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Positive self-talk: Good for your game and your brain

“Oh my gosh, I suck,” says my All-American middle loud enough for the entire gym to hear. I don’t put up with this kind of negative talk, so I immediately pull her from the game. I walk down the bench and let her know that it won’t be tolerated.

“You cannot say things like that and expect to do well,” I say. “Let me know when you’re ready to go back in.”

A few minutes later she returns to me, ready to play. I put her back in, but her body language clearly speaks to the fact that she’s frustrated. I don’t even remember if we won or lost the game, but I do remember the conversation afterward.

“You stopped saying such negative things out loud, but your body language stayed so defeated,” I told her. “What do you think caused that?”

Her answer will stay with me as long as I live. “Well, I stopped saying them out loud, but I still said it all in my head.”

Geno Auriemma, head coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, says, “If you have bad body language, you will never get in the game.” I agree 100% with this bold statement. But friends, I think we miss the mark as coaches. We expect what we haven’t taught. At least I know I did. I thought every parent instilled the power of our thoughts. They don’t. I thought every coach talked to their athletes about keeping their heads high. They don’t. So my question to you is:

“How can we expect athletes to have positive body language when they’re ripping themselves apart in their own heads?”

Positive self-talk is one of the most crucial pieces of being a successful athlete. It allows us to think critically. Negative self-talk takes us down a path where our brain has to decide exactly how much danger we are in.

These thoughts aren’t floating in and out of our minds. The term “neuroplasticity” shows us that our mind is actively changing the makeup of our brain, one thought at a time. Not only does this show us how important our thoughts are, it empowers us to be able to change if we don’t like the way we think of ourselves.

To be most effective, our thoughts should be:

  • Optimistic
  • Future-oriented
  • Process-oriented

What does it mean to be optimistic? We see reality as it is, but we believe it can be better. We believe we can get the next point, regardless of the reality in front of us. We believe that our teammates can get the next ball up, even though they just got aced. We believe in our ability to get our serve over, even though last time we missed it. Optimism within ourselves is particularly important. The term self-efficacy means we believe we can achieve something. This belief helps us sustain beneficial thought patterns, stay motivated, and it also plays a big part in gaining new skills. Believe in yourself!

Being future-oriented allows us to move on from mistakes more easily. My favorite example of this is the server who misses and comes to the huddle to say, “My bad!” We KNOW it was your bad; you were the only one back there. Taking ownership of mistakes has value, but when you speak only about the past, it keeps your mind there. Shift instead to, “Hey, I’ve got the next one! Let’s nail this pass.”

The last piece of beneficial self-talk is being process-oriented. Tell yourself how you are going to change. “I’m so stupid” becomes “I’m going to cut around the block next time.” We can’t control the outcome of a lot of situations, but we can control our process. This helps us to have a learner’s mindset because we can identify what is wrong in our process rather than just being frustrated or pleased with the outcome.

Now for our coaches and parents … How are we modeling this? We can certainly choose our words more carefully. For instance, “We need a pass” can be reworded to be more helpful – like, “You got this next one, passers.” Another one I hear commonly from coaches is, “What are you doing?!” Consider rephrasing it to a genuine question – like, “What was your thought process there?”

My main point is, don’t expect something from your players if it hasn’t been taught to them. Hold your athletes to a high standard but show them how to achieve that standard.

And remember, you have the capability to do great things with the power of your words.

Amanda Jones is a mental performance coach who has master’s degrees in human performance and sports psychology. She has coached collegiate and club volleyball, works with business professionals, nonprofits and athletic organizations, and is the founder of Armor Mental Performance.

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The Art of Coaching Volleyball story begins with three friends, all exceptional coaches, all lifelong students of volleyball, all possessing a strong desire to teach the game they love to anyone who shares their passion! Russ Rose, John Dunning and Terry Liskevych met in the 1970s. Terry and Russ connected first – in 1973, when Russ signed up for a volleyball class taught by Terry at George Williams College in Illinois. Terry was also the assistant coach for the school’s men’s volleyball team under head coach Jim Coleman. At the urging of both Terry and Jim, Russ joined the volleyball team and, as the saying goes, caught the bug. Long story short, Russ stuck around for the long haul. Today, as head coach of the women’s team at Penn State, he has more wins (1,299) and titles (7) than any other women’s coach in Division 1 volleyball history.

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