Learning to Control Self Talk for Gymnasts

Positive self talk

Positive self talk
Self–talk is that conversation that goes on inside your head. Your conscious mind keeps up a running commentary about everything you say, do or think about. Often for people, including gymnasts, these commentaries are primarily negative, a function of the critical factor of the mind. Gymnasts and coaches should not underestimate the power the inner mind has over a gymnast’s performance. Gymnasts can have an automatic and negative reaction to this constant barrage of negative thoughts, that can keep them off-balance, lacking confidence and unable to perform up to their true potential.

A Mind Out of Control

Normally, self-talk rages unchecked though the mind. Most gymnasts, and most people, exert little or no control over their internal conversation, so they are at the mercy of the thoughts, feelings, emotions and criticisms that appear without their control in their mind. This is especially true of young gymnasts. They have little concept of how their mind works or that they might be able to control it.

Positive Self-Talk = Success

Teaching young gymnasts to be able to control their self-talk can not only make a huge improvement in their gymnastics performance, but gives them a a psychological tool they can use the rest of their life. For gymnasts to learn to control their self-talk is a process. Controlling self-talk is not just something that can be taught once to gymnasts and that they will then, immediately, be able to implement and do. It will take time and practice.

Be Aware of What You Are Saying to Yourself

The first step, in taking charge and controlling self-talk, is for gymnasts to become aware of what they are saying to themselves. Since self-talk is happening all the time, it seems normal and people tend to not pay close attention. So, step one is to become completely aware of exactly what you are thinking. When gymnasts are aware of their thought stream, and its potential effects on them, then it is possible to both control the self-talk and those effects. First, teach gymnasts awareness. Teach them that they must become aware and keep track of their own inner conversations. Often, there are repetitive negative thought patterns with recurring negative themes, like “I’m not good enough” or “I always fall.”

Look for Negative Patterns in Your Thought

Gymnasts should see if they can start to recognize the repetitive nature of any negative thoughts or negative patterns that can interfere with gymnastics success. They need to notice when negative patterns, or the same negative thought, keeps reappearing. When gymnasts see a negative pattern in their self-talk, they need to think about what it is saying to them. It is easy for gymnasts to believe that what the voice is saying to them is true. It is not! Just the fact, that gymnasts can look at the patterns of negativity and evaluate them separately, means the negative self-talk is just that – talk, not reality.

Negative Thought – “Stop It!!!”

When gymnasts become aware of a negative thought, hear that negative voice talking to them, they must stop it. Stop it in its tracks and keep it from continuing its negative effects. For gymnasts, it starts with them learning to say,”Stop!” to all those negative gymnastics thoughts in their own mind. This is commonly known as thought stopping. Thought stopping is a mechanical process, where a gymnast’s rational mind takes over, stops the negative chatter, and takes conscious control over what gymnasts are thinking.

Just Say “Stop”

As gymnasts notice themselves saying something negative in their mind, they should interrupt that negative thought, instantly, by saying “Stop!” Saying it aloud can be more powerful and allows gymnasts to keep better track of just how many negative thoughts they are having. It also can make them aware of when, where and on what event and skills, they are having negative reactions, and what exactly kind of negative gymnastics thoughts they are having.

Aversion Therapy

Gymnasts can do their own stronger and more aggressive mental programming with aversion therapy using a rubber band. Gymnasts can wear a rubber band around their wrist in the gym or all day, and whenever they notice any negative self-talk, they can snap themselves with the rubber band. The more negative the thought, the more gymnasts can pull back the rubber band. The snap of the rubber band will, then, hurt in direct consequence, and in proportion, for the negative thinking. This physical act of snapping the rubber band can also serve to make gymnasts more aware of their thoughts and to help stop their negative thinking.

Kill It and Counter Program It

Once gymnasts have stopped the negative thought, they need to neutralize it with a countering positive thought, emotion or memory. At a minimum, they should be attempting to counterbalance the level of negativity, but the real goal is to overwhelm the negative thought with positive mental programming. This can be done by remembering positive memories (like winning an important meet) or creating positive self talk, that it is not only positive, but more emotionally powerful, than the negative thought and increases gymnast’s beliefs about what they can do.

Be Vigilant

The conscious mind and its “critical factor” allow negative thoughts and criticisms to more easily enter and affect the mind. The critical factor also tends to be highly judgmental, and filter our any positives that don’t fit in with its own predominantly negative beliefs. The judgments it makes, are not necessarily true or accurate, so gymnasts will need to be vigilant about accepting any such thoughts.

Look at “Real” Reality – Don’t Believe the Monkey Chatter

Gymnasts need to train themselves to look at and evaluate thoughts, situations and experiences in an extremely rational manner. They must learn to stop blaming themselves for making mistakes and figure out what will work successfully the next time they are in that same situation. Gymnasts need to stop negatively judging themselves and start solving their problems and working to make themselves, their life and their gymnastics better. Monkey chatter is not real. It is just a stream of thoughts, that the conscious mind creates to fill any temporary void, when the brain is not consciously being directed in any purposeful direction.

Forget About It

One of my favorite quotes (although not even close to a favorite movie) comes from The Gumball Rally (1976): “First rule of Italian racing – What is behind me is not important.” Gymnasts and all athletes need to develop this kind of amnesia. They need to develop a very specific type of amnesia, where they forget mistakes and remember only successes, especially during competitions. Focusing on mistakes made in the past, even just a few seconds ago, keeps gymnasts from focusing on what they really want to do, and what kind of gymnast they really want to be.

Focus on the Future and Make It Bright

Past mistakes and failures need little attention, since they are virtually useless in building the great gymnastics future gymnasts want. If there is a lesson to be learned from a mistake, then only that lesson should be remembered, but there is no need to remember how the lesson was learned. Past mistakes are a fact and a reality, but usually, no useful progress comes from such negative memories, complete with all the usual accompanying judgments or criticism about them.

Stay in Control

Voices in their heads that constantly remind gymnasts of their failures or limitations tend to breed more failure. There is nothing to be gained, by letting those negative voices run wild in your mind, or worse take control of your life. Gymnasts must stay in control of their thoughts and positively and actively program themselves for the gymnastics career and life they want to have.

It’s Your Choice

The constant monkey chatter is not going to go away (except when you learn to meditate or get hypnotized), but you can learn how to manage your mind so that you are the master of your destiny. The thoughts in your conscious mind are just that – they are thoughts, not commands, facts or accurate predictions of your future. You have a choice to accept them or not.

It All Takes Time

It takes time to learn to manage your mind and your self-talk. There are some techniques that others have used to achieve mental mastery and you can see if they work for you or if you want to use something more personal.


Journaling is one method of keeping track of what is going on in your mind. You can carry a journal around with you all day (not usually practical in the gym, unless the coach is on board with doing this) and write down any negative comments as you think of them. Others, right after practice or before going to bed, write a summary of their thoughts for the day (and how they wish they had programmed their mind positively). Still, others simply pick topics (like one gymnastics event) and write down their feelings about it. Later, they can go back and analyze their thoughts and thought patterns, and make a plan to reprogram their brain, in the way they would like to think.

Be All You Can Be and What You Want to Be

It takes an amazing amount of time and effort to learn to take control of your own mind. It also takes vigilance to keep control, because negative bad habits will continue to try to sneak back into your psyche (mind). The great thing is that you can learn to control, not only your thoughts, but your results in life as well. You may or may not be what you eat, but you are definitely what you think you are. Make sure you think you are, who you really want to be.


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