Self-talk and the Student-Athlete

In the world of youth sports coaches try and prepare their teams with a lot of emphasis on the repetitive physical drills of the sport. Coaches seem to understand that if you want to learn how to hit free throws or field ground balls you need to do it over, and over, and over again. Practice plans are put together to make sure there is not a wasted moment in practicing the physical aspects of the sport the team is competing in. Coaches will work their players until they are tired in an effort to get them to properly execute the physical mechanics of their sport.

There is no doubt that repetition creates the muscle memory needed to execute the skills properly. But there is more to it than that. When a player is missing shot after shot on the court, or has dropped or booted the last two ground balls, most coaches will have the player ‘do it again’, until they get it right. This process relies on the players’ physical capabilities to fix the problem.  There is more going on for most student-athletes than the inability to physically make the play. Much of the issue is “mental”.

On any given day 80% of an athletes’ performance is determined by mental and emotional factors. Unfortunately less than 5% of practice time is spent teaching and reviewing mental and emotional game skills such as confidence, focus, and composure.

The concept of confidence is not unknown to most coaches. They see a confident player succeed and know the confidence is the key. However most coaches do not know how to help their players get, and keep confidence. In the next few posts we are going to explore the techniques I use to help my players with their mental game. These are not all we do but the ideas have quite a bit of merit, and have helped our teams build a mental game that has won them five championships since winter of 2008.

Regardless of their age all athletes are playing the sport for similar reasons, fun, fun, fun. It’s hard to imagine that a young person playing a game would have stress when simply playing. Today’s’ organized sports have made playing everything but simple. Structured play changes the level of fun for most young players. There are pressures that exist from their coach, their parents, and of course the score board. These pressures remove some of the players’ ability to stay focused, and enjoy the game. The pressures that exist innately force players to see their mistakes and errors. Some students struggle more than others, but there is no doubt that players don’t completely lose focus.  Rather they divert their attention and focus to their mistakes.  Often, you will see a player make a mistake in a game and immediately look at the coach or their parent.  The player wants to see if they are being scrutinized for the mistake. Right after they look to the stands or bench, the poor self-talk begins.  Phrases like,      “I can’t believe I made that mistake in front of everyone”,  “I hope my dad didn’t see that”, “I choked”, “I hope I don’t do that again”, bombard the player inside. The myriad of self criticism is astounding. For the players that struggle with confidence, the moment they begin the poor self-talk all attentions mentally are diverted to the mistake. They now see, and hear the mistake in their minds. The focus becomes what they don’t do well, and that destroys confidence. In fact, the focus on poor play usually perpetuates more poor play.

We teach the players more about their self talk. Every athlete at every level will make mistakes in competition. It’s the ones that move away from the mistakes that recover and make plays. When they make a mistake in the field or on the court we have taught them a routine that will help them control the self-talk. We teach them to speak what they want not what they don’t want.

Each player has an affirmation statement we instruct them to carry with them on a 3×5 index card. They keep the card in their equipment bag. The statement is something they have chosen for themselves. It is a truthful and positive statement about that player’s skill, or desire. When an error or missed opportunity occurs we instruct the player to turn their self-talk to their affirmation statement.

There are certain situations that will turn players’ attentions to a negative realm. Each player has something within the confines of the game that will make them upset. For some it’s an error on a play they could have made, for some it’s a comment from a team mate or opponent, for others it’s a call by an official. We help our players recognize what impulses change their focus and help them design a routine to get back to confident.

We use a language I learned from a book entitled Heads up Baseball (Ravizza, Hanson, 1998). The visual is a traffic light. When the light is green you go. If a player is confident and the self-talk is good move forward and play. If the light is yellow, proceed with caution. A player who is yellow has begun to use negative self-talk and is distracted. That player needs to get back to green. If you are at a red light you must stop. Red lights are a signal that you cannot continue and succeed. If you run the red light you are headed for a crash. The secret is how to get from yellow, back to green before you reach red.

 On our teams we use the affirmation statements. When a player is aware that they are yellow, we instruct them to change the self-talk and use the affirmation statements. For example, one of our players has a real issue when an official makes what he perceives as a bad call. That issue used to take all of his attention away from the game. He would spend the next several possessions focused on the official and take himself out of the game. For this player, the emotional ramifications of the situation would always make him very unhappy. That would always make it very difficult to contribute to the teams’ effort for victory. We helped him combat the issue with an affirmation question. “Do I want to be right, or do I want to be HAPPY?” Now when an official makes a call he doesn’t agree with, and his light begins to turn yellow he repeats the statement to himself quickly and often. This helps keep his focus on what he wants, not what he doesn’t want. He wants to be happy. When he is happy, he plays well. When he plays well he is confident, and focused. When he is confident and focused he makes better decisions, and plays at his peak.

I encourage all coaches to spend more practice time on building and keeping confidence. Affirmations are personal statements in some cases. I have found however, that when a team shares its affirmations it creates a peer situation that is stronger than anything I could do as a coach. When the team is motivating itself the coaches’ job is easier, and more gratifying. The players growing in their confidence, and helping each other learn to stay focused on the prize, has allowed the repetitive physical drills to work to their potential. That’s when game day performances are at their peak.


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