visceral way, riding the highs and lows with an investment of empathy that I’m sure added a few grey hairs over the years. What my parents were brilliant at though, was ensuring that I knew that their happiness/disappointment was purely because they felt it for me, and not because my successes were a reflection on them, or my failings made them personally disappointed.

Over time you can start to develop a script to use with your athlete, through training and competition. Each script will be different and will undoubtedly change and adapt as they develop and grow, experiencing different situations. Some great examples as starting points for your script:

“We love you so much, no matter what the result”.

“As long as you have tried your best then we are proud of you”.

“Winning doesn’t automatically make you a good person. Losing doesn’t make you a bad person”.

“What defines you, and how we judge you, is on your values… (attitude, application to goals, how you treat others etc.)”

“You have done so well to get here, we are already proud of you. Now your only job is to have fun!”

“We place more value on the attitude you bring to the competition than the results”.

  • Re-frame negative dialogue into positive statements

Negative self-talk is habitual and can be perpetuated by sport because we’re taught that it’s good to be critical and always look at the next way to improve. Whilst this can result in focused attention to detail, it can also be damaging to confidence and self-esteem. So, make sure that you catch the little negative comments and help your young athlete establish a habit of finding positives in every situation. For example:

“That was a rubbish race because I didn’t do a PB”, can easily be converted into “I didn’t get the time I wanted but I tried my best and I worked hard on my skills. I also learnt a lot about pacing by watching the other athletes in the races before me”.

Take this a step further and you can see how this quickly becomes a proactive mindset, despite a disappointing initial outcome: “I’m going to work harder on my pacing in training because I know that I have the potential to improve next time I race that event.”

  • Manage your emotions as a parent

Try and control your own emotions during and after a competition. A young athlete will have their own range of emotions that they’ll be managing on the day—from elation, to excitement, to fear, disappointment, embarrassment, shame or guilt—depending on their perception of the results. Help them by showing that all you care about are the positives from their performance (even if it has been a ‘disaster’ there will be lessons learnt for next time, which is a huge positive in itself). Make it very clear that you’re proud of them for even standing up to compete. Make it clear that your judgement of them is centred around processes and attitudes, and what they have contributed to the team, not scorecards and stopwatch results. The sooner you can establish yourself as a constant (whose own emotions aren’t reliant on their performance), the sooner they will learn that your love and support is unconditional, and that this journey is theirs alone, without any expectation or pressure from you. My mum may have been experiencing emotional turmoil whilst I was competing, but she deserves an Oscar for appearing calm and composed around me at all times!

  • Make it clear that they don’t owe you a performance because you’ve invested in them

Sport can be hard on family life, whether that be an impact on finances, time, energy, or even hampering the ability to support other siblings. There are parents who can’t help but remind their kids how much time/energy/effort/money they are investing, in the hope that this information will motivate a great performance. Luckily for me, my parents didn’t choose to vocalise their sacrifices, but there were some in my training club who did receive this ‘helpful’ reminder on a regular basis. In my experience, reminding kids of how much their parents are investing in the journey is entirely counter-productive. The youngster is likely intuitive enough to recognise this anyway, and there’s a high chance that they’re already using that as a reason why they “must perform”, which can easily add to pressure and anxiety.

It’s incredibly important for parents (and coaches) to equip young athletes with an understanding that this is their journey, even if it is the parents footing the bill and driving the car. To have parents and coaches who are more invested than the athlete is a recipe for disaster—parents leaning over railings or yelling from the side-lines doesn’t usually result in the making of a future champion. Even if it’s not being vocalised explicitly, there’s a good chance that your athlete is highly aware that their participation in sport may be some kind burden on the family—alleviating this pressure with frequent reminders that you don’t need results to justify your sacrifice is very important.

  • Never compare them to others

Don’t compare them to other athletes, either their peers or successful athletes that have gone before them. Every youngster will develop at their own rate, both physiologically and psychologically, and results along the line should be taken with a pinch of salt in terms of drawing parallels between athletes. We live in a world where constant comparison is normal (it’s one of the downsides of social media), but don’t bring the comparisons home or into conversations. Instead compare athletes on the way they handle situations and their contribution to the club or team. It’s far more useful for a young person to be given feedback about tangible skills that they are in control of developing (like their attitude and application to challenges), rather than placing them in the middle of comparisons they have very little control over (like why their peers are growing faster than them, hitting puberty sooner, or performing better). If you have a young athlete getting stressed about their rate of development and performance compared to their peers, then try and encourage them to focus on their technical skills in training and competition. Bigger, stronger athletes may have the brute force that gives them an advantage at an early age, but it’s technical competency and the ability to listen and learn new skills that will be advantageous in the long term.   

  • Focus on Process vs Outcome

Focus on processes, rather than outcome, when you discuss performances. Focus on the way that a race is put together, the technical skills involved in a match, or the tactics involved in a multi-game tournament. As I mentioned before, athletes really have very little direct control over the results—you won’t ever ‘magic’ a spectacular performance by just endlessly dreaming of a medal, or the score you want to get. What athletes can control is the process of a performance—for swimming this means pacing, technique, focusing on starts and turns. Putting the race together as a whole, instead of just wanting to win. Adapt your narrative so that you’re communicating with your athlete in a way that emphasises the process rather than the results. Doing this helps young athletes shape their own self-talk to focus on process too, and helps them feel like they’re in control during challenging situations. A process-driven approach tends to be really beneficial for calming nerves before a competition—if an athlete is jittery and anxious, then steer them towards a discussion focused on what they can control about the performance (their race plan or match tactics), rather than an arbitrary result that they may or may not achieve.

The above ideas are just suggestions, and it’s important to emphasise how different every athlete will be. It takes time for everyone to get on board with this kind of dialogue but, when it works, you see a pretty quick reduction in anxiety and stress, and an increase in engagement and excitement. The key is really to help your athlete create a set of values and beliefs that can’t be shaken by the ups and downs of sporting performance and, over time, help them re-frame their own self-talk, taking responsibility for managing their own emotions during training and competition.

And finally… chill out! There’s a high likelihood that your child began playing sport because they enjoyed the interaction and the challenge, not because they absolutely had to make a regional qualifying time or get selected for a higher league. Most young athletes have a much better chance of both succeeding at sport, and (more importantly) enjoying the process, if they’re given time and space to figure things out themselves. It’s normal that nerves and pressure will increase in proportion to the level of competition (which is where some of the above advice comes in handy), but remember that it’s just sport, so there shouldn’t ever be too many tears, either from your child or from you!

Also, remember to give yourself some credit too. If you have children who are competing at county, regional, national or international level, then there’s a good chance you’d already implementing many of the above points. There is no right or wrong way to bring up an athlete—it’s about finding what works for each individual. Try not to compare yourself to other parents (unless it’s to nick ideas for packed lunches)—every family is different, and you never know what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on the dynamic of your own family, keep ensuring there is balance and love, and your young athlete will find their own way towards fulfilling their potential.

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