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The Power of Self Talk

If there’s one thing I can say about my most recent competition (World Cup Azerbaijan), it’s that there was no lack of drama. In my shooting, that is. On the first day of smallbore (elimination), I fired my lowest score of the year. (Granted, it was the only World Cup I’ve shot smallbore at this year. But still a very low score for me compared to other matches.) I’d love to say that I was completely reasonable about the entire match and that there wasn’t a downpour of tears and that I handled the situation like a professional poker player, with everyone trying to guess my emotions. Unfortunately, there was no guessing of my emotions after the match. Every single person on the range witnessed what must have looked like a waterfall coming out of my eyes after I finished shooting.

But here’s a great thing: I’m not alone! Even Serena Williams, whose mental game I respect very much, had a moment on the court when she lost in the semifinals and ended the possibility of a Serena Slam. If anyone tried to fault her on that, I would probably throw something at them. I might have even cried a little after that last set. Point being, it’s perfectly natural to have a moment after a major disappointment.

But as soon as my post-match “moment” was over, I realized I had lots of work to do that night. Not with the gun, but in my head. I needed to revamp my mental approach, because I had made it through elimination, and there was another match to shoot the next day. So what did I do? I talked to myself. Not in a nervous, schizophrenic sort of way that gave everyone the last bit of evidence they needed to prove that I’m crazy. But in a silent, controlled, thoughtful way; I was practicing self-talk.

If you’re struggling with a positive attitude or accomplishing a goal, self-talk is one of the most valuable pieces of advice I can give. In theory, it’s pretty self-explanatory, but here are a few tips:

  • Make it personalized. You can copy someone’s mental routine all you want, but it won’t work unless it’s personalized to you. For me, this means not making it overly positive (or overly negative). If I believe the words I’m saying are reasonable, then I’m more likely to believe and fulfill those words.
  • Always relate it to your goals. If you’re like me, you can easily get off-topic talking to yourself (especially when thinking about food…and Chipotle…and guac…er, back on topic). Controlled self-talk oriented toward a goal will keep you on track. While an immediate “What the heck were you thinking on that shot, Sarah?” is a normal reaction, a good follow-up would be, “It’s ok. Just squeeze the trigger this shot, and you’re back on track.” This is because my goal for the match might be to squeeze the trigger on this shot. I can still accomplish that goal.
  • Keep your emotions in check. The purpose of self-talk is to maintain control of your state of mind, which means not overreacting—either being too excited or too destructive. You are in control of the words you say to yourself, so instead of using them to fuel panic, use them to keep the thinking side of your brain going.
  • Refer to yourself in the third person. This is something that’s a little new to me, but I tried it after reading The Hunger Games. Every time Katniss needed to do something she didn’t want to, she told herself out loud to do it. While I don’t actually verbally say anything, addressing myself in the third person reduces my present goal into a simple command, which is easier to process.

The next day of competition, I headed to the range with a positive attitude. As my coach told me, I had nothing to lose from the previous day. I started out in kneeling, shooting the best I have shot in a long time, but then suddenly shouldered a 7 out to the left.

“A 7? Really, Sarah?!” is what popped into my head (there may or may not have been a few other colorful words mixed in). But it was quickly followed with, “That’s not you. Shoot some more centered shots, just like you planned.”

And I did. All the way through the rest of the match, and qualified for my first World Cup smallbore final. I ended up 5th—not in the medals, but still higher than I have placed before. It was a great way to end the season, and even better, I learned the value of a mental tool I can use in the near future.