Any sport that’s physically tough is also mentally tough. Seven miles into your 16km long run, part of your brain will try to talk you into quitting. The only way to finish that run is to have a good answer for why and how to keep going. It’s the same when you need to add weight to the bar for your last set of heavy deadlifts, or keep pushing yourself to do the rest of the burpees in your Crossfit WOD. What we say to ourselves matters.
But… what do you say? Some runners like to repeat a word or phrase as a mantra: something like “Run fast, run relaxed” in time with your footsteps or breathing. But when the going gets tough, you’ll find your thoughts drifting. You need a pep talk.
I realised years ago that I’m better at encouraging confidence in other people than at feeling confident myself. I remember one day I was struggling in a roller derby practice — I was a mid-level player trying to hang with an advanced team — and I remembered that I had given the exact pep talk I needed right then to a brand-new skater earlier that week. It went something like: nobody is expecting you to be the best player on the floor right now, we just need you to show that you’re not gonna give up trying to get better.
From then on, I started putting myself in the role of a coach when I talked to myself. “You need to do this,” I’d say, or “It’s ok that X is going wrong, that’s normal. Here’s how you deal with it.” If I had gotten good advice from somebody else, I’d replay in my head the scene where they told it to me.
There’s even research to back up the idea that this helps. As Alex Hutchinson writes at Outside, second-person self-talk (“you” rather than “I”) seems to help athletes in several studies.
In one of them, researchers had cyclists work out and then write down the thoughts that were going through their heads. They then rephrased those thoughts to be positive, and to use second-person pronouns whenever possible. The results, which are preliminary but promising, showed that cyclists tended to do better with the second-person self talk.
So next time you’re struggling, talk to yourself the way you would talk to an imaginary athlete you’re coaching. And try some of the phrases from the study: You can do it. You’re determined. You can keep going. You can work through the pain. You will succeed.