By Greg Bach
When young athletes step to the free-throw line, into the batter’s box, or settle into the starting blocks at their track and swim meets, that inner voice in their head tends to ramp up.
And oftentimes the self-talk that follows in those pressure-filled moments is more destructive than productive.
“The key to beating chatter isn’t to stop talking to yourself,” says acclaimed University of Michigan psychologist Dr. Ethan Kross. “The challenge is to figure out how to do so more effectively.”
Kross is the author of the new book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It.
“The inner voice is an amazing tool,” he says. “But the liability piece is that oftentimes when we are struggling, or the stakes are high, we reflexively turn to it to help us, but we don’t come up with clear solutions and we start spinning and overthinking things. When that happens big problems ensue, which is why I call chatter this tendency to get stuck in a negative thought spiral.”
And it can snag athletes in all sports and at all levels, including those new to competition.
“You see the chatter beginning among athletes when they first start to play,” Kross explains. “They’re being watched by other people, so there are social pressures, there’s team pressures, and there’s internal pressures to perform well.”
Those conversations with ourselves that veer into the negative can sink confidence, sabotage performance, and lead to a lot of frustrating moments, too.
“We know chatter makes it hard for us to think and perform,” Kross says. “If you’ve ever tried to read a few pages in a book or a magazine when you’re worried or ruminating about something you read the words, but you don’t remember anything you’ve read. That shows how debilitating it can be to the thinking process.”
In his book, Kross shares dozens of tools that athletes can learn to use.
“One of my hopes in writing Chatter and sharing these tools is to kind of lay out what we know about how to manage emotions in the human mind,” he says. “Although there’s a lot of complex science that has gone into the identification of these tools, at the end of the day many of them are very simple to implement. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Different people respond to different tools. The challenge for a coach is to provide these tools to athletes and then get them to start self-experimenting with them to figure out what is the unique combination of tools that work best for them.”
Here's a glimpse at some of them that Kross shares in his book:
REFRAMING EXPERIENCES AS CHALLENGES
As Kross writes in his book: Chatter is often triggered when we interpret a situation as a threat – something we can’t manage. To aid your inner voice, reinterpret the situation as a challenge that you can handle, for example, by reminding yourself of how you’ve succeeded in similar situations in the past, or by using distanced self-talk.
WATCH THIS CLIP AS DR. KROSS EXPLAINS HOW THIS CAN APPLY TO YOUNG ATHLETES
RELY ON RITUALS
Professional athletes in all sports lean on rituals to help them perform when the pressure mounts, from tennis players bouncing the ball a specific number of times before serving to a hitter adjusting his batting gloves and helmet the exact same way before each pitch.
“Rituals are often rigid sequences of behaviors that you perform the exact same way each time and what that does is it gives us a sense of control,” Kross explains. “We are doing something in a very orderly way that is under our control and that’s one way that rituals help us because when we’re struggling with chatter we often feel like we don’t have control of the situation. Our emotions are taking over and we don’t like that because as human beings we crave control. So by controlling your surroundings and your behavior that compensates for the lack of control we often feel when we’re in a high stakes situation and that can, in turn, help us perform better.”
And they can be beneficial for young athletes, too.
“If you don’t have a ritual, develop one because research shows that you don’t have to wait to be given one by a coach,” Kross says. “You can develop your own and benefit from it.”
IMAGINE ADVISING A FRIEND
“Imagine what you would say to a friend experiencing the same problem as you,” Kross says. “Then give yourself that advice and use your name to coach yourself through it. That’s a simple tool that we find that can be really useful for enhancing performance under stress, too.”
Follow Ethan Kross on Instagram @ethankross and Twitter @ethan_kross
Orlando Pride midfielder Chelsee Washington, founder of 90/10 Performance Co., on helping young players manage mindsets and build confidence from within to perform at their best
Erica Suter, former soccer standout at Johns Hopkins University and author of THE STRONG FEMALE ATHLETE, on helping female athletes enhance confidence, reduce injuries, and boost performance
Former NFL safety Dr. Myron Rolle, author of The 2% Way, shares the mindset that he uses every day to keep moving forward and how young athletes can benefit from it on their journeys, too
Dr. Julie Stamm, a leading neuroscientist and author of THE BRAIN ON YOUTH SPORTS, shares important research and insights on repetitive head trauma and the long-term impact on young athletes’ brain