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How to Have Your Own Back in Sports

Whether we like it or not, every athlete has an internal dialogue going on in their heads as they compete. This internal dialogue is constantly giving us feedback about the game and our performance. The quality of this internal dialogue differs from individual to individual. Have you ever stopped to assess what exactly you are telling yourself during and after competition about your performance? A clear distinction between an athlete with negative self-dialogue versus an athlete with positive self-dialogue can be recognised after a costly mistake is made by the individual. The player who can bounce back relatively quickly from the mistake is much more likely to have a positive inner dialogue whereas a player who allows this mistake to affect them may drop considerably in performance. What are you telling yourself after these mistakes are made during a game? In addition, what are you telling yourself after a whole match of self-assessed poor performance? The way you are framing the automated self-chatter with yourself can considerably influence your confidence and therefore performance.

Negative inner dialogue can also be termed self-criticism. Self-criticism encompasses the flawed thought patterns we have about ourselves in conjunction with absurdly high self-expectations. For example, self-criticism during a football game may look like a player thinking “I am an idiot” after playing a misplaced pass to the opposition. After a game, self-criticism may look like an individual running through everything they did wrong in that game. The interesting and profound finding from the literature on self-critical athletes is that this kind of self-critique is not effective. Previous studies have found that self-criticism is not a positive factor in perceived sport performance. It is related to a fear of failure and a fear of negative evaluation which can not only reduce confidence but prevent the athlete from reflecting on their performance advantageously. Therefore preventing growth and affecting performance. Despite this, it is extremely common for athletes to uphold the belief that self-criticism is crucial for them to play at their best. For example, in a study conducted on female athletes, many believed there was a place for self-criticism in sports. The first reason commonly stated was that it is hard to improve without self-criticism. One young female athlete stated that they rely on self-criticism “for improvement and goal attainment” and that “there might not always be a place in sport for a more gentle and kind self attitude”. The second reason commonly addressed was that being too kind and loving to oneself might lead to mediocrity or passivity in sport. One athlete stating it may seem like “you’re being lenient and like you’re not pushing yourself enough”. This study demonstrates the counter-intuitive nature of how avoiding being self-critical may seem like it would do more harm than good in the context of sports.

From my personal experience in football, I can 100% relate to this mindset of young female athletes that self-criticism is necessary for improvement and performing optimally. I attained this mindset for many years. I believe it is extremely common in young female athletes to believe harsh self-criticism will ultimately make them better. However, based on my own experience and current research, practicing self-compassion and reflecting on performance constructively and practically is a much more effective technique. If you can relate or have a similar mindset to past-me that self-criticism is necessary for improvement but find you are not improving and/or decreasing in performance, let me introduce you to some alternative techniques you can use during or post-game.

The first technique is based on your mindset right after you make a mistake during a game. There are a variety of different mistakes one can make such as misplacing a pass, missing an open goal, or getting beaten by a player due to being flat-footed. Your first instinct right after the mistake should be “can I rectify the mistake”. This instinct should be lightning-fast and is harnessed by repeating this reaction whenever a mistake is made. For example, if you turn over possession, can you gain possession back? However, in some cases such as missing an open goal, the mistake cannot be rectified immediately. After this initial reaction, it is important to be in control of what your inner dialogue is with yourself. This can be especially hard as it is natural to feel a strong emotional response. Pay attention to ensuring your self-talk is framed in a constructive way to avoid any chance of spiraling into negativity. For example, it is more helpful to internally converse with yourself “that’s annoying, okay I will do better next time” as opposed to “I can’t believe that just happened, wow people must think I’m really bad….”. As you can see the first example is still acknowledging disappointment for the mistake but in a way that is kinder and easier to move on from.

After you have acknowledged the mistake it is now time to let it go, which is easier said than done. It is helpful to have a ‘reset routine’ which is simply a cue specific to you that signals a reset and initiates a regained focus. Some examples of cues could be a deep diaphragmatic breath, a tense of muscles before relaxing, or simply a word you say to yourself such as “focus”. I have developed a cue where I pull my ponytail to tighten it which signals to me it is time to reset. Whatever your cue is, practice it regularly and keep it the same so that when you initiate the cue, your mind automatically knows to let go of the mistake. It is important to note that all of these steps should happen in a matter of seconds as the play does not stop after you have made a mistake. Bare this in mind and attempt to bang out all three steps as fast as possible and it should become fairly automatic.

Your inner dialogue and self-evaluation during a game should also be translated off the pitch after a game. The post-game analysis an athlete goes through after a game is something that should be performed swiftly and objectively. If ruminations of poor personal performance are still lingering that evening or even sneaking into the following week, it is important to adopt an effective post-game analysis so that confidence can remain intact. In previous years of football, I would critically nit-pick all the mistakes I made in a game to the point where my mood was somber for that day or even a few days after the match. The same idea regarding self-criticism remains in the post-match. It may seem productive to harshly critique yourself to be better next week, however, the outcomes instead lead to a knock in confidence which can perpetuate gradually as games go on.

Instead, a much more effective way to evaluate your game is through an objective lens. Firstly, give yourself up to half an hour after the match to evaluate your game before letting it go. Anything after this would be dwelling too much and be ineffective. When evaluating your game, it is helpful to have a post-game routine that starts with focusing on what you did well. It is amazing how much the positive things you did in a game can be overshadowed by the negative. For example, “I like how I communicated with teammates and defended well”. After this, it is crucial to evaluate the things you could do better next week. I have found objectivity to be the best tool when approaching things you could do better. It may be helpful to reflect on your performance with no emotion attached, as if you were objectively observing another player that was not you. For example, during a game, a player missed a goal by sending the ball well above the goal. During post-match analysis, instead of that player berating themself for it, they should try to see the mistake for what it is with no emotion attached. For example, “next time I should lean over the ball more while shooting”. Again, this is also much easier said than done but if you can look back at mistakes objectively with no emotion attached, you can assess these mistakes productively so that you are less likely to make them in future.

From this, I hope you have adopted some useful tools for assessing your performance through positive inner dialogue during and post-game. I also hope you have learned that you can develop and focus on bettering yourself in a way that is effective and less taxing on the mind than harsh self-criticism. At the end of the day, mistakes are inevitable and no one in the sporting world is immune to them. It is how we deal with those mistakes and charge forward with the learnings from those mistakes that shape the kind of person and athlete we are.

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