Some brief advice for athletes and other strivers

Over the past week, I heard from a top NCAA baseball player, a high school senior who excels at lacrosse and an amateur Iron Man triathlete. All of them asked me a variation of the same question: “How do I get out of my head when things go wrong?” or “How do I avoid psyching myself out before hand?”

I hope those athletes find this helpful, but I also believe that everyday people can apply the suggestions here to their lives.

1) Recognize your negative self-talk. Most people talk out loud to themselves when no one is around. This does not mean that they are having conversations, but humans do tend to say a word or a phrase or a sentence out loud. They are speaking to themselves. For those that do not utter these lines, they almost certainly have a in-head commentary. These words could be said when we are driving our cars, walking to class, sitting in front of the TV, scrolling through our phones or some other occasion where we find ourselves alone. Here are some examples:

  • I can’t do it
  • That’s just great
  • Living the dream
  • Idiot
  • Moron
  • I’m a fucking loser
  • I’m a piece of shit
  • What was I thinking
  • Fucking retard
  • I’m going to fail
  • No one likes me
  • I’m always going to be alone
  • I can’t win
  • I always lose
  • What’s the point
  • Everyone is going to laugh
  • I should quit
  • I should kill myself

Anything we repeat out loud is powerful. Going to a 12-Step meeting and saying, “My name is XXX and I am an alcoholic” is extraordinarily significant, because it help break down one’s denial (even if they don’t fully mean the words). Since I was a teenager, I’ve been critical of having children recite the pledge of allegiance or repeat lines in houses of worship. This is not because I harbor anti-American or anti-religious thoughts, but rather that I want people to understand concepts before they have repeated lines hundreds or thousands of times.

2) Once you’ve recognized your negative self-talk, we have to work hard on stopping it. Each time you utter your word or phrase, you must work on catching yourself and say, “That’s not true” or “That’s not fair.” This takes a lot of effort. If someone needs additional help with this, I usually suggest putting a rubber band on one’s wrist and snapping it after each negative expression, followed by a “That’s not true” and then a positive affirmation. This can be tricky though, as some people just snap the rubber band during other moments. The rubber band snapping on the skin sends a physical signal to accompany the mental command to stop the behavior. It is basic behaviorism.

3) Reduce/eliminate the negative people from your life and add/accentuate the positive people. Surround yourself with people who support your goals and tell you that you can do it.

*Do not confuse this with surrounding yourself with sycophants or those that have no real basis in reality (if I announced that I was going to become a star ballet dancer, I am assured that the close people in my life would tell me that it was neither possible nor a good idea) .

4) Work on developing/improving/increasing your positive thinking and positive self-talk. Derek Jeter, Lebron James, and Katie Ledecky are all champions who, while having special physical skills, have excellent positive psychology. I encourage you to click on the links and read the articles about them. I also think that you should starting saying positive statements out loud in your down time, during practice and in the middle of competitions:

  • I can do this
  • I am worthy
  • I am really good
  • I am going to win this ball
  • I’ve trained really hard
  • People are rooting for me
  • I am liked
  • I am loved
  • I am smart
  • Try my best
  • Champ
  • Let’s go let’s go let’s go
  • Do it
  • Push through
  • Next step
  • Keep going
  • This is fun
  • This is fun god dammit

5) Engage in positive visualization. When I talk to people about this, they often say that they “feel silly” or “this is stupid.” Moving on. Sit down and close your eyes. Imagine the competition or event or aspect of the competition. See yourself on the field, court, track, playing surface or wherever else your event is taking place. Picture yourself trying hard and doing well. After you have done this a dozen times, you can take this to another level by writing down a few obstacles/challenges that might happen. Once again, close your eyes and picture how you will positively deal with those challenges.

6) Make a list of your major successes and difficulties overcome. If you quit smoking or drinking or drugging, that took a lot of work, discipline, will power and support. If you have already scored goals, completed a race, hit college pitching, climbed mountains, passed classes, changed a tire, successfully fought a ticket, or achieved some goal that you set out, you need to remind yourself that you have done that. Last year, I took a bunch of clients from a rehab hiking up Old Rag in Virginia. It is a difficult one day hike. During a very challenging part that was quite steep with huge drop offs, one client said to another, “We climbed Breakneck Ridge with Frank. We can do this.” I only heard about this after we completed the hike. I was thrilled and proud, as my client had used his past experience to develop his resilience and achieve the goal. I can not overstate the importance of doing this.

In March of this year, I made it to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in a surprise and brutal snowstorm. I wasn’t nervous about the physical aspect of the climb, but I was deeply concerned about my ability to breath at 19,000 feet. I was in good shape, had the right equipment, had trained for the hike and I followed the directions from our guide. During the final ascent, I said the following lines:

  • I can do this
  • One step, one step
  • I completed combat arms basic training
  • I have run two marathons
  • I made it to the top of Mt. Washington in the winter
  • I don’t quit
  • Very few people get this opportunity
  • I can do this