OK, so technically Ethan Kross’s book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, isn’t a sports psych book. But honestly, it might as well be! I really enjoyed this one as both a regular self-help-y read (which you may know by now that I am a reluctant fan of!) as well as a great way of thinking about athletic self-talk. Because really, I don’t think sports psych has done us a lot of favors when it comes to the day to day, quieter self-talk. Often, there’s a big focus on race day self talk and the voice screaming in your head. But what about the chatter?
OK, my favorite moments/learnings from Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It:
Introspection can be a problem
The key to beating chatter isn’t to stop talking to yourself. The challenge is to figure out how to do so more effectively.
Here’s the thing. The voice in our head is often useful—it’s called introspection, and it’s our ability to think about ourselves and our thoughts. But spend too much time in there, and things get murky. You spend too much time thinking, less time doing.
Comparison makes chatter worse
The human need to self-present is powerful. We craft our appearances to influence how people perceive us all the time. This has always been the case, but then along came social media to give us exponentially more control over how we do this. It allows us to skillfully curate the presentations of our lives—the proverbial photoshopped version of life, with the low points and less aesthetically pleasing moments left out. Engaging in this self-presentation exercise can make us feel better, satisfying our own need to appear positively in the eyes of others and buoying our inner voice… A study my colleagues and I published in 2015 demonstrated, for example, that the more time people spent passively scrolling through Facebook, peering in on the lives of others, the more envy they experienced and the worse they subsequently felt.
I was chatting with a mental performance consultant for a story on FOMO for Bicycling a couple weeks ago and of course, social media is part of it. I loved her reminder that 15 years ago, the only time we saw someone’s ‘highlight reel’ was when they showed you the photo album from their last trip. (Or maybe had an album on their MySpace… yikes). Anyway, this was a good point on both sides: It’s not always ideal or healthy to lean into the need to put your highlight reel out there, and at the same time, it’s also not healthy to compare yourself to anyone else’s feed.
Say my name, say my name
Saying my own name in my head, addressing myself as if I were speaking to someone else, allowed me to immediately step back. Suddenly I was able to focus on my predicament more objectively… Distanced self-talk, then, is a psychological hack embedded in the fabric of human language.
Struggling to keep your shit together? Talk to yourself in the second or third person—saying ‘you’ or ‘YOUR NAME’—and doing that will help bring some objective distance between you and your thoughts. Try it during a race—it really helps! I’ve been doing this in workouts, and it feels silly at first, but it does change the vibe.
Consider your support crew
Co-rumination is the crucial juncture where support subtly becomes egging on. People who care about us prompt us to talk more about our negative experience, which leads us to become more upset, which then leads them to ask still more questions. A vicious cycle ensues, one that is all too easy to get sucked into, especially because it is driven by good intentions.
This is a big one for me, because I know I’m drawn to it. It turns out that while sometimes it feels good to vent to someone (spouse, friend, sibling, training partner), too much of this co-rumination can leave you feeling worse, not better. I often find that the problem here is that it can feel hard to talk about positive stuff because it either feels boring or braggy or just not real life/like you’re not sharing authentically. It’s weirdly easier to share the stuff that isn’t going super well. So, my goal is to find a middle ground of not falling into these negative spirals, and figure out how I can have positive-but-real conversations with friends and training buddies.
Reinterpret your body’s chatter response. The bodily symptoms of stress (for example, an upset stomach before, say, a date or presentation) are often themselves stressful (for instance, chatter causes your stomach to grumble, which perpetuates your chatter, which leads your stomach to continue to grumble). When this happens, remind yourself that your bodily response to stress is an adaptive evolutionary reaction that improves performance under high-stress conditions. In other words, tell yourself that your sudden rapid breathing, pounding heartbeat, and sweaty palms are there not to sabotage you but to help you respond to a challenge.
OK, this one is straight-up race day advice. To get out of your head and stop freaking out on the start line, remember that fear and excitement feel very similar. If you can think of your physical reactions (even that fifth trip to the port-a-potty) as excitement rather than stress, you’ll calm down (slightly).