Whether you think you can or can't, you're right.
- Henry Ford
What you say when you talk to yourself is shown to have a big impact on all areas of your life. The Henry Ford quote above sums up the idea that your thoughts become a self-fulfilling prophecy - and the body of research on athletic performance is showing that by being mindful of what you think while you train, you can give your training and performance a shot in the arm.
For martial arts training, the main types of self talk are instructional and motivational.
Instructional self talk is what you tell yourself when you're learning and developing a new skill or technique - especially ones where you need to develop accuracy. Short phrases act as cues to guide you through the steps you need to perform.
In practical terms, if you're working on low forearm blocks you might remind yourself "cross", "elbow bent" or "fist to hip" before each movement; if you are working on walking stances you might string together some words such as "front knee bent, back leg straight"; or you might come up with a short phrase that guides you through the process such as "knee bent ... feet nearly together ... up ... down" when you are working on your walking stance sine wave.
Motivational self talk is (as the name suggests) what you tell yourself to keep you motivated, on task, stay positive and face challenges head on using short positive phrases such as "let's go", "I know I can do it", "let's try that again".
How to Increase the Benefit of Self Talk
Make sure your phrases are positive - for example, try "aim high" rather than "don't miss". In fact purge your self talk vocabulary of words such has "can't", "should" and "don't"!
Practice your self talk. Make a conscious effort to decide what you want to say to yourself in training and spend time working out which phrases and words click with you. What works for one person won't necessarily work for another.
And remember ... don't tell yourself anything during training that you wouldn't tell a friend! Recruit yourself as an ally in your training using positive self talk strategies and watch your frustration dissolve and your performance improve.
In this article we look at how you can harness the power of positive AND negative thinking in your training goals. This is called "mental contrasting", a technique coined by motivation psychologist Gabrielle Oettingen that brings together your long term goals with your short term realities.
We're used to hearing if you want to achieve something "just think positive" and you'll be there in no time. But the problem with positive thinking on its own is that while it bolsters up your confidence of success, it does not prepare you for the obstacles you will encounter on the way.
That's where 'negative thinking' is helpful in being realistic about the obstacles and temptations you will meet on the path to your goal and preparing yourself to overcome difficulties.
In an example of how mental contrasting works, Oettingen studied a group of obese women enrolled in a weight loss program and asked the women what they thought about their chances of success in losing the weight. Unsurprisingly, the women who thought that they would succeed lost a lot more weight than those who thought they would fail. But she also asked the women their expectations for what the weight loss process would be like. The women who thought they would have a hard time not giving into temptation to eat junk foods lost an average of 46 pounds MORE than the women who thought it would be easy.
Applying mental contrasting to our example goal of "having a better side piercing kick" from our previous article in this series: you will need a positive attitude to your chances of success and believe that you can do it, AND ALSO be aware of obstacles in the way which could include time to practice, other commitments, etc.
The key to making mental contrasting work is that both sides need to work together:
- positive thinking about your ability to succeed and chances for success
- realistic thinking about the difficulties you could face.
When you have positive thinking without realism your overconfidence and big picture thinking may blind you to the reality of the detail, and when you have realistic thinking without positivity the thought of the possible obstacles can weigh you down.
But when you have the two together, you have a superior combination of confidence AND preparedness which will help to lead you toward success.
Most people have goals but aren't so good at reaching them. Maybe you want to get fitter, have a better side piercing kick and improve your patterns for a tournament. All of these goals are 'big picture' that are motivating (if it's something you truly want to do) but lack the detail to propel you into action. If you stop there, your goal will remain a lovely thought with little progress.
If you want to take action and really achieve your goal, you need to continue on from goal setting to goal planning. In goal planning you work out the actions you will need to take to achieve your goal in specific detail, breaking them into smaller goals.
Let's look at the "have a better side piercing kick" goal. We've identified the big picture goal - now what will it take to get there?
We could say practice, but that isn't specific enough. If you include more detail about when, where and how, and write it down, you will improve your chances of follow through by over 50%.
So, practice on Mondays and Wednesdays is better, but practice for 20 minutes on Mondays and Wednesdays in the backyard at 7am is even better still.
To satisfy the 'how', make up a training plan of exactly how many repetitions of different exercises to improve your side piercing kick you will do so that your practice session is meaningful.
And of course you can ask your instructor for help in setting up a training plan too.
A goal without a plan is just a wish.
As with any activity, Taekwon-Do requires a mixture of mental and physical skills.
In this article series, TKD Tools for Success, we explore some of the mental skills that will help you to take your martial art to the next level this year. These skills will help you in Taekwon-Do and in life.
Progress in any endeavour owes much to your mindset: the beliefs and attitudes which drive your thoughts and actions.
Your mindset has a big impact on how you train, how much effort you put in, and how much you improve.
Compare these statements:
Do you believe your physical ability is fixed and there is nothing you can do to change your natural ability? ... or do you believe that your natural ability can grow as you learn?
Would you rather 'look good' at Taekwon-Do? ... or 'get better' at Taekwon-Do?
Do you give up if you don't get something the first time? ... or do you keep trying and get better over time?
Are you afraid of making a mistake and 'looking stupid' in class? ... or do you see mistakes as an opportunity to learn and get better?
Would you rather stick with what you know so you 'look good'? ... or do you love a challenge, even if it means you don't get everything right?
Do you feel threatened when your classmates succeed? ... or do you feel inspired by their success?
Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential would consider the orange text to be a 'fixed' mindset and the blue text a 'growth' mindset.
Which of the two mindsets do mostly identify with now?
And which one do you think will help you improve in Taekwon-Do the most?
The good news is that you can CHANGE your mindset with practice. You can catch the thoughts that limit your potential and exchange them for thoughts that will help you to grow and exceed your limits. It will take time, but your new mindset will gradually replace the old one.
And of course you can apply this to anything as well as to Taekwon-Do!
Bibliography & Further Reading
Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, Carol Dweck, 2012