Mastering self-talk: What to tell yourself before the game

2017 ATP 1000 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 8
Divya Jain
Modified 01 Apr 2020

How well you play on any given day is not just about your technical prowess; instead, it's about the attitude with which you go into the game on that particular day.

Enter the mind of an athlete experiencing anxiety or dread before a match and you will hear statements like “I'd better not lose to this guy”, “What will people think if I don’t do well today?”, "This opponent is so good, what will I do?”, “I must win by at least 5 points today”, “I must not serve short today”, and so on.

The internal dialogue we have with ourselves is a powerful tool to use in competition. It not only helps improve motivation, it can also help enhance performance by directing attention to where it's most productive.

In a recent interview with Roger Federer after he beat nemesis and then World No. 1 Rafael Nadal at the Shanghai Masters, he spoke about his fears and scars of having played and lost repeatedly. What helped him overcome these fears were the words he told himself to play the ball, not the opponent.

But how do you motivate yourself internally in the right way with just self-talk? What are the things to focus on? Let us have a look.

Take 5: Tips for mastering self-talk

1. Make it positive: Our mind has an annoying knack of focusing more on things that we tell ourselves not to think about. Telling yourself to ‘not serve short’ is likely to prime you to actually end up serving short and making a mistake. A more effective approach is to phrase whatever you tell yourself in positive words like “serve long” or “on the line” instead.

2. Avoid the "musts" and "shoulds": These little words we throw around casually can exponentially increase the extent of pressure we put on ourselves to perform well. They tell us that something terrible will happen if we are not able to do what we ‘must’. Instead, go for statements like “I will play well”

3. Focus on performance, not result: Following through on your technique and game plan is in your control, winning the game is not. Focusing on things that are uncontrollable can create uncertainty, anxiety, and demotivation. So rather than saying things like “I will win”, think on the lines of your own performance such as “run fast” or “hit straight”


4. Answer your questions: We often ask ourselves many “what if?”, but don’t actually wait around for the answers. Doing this leads to an overarching sense of doom. Next time you find yourself plagued with such questions, take a minute to actually answer the question, and you will realize that it's never as bad as what you were fearing.

5. Stay in the present: Thinking of past successes or failures or daydreaming about the future can both be distracting. Think only about your game plan for the upcoming match that day. Stay in the zone by focusing on the here and now.

Self-talk is a potential weapon for an athlete if mastered well. Like they say, half the battle is within your mind and if that battle is won, it paves the way for success on the field!

Published 08 Mar 2018, 00:58 IST
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