It has been said almost tongue in cheek that talking to oneself is the first sign of madness. If this is true then there is no doubt that almost all tennis players are mad! This phenomenon is so much a part of the competitive landscape that almost no one pays much attention to it.
In fact, sports psychologists have so accepted self-talk as a ‘natural’ condition that a central part of their process is to transform negative self-talk into positive self-talk.
However, I would like to explore, from a mental perspective, the viability of self-talk as an aid to peak athletic performance in competition. In addition, I would like to extend the conventional understanding of self-talk to all inner dialogue. Some inner dialogue makes it out into the open, while the vast majority of our inner dialogue remains within the confines of our ever-active mind. Regardless of if the dialogue remains inside or is shared with the rest of the world the negative effect of this on performance remains.
The Inner dialogue
What is behind this dialogue? A dialogue generally happens between two distinct parties; who are the two parties in this case? Timothy Gallway, in his 1974 best-seller ‘The inner game of tennis’ identified the two parties as self 1 and self 2. He further identified the speaker to be the mind and the listener as the body. Despite the fact that we know the body-mind phenomenon to be one organic unity, let us, for the purposes of this article, accept Gallway’s model.
So now the question that remains begging to be asked is does modern western psychology’s practice of transforming negative self-talk into positive self-talk actually help an athlete access his or her ability (both natural and nurtured)?
This question becomes easier to answer when we realize that all dialogue is a mind phenomenon. The language of the mind is symbolism, however, when our desire is to connect with the body this form of communication is not only not helpful, but actually a hindrance.
The language of the body
So what is the language of the body? The body does not learn or operate through verbal instruction, it learns through feel and feel happens through trial and error. Feel is about increasing sensitivity of the body and language takes us out of the body and into the mind thereby decreasing our sensitivity.
Consequently, if our intention is to communicate with the body then no talk, regardless of whether it is positive or negative works.
However, because the mind and body are not two separate phenomena, but part of one greater whole, positive and negative self-talk from the mind does seem to affect the body in different ways. This is where the root of the misunderstanding arises.
It seems negative self-talk affects performance in a detrimental manner and positive self-talk affects performance in a positive way.
The only proviso we need to add, and it is a big one, is that both dialogues must be real and a true reflection of the player’s inner reality. Positive self-talk when we are feeling fear and doubt will not lead to superior performance. It may ‘work’ for method actors, but it does not work for athletes because they are living an outer reality that is contradictory to the inner space they are trying to create, while actors are creating an inner space which is consistent with the outer ‘reality’ that has been created for them.
It will be extremely difficult for most players to continue acting to be positive when their outer situation simply does not warrant it. The saying ‘fake it until you make it’ simply does not work for most players most of the time.
In addition, positive self-talk is not the source of good tennis, in the same way that negative self-talk will not in itself ‘make’ us play poor tennis. Both are simply symptoms. Simply changing the nature of our inner dialogue will not automatically affect our play because it leaves our inner reality untouched. Our inner reality is a reflection of our consciousness and our consciousness ultimately determines how we see things.
The third option
Positive and negative are two separate ends of the same spectrum; one will lead to another and although there does not appear to be a third choice, there is.
We can instead choose to see things as they are. Positivity and negativity are our personal perspectives, if things happen according to plan, then I am positive. Conversely, if things happen that I do not want, then I will be negative. But either way, the reality remains the same.
Some players have natural ‘management skills and they will be the ones who are considered mentally tough; however, even they will struggle at times. Moreover, managing this situation may allow them to perform to their potential at times, but it will not help them be happier individuals.
It is hard for the mind to understand that the body requires no verbal instruction, but that is the reality. How we learned to walk, an extremely complex motor skill, clearly illustrates that the body can learn very efficiently and effortlessly without verbal instruction.
The zone state
In addition, all chatter negatively affects our focus by taking us away from this present moment. All dialogue and thought is past or future and if we really want to be present we have to drop both
The only way to enter the zone state is to drop all dialogue; both positive and negative. The body performs best when the mind is totally silent and not interfering. All dialogue interferes with the body’s sensitivity and the more sensitive we are to our body the better we will be able to respond to whatever challenges that present themselves during the course of a competitive match.
It is not easy for us to find this silence, but before we can find it we need to recognize that silence is what we aspire to because it is only in silence that we are totally in our bodies and it is when we totally in tune with our body will peak athletic performance happen to us.
The zone state is proof positive that playing ‘out of our mind’ can allow us to reach peak athletic performance. However, the zone state is not a state the mind is comfortable with because the mind is about control and the zone state happens when the mind is dropped and we allow our instincts to take over. The problem is mind never willing wants to give up control and that is why peak athletic performance is so elusive.
Ultimately the struggle is between the ego and our true selves and the mind is the tool of the ego; but we so identify with the mind that we think we are the mind and so how can we give it up? The truth is that we are not the mind, the mind is simply a tool we have at our disposal and at times this tool is extremely helpful in achieving certain goals and at other times it becomes a huge hindrance to our performance.
We are the workman who gets to decide which tool to use when. For playing competitive sports to the best of our athletic ability (especially as far as execution goes when the ball is in play) we need to put the mind aside and trust in the body and allow it to express itself fully and without fear. Since this finely-tuned ‘tool’ has been trained, on some level it knows exactly what to do and when to do it; it needs no instruction from the controlling mind.
Can you trust enough to drop the mind go?