Self-Talk & Triathlon - Removing the Monkey from your Back

Self-Talk & Triathlon - Removing the Monkey from your Back

How many times do you hear an athlete who has just done something very cool, respond when congratulated, that it wasn’t really that good and they weren’t really that happy with it? You know those athletes that no matter how well they do they turn the situation into a negative or at least not really a positive. They don’t recover quickly after disappointments and really aren’t that much fun to be around. Often you will see them ‘choking’ when the pressure comes on.

To be honest we all can give ourselves a hard time however if we had friends that treated us the way that many of us treat ourselves, they wouldn’t be our friends for very long. Imagine a friend who calls up just to complain–about you. Imagine your mate saying things like “I told you so” when you make a mistake on course, or someone who encourages you to give up instead of encouraging you to do your best.

Everyone has experienced performances that are not up to scratch – the question is have we undermined our performance without knowing it; why have we allowed it to happen; and what can we do to avoid it?

Anxiety is part and parcel of any competition and in the right levels it’s useful however many of us start building our anxiety well before the event and it becomes increasingly out of control as we get closer to the event start. With increased anxiety our confidence levels plummet and we start sabotaging our performance with negative self-talk, but internally and externally to others. The mental anguish physically leads onto constricted muscles and shallower breathing which is akin to putting another obstacle in the way or monkey on your back. So you start off with the monkey and as the event breaks down the monkey tightens it’s hold and if you’re not careful you end up completely smashing your confidence and any sense of enjoyment. Sport is physically and mentally tough but we don’t need to make it harder by putting road blocks up for ourselves. I want you to be enjoying triathlon and not coming to training sessions thinking “I’ll never get better” or “this is a waste of time”.    

Negative self-talk gets us down and needs to be worked on to the same degree that physical skills are. Our head is the CEO of the body and needs to set a can-do and stable environment for the body to excel within. We need to remove unneeded and unwarranted mental distractions for our own personal health.

What do Sports Researchers say about self-talk & performance

There is overwhelming empirical evidence that positive self-talk is an important cognitive component related to motor performance or in other words how we view something will affect how we undertake the task and its outcomes.

Conversely negative self-talk is more likely to lead to disappointment and loss of confidence and enjoyment.

There are different types of self-talk which can be used for different functions within a sporting situation. I’ve categorised from the most common to least common in the table below:

Types of Self-Talk

Self-talk can be used to improve:

Focus …… “ no thoughts, just concentrate”; "focus on the present"

Technique/Instruction …… “bend your knees”; “swish”

Calming/Relaxing …… “ I love competition”; “I feel good”

Motivation …… “ You can do it”; “You’re on fire”

Self-confidence …… “I’m mentally tough”; “I trained well for this”

Interestingly research has confirmed that you don’t even have to believe the self-talk statement and that just saying the statement leads to a state in which performance is improved. 

Challenging Negative Self Talk:

Learning to dispute negative thoughts takes training - time and practice. Once you start looking at it, you'll probably be surprised by how much of your thinking is inaccurate, exaggerated, or focused on the negatives of the situation.

1.      How much of your self-talk is negative or not useful? Think carefully back to situations in which you are under pressure to perform – what are you saying to yourself and those around you? Is it, “I can’t do this” or is it “I can do this”? The first step to changing patterns of self-talk is recognising you are using negatives.

2.      Will I accept the thought or replace it with another thought and/or statement?

Replacing Negatives – what with?

1.      Focus on the process and not your emotions, and certainly not anything that is going to take your focus away from the process at hand. Give yourself the best physical and mental platform to work from.

2.      Start developing cues that will help you in situations you find difficult.

Example 1: When you are at a start line think about a can of baked beans to represent the “I can” statement – you may say “can of baked beans” out loud repetitively

Example 2: If you have a habit of dropping your hips when getting tired running visualise a cheetah or say “cheetah”, as representing you

Developing a Self-Talk Plan for Your Tri Event

Self-talk is designed to strengthen self-confidence through focusing on the positive and eliminating the limitations of negative thinking. 

You don’t want to have a long sentence when you can have a couple of key words or a symbol that crystallises where you want your mind and body to be. You need to practice these words when training for the event – there is no use turning up on event day with training. Develop a plan and start practicing.

Examples of key words:

Fire – use at the start line to remind you to take off quickly

Push through – to remind you to push water through under your body

Can – to remind you that you can do your best

Breath – encourage you to breath deeply and calm down in the final 60 secs before the start

Cheetah – encourage stance when running


1.      Identify the times you become anxious and need to alter or include a self-talk plan. These maybe times when you are likely to lose your technique or times of competitive stress within the event.

2.      Develop a plan for these key times. You may divide the event into different parts chronologically as follows -  

a.      Pre-competition (before getting to the event)

b.      Pre-start (in the final 10 mins before starting & when standing on the start line)

c.       Start of the swim

d.      Mid Swim

e.      Pre-transition

f.        Etc

3.      Write down your key words somewhere you can see them and start ingraining the new way of approaching sports practice and events.

Good Luck!