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  • Writer's pictureCoach Knickerbocker

Mental Skills Part 3: Positive Self-Talk

It's estimated, by people who know these things and study them, that we have approximately 10,000 thoughts a day. 10,000. A large percentage of those are self critical and/or negative thoughts also known as a negative internal dialogue.

It's that little voice inside all of our heads that constantly questions or negates or discounts.

As rowers there is a never ending internal dialogue about your rowing, the boat you're in, the people around you, what the coach is saying (or not saying as the case may be), what could be better, what didn't feel good on the last stroke...clearly I could go on. What if the thoughts you had while rowing revolved around what was going well and felt good rather than what was going wrong and felt bad? Would it make a difference in the experience you have during that practice? Could it make a difference in how receptive you are biomechanically to making technical changes?

In other words, does positive internal dialogue or self-talk really do anything?

Yes, in fact it does.

When I was a grad student we read about a specific study that asked a group of athletes to complete a certain number of repetitions of an exercise. The researchers measured the athletes neuromuscular response while they nodded yes and while they shook their heads no. It was the same exercise and the same number of repetitions, but the "yes" response (exercising while nodding the head) resulted in a stronger neuromuscular response than the "no" response (exercising while shaking the head no). In other words the strong association our nervous systems have with a nod or a shake resulted in a change in the chemical response of the body and therefore an alteration in the number of muscular neurons firing.

No I'm not suggesting you nod your head and row.

All though I never rule anything out when it comes to rowers.

I AM suggesting that when you create a positive mindset and operationalize that via positive verbal statements, your mind and body will respond chemically to that.

Here's the thing, why NOT think positively about the task at hand or your progress as an athlete? Will it hurt anything?

Whereas negative thinking or consistently approaching things from a negative standpoint, CAN hurt, as evidenced by the experiment I read about as a graduate student.

My question for you? Do you want to perform better, increase your success personally, professionally, athletically? Than let me share a story with you, and make a suggestion.

The Story:

I once heard a woman speak at a conference about how when one wants to change something that they feel is a bad habit or a perpetual issue for them one first needs to change the way they talk to themselves about this thing. This then rearranges the way their brain responds to the thing they want to change, which in turn then creates, on a subconscious level, a response from the conscious brain that results in the change occuring.

She then told us this story about herself.

She had always had a perpetually messy desk. And while she got her work done and knew where everything was on the desk, she realized that there were good reasons to be a bit more organized. In the past she would clean the desk and it would just go back to being messy again.

So this time she decided NOT to clean the desk but to instead talk to herself differently about the behavior she wanted to change. So she started to say to herself "I am organized and I keep my desk free of clutter." She repeated this phrase 5 times in the morning and 5 times in the evening. When she repeated the phrase at these times she would do it into a mirror and she focused on really believing what she was saying. Looking at herself directly into her eyes, repeating the phrase out loud so her ears were hearing it, her voice was saying it, etc.

A couple weeks went by and she started to notice small changes in how she was approaching her clutter. She had made files for the papers. She would open her mail immediately and throw away the junk instead of letting it pile up on the desk. Then it occurred to her that her brain was essentially translating the repeated positive self talk into small actions that resulted in creating the exact thing that she was telling herself she was.

Obviously, she was aware that she was making files for things and opening up her mail, etc, but those things were now being done on a regular basis and they were not actions that she had to continually "make" herself do. They were occuring to her and the motivation to do them was not forced.

How does this relate to positive self-talk, you and your rowing (or whatever it is you want to change)?

Here's how.

Positive Self-Talk:

She framed the statement that she repeated to herself in the mirror in the positive. So instead of saying, "I'm not a messy, disorganized person." she created a statement that was framed in the positive around the behavior that she wanted to change. She said it to herself, out loud, and enough times that her brain had no choice but to hear it. Since the brain is unable to hold two competing ideas at the same time, it had to take in what she was saying and subconsciously hold that idea like a placeholder in her brain. Everytime she would run through her positive self-talk ritual she, for lack of a better description, was increasing the amount of space that concept was taking up in her brain, essentially pushing out the concept of being a messy disorganized person. Until finally her conscious mind began to actualize the statement into perceptible changes.


You can absolutely incorporate this technique into everyday things around you and it can, in a relatively short period of time, change the thing you want to change. I know this because I have done it myself with rowing, coaching, and everyday mundane things like a messy desk.

Your Rowing:

Consider a technical aspect of your rowing that you have been struggling with. Let's take the catch, or a better term, the entry. And let's say that your coach has been harping on your for years to "get the blade in", or "let the blade fall in" or " take the weight off the handle", or "just think of the entry as part of the recovery". Once again I could go on. And then let's say that while you intellectually understand these concepts, translating them into an actual biomechanical response and technical change has eluded you. So now you're at the point where you'll pretty much try anything to get the goddamn blade in the water! Right?!

Enter your positive self-talk statement.

"I am a technically strong rower. I have a quick catch and my blade enters the water at the perfect time." Or, "I am a technically strong rower. My blade enters the water quickly and efficiently." Or, come up with your own statement depending on the technical thing you want to be better at.

Then follow the ritual of saying this to yourself out loud (that's important) 5 times in the morning and 5 times in the evening, into a mirror. To really send it home you can also write the statement down and stick it up somewhere where you see it every day.

Continue this verbal/eye contact ritual for a couple three weeks and then see what you notice.

Now, here's where you analytical rowers out there say, "site the studies please", or "what if I don't see improvement in a couple three weeks?"

For a ton of info, as well as scientific studies on positive self talk and it's mental benefits, please refer to the trusty internet search engine of your choice. There's a ton out there for you to delve into in order to satisfy the "prove it to me" part of your brain.

For the results oriented folks out there I can almost guarantee that you will notice some sort of difference. While that difference may not be an actual change technically in two to three weeks, you will be thinking about that thing differently and will, at the least, feel differently about it, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.

The Suggestion:

This is also a great approach to helping with racing or erg fears. Making positive self statements about how you're going to feel before a race or a test can help with pre-performance anxieties.

Positive self statements about how you're going to feel during a race or a test can build competitive confidence.

The bottom line is that a negative internal dialogue can be habitual, pervasive, and effective in creating a negative response physiologically, biomechanically, and psychologically. The technique that I am prescribing to combat that negative internal dialogue is science based and does in fact work. Change your thinking, change your life.

So when you start talking to yourself in a way that you wouldn't want anyone else to talk to you in, stop, reset, and try to frame the thought in a positive way. You'll thank yourself for the support.

Row hard, row well, compete, have fun!

Coach Knickerbocker

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