The Powers Of Self Talk

Results matter.  Whether you are an executive, athlete, entrepreneur or employee, your livelihood likely depends upon your performance.   As such, it is important to keep track of your numbers.  For example, salespeople of all industries are encouraged to keep a close eye on the number of sales appointments made, deals closed and revenues earned.   Tracking what we do can help us identify what is working and what is not.   

While reviewing a customized, 6 week training program developed by my Strength & Conditioning coach, Sebastian Buitrago, he stressed that our goal was to make adjustments throughout so that the program looked entirely different by the end.  He encouraged me to discard the exercises that were not working for me, replacing them with ones that better suited my body and my fitness goals.   Sebastian also encouraged me to make incremental improvements throughout irrespective of how small they might seem.  By increasing the resistance or the number of reps by even as slight a percentage as a half percent each time,  I was bound to yield significant improvements over the long run. Pushing myself in this manner could only be made possible however by keeping track of my performance.

While tracking your results is essential, there are other factors to consider as well.  In fact we find that an overemphasis on the outcome can work against us.   Although all high performers strive for success, the difference between the best and the very best is subtle.  At the highest level, the fitness and conditioning of professional athletes is pretty much the same.  What ultimately separates the best from the very best is the way they think – what they focus their minds upon.   This is why I find sports psychology so fascinating.  It is an exciting field of study devoted to uncovering the science of success.

In his incredible book, 10-Minute Toughness, sports psychologist Jason Selk stresses this point:

Cognitive psychology has taught us that the mind can fully focus on only one item at a time….In short, if you are thinking about what is going wrong in your life, you cannot be thinking about what it takes to make it right.  The most effective way to avoid self-doubt and mental clutter is to replace the negative thoughts with specific positive thoughts.

Self talk is the silent dialogue that runs through our heads.  Did you know that we have on average 60,000 thoughts per day?  Although each of these thoughts are affecting how we feel and perform, how much of an influence do we exert in dictating the nature and content of these thoughts?   It is a well accepted fact among fitness gurus and trainers that ones diet is of paramount importance.  Yet the conversation rarely turns to mental nutrition.  Though I consider myself to be healthy, I regret to be guilty of paying far more attention to what I put in my mouth than to what I am putting in my mind.

Jason Selk stresses that we need to focus less on the outcome and more on the process.  Instead of worrying about whether you will succeed or fail, it is better to focus your mind on the processes that deliver the results you desire.   This will not happen on its own.  One has to deliberately identify those thoughts that are most helpful for performance.   Jason Selk encourages us to actively engage in thought replacement:

While it is not a revelation to most people that they should avoid negative thinking, how many of us truly know what we are supposed to think about?  The most helpful method to stop self-doubt and negative thinking is thought replacement.  Effective thought replacement occurs when you decide what you want to have happen and then think more often about what it will take to make it happen.  Whenever unproductive thoughts (don’t thinking or mental clutter) infringe, replace them with productive ones.

I think one of the most famous and outspoken examples of the power of positive self-talk is Muhammad Ali.  He is renowned for his habit of boasting about how great he is and how destined he is for doing incredible things.  Beyond the immense entertainment value of being so brash and outspoken, this habit of Ali’s paid dividends . 

There is one particular example that stands out in my mind.  The documentary film, When We Were Kings, details the events surround the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.   At the time, the champion George Foreman was considered invincible.  He was viciously knocking out his opponents in a devastating fashion.   Much younger and more powerful than Ali, the majority of people expected Muhammad Ali to suffer an embarrassing and brutal defeat.  Of course, history proved them wrong as Ali waged an upset that would go down as one of the most historic fights in the history of boxing.  In one particular scene before the fight, Ali reveals his own fears.  Well aware of how difficult winning will be, he vocalizes before the camera a choice he makes in of how he chooses to think and his appreciation of how this will enhance his performance.  As he bounces to his feet, throwing punches:

“Now when I go in the ring. You see what kind of man I got now…I just got a power now.  I mean I’ve got a power that I’m not even going to realize.  After I might look at his face and go “How did I do that?”  Allah. God. I am His tool.  God got him.  My purpose is for my people.  This man looks slow.  God has made this man look like a little kid.  A so-called right hand ain’t nothing now.  I don’t even feel him.  I ain’t got no fear of it. I walk right in and take my shots because I have God on my mind.  I am thinking of my people being free.  And I can help with just one fight.  Now he looked little in comparison to what I am getting from it.  He ain’t nothing now….But if I  think about me, just me.  George Foreman knocked out Joe Frazier like  he was God.  George Foreman knocked out Ken Norton, and the white press and the power structure rank me  to get tired in five, six.  Then I go in like Norton and Frazer and get scared, but I am not looking at the world and what they say. My God controls the universe.”

If you ever watch this scene, you will notice how Ali is in a complete trance as he speaks.  He offers us a window into how he thinks and how he consciously trains his mind to focus on the positive and to visualize the outcome he eventually delivers to shock the world.  There is nothing to stop each one of us from implementing such powers of self-talk.  Instead of worrying about what may or may not happen, we need to heed Jason Selk’s advise and proactively focus our minds on the processes that deliver the results we seek.

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