Dan Abrahams |

Self-talk and your conscious mind

Building on his previous article, in this article Dan Abrahams provides you with some powerful tools for maintaining your concentration and focusing your attention

The race is underway. You’re switched on from the start (article one), and you’re maintaining an efficient rowing stroke by engaging with your focus cues (article two). You’re rowing with optimal technique, you’re getting the most from your physical self, and you’re keeping your concentration and attention in the early stages of the race.

So far so good!

But don’t get complacent just yet. To retain efficiency, you’re going to have to continue to focus, and you’re going to have to keep a watchful look out for any distractions that might alter your attention, or drop your mental and physical intensity. And do you know what the biggest distractor tends to be in rowing? Do you know what tends to impede rowers most as they navigate their race? Themselves! You are very possibly your own biggest distractor. Let me explain.

In rowing, like in all sports, the external – the actions, the movements, and the motions are only half the story. They’re the half that everyone sees. Perhaps the more compelling tale is what’s bubbling underneath these overt behaviours. The internal – the internal that drives the external – the thoughts that arise into conscious awareness constantly striving to interfere with a rower’s attention.

ANA (ambient neural activity) loves to drive random thoughts through your mind, and has a tendency to pinpoint the negative

How does this happen? Let me introduce you to a brain process that influences what flies in and out of your conscious mind: ambient neural activity (ANA). This may sound like a complicated term but it really isn’t, and, if you’re interested in high performance in both your rowing and in your everyday life (as well as in the workplace), then an understanding of ANA is extremely useful.

ANA relates to the fact that the brain is constantly processing, reconnecting, and reconfiguring the billions of tiny connections in your brain every second. The result is a constant stream of thoughts and images emerging into your conscious awareness. ANA is the process that creates your dreams, daydreams, imagination, and causes your mind to wander. And ANA is the process that sends through thoughts that can distract you from your rowing tasks.

  • “I’m not sure I can keep this pace up”
  • “I must get some courgettes for tonight’s dinner!”
  • “I don’t want to let myself down here”
  • “Did I remember to put the dishwasher on?”
  • “My knee hurts, should I stop?”

Two curious things you’ll notice here – irrelevant thoughts and negative thoughts. ANA is rarely positive forming nor is it inclined to remind you that you have to focus on your technique. As we’ll come onto discuss, that inner monologue has to be driven intentionally by you. ANA loves to drive random thoughts through your mind, and has a tendency to pinpoint the negative.

Be a little different from your fellow rowers and make self-talk a big deal

This negative orientation could be explained as a survival mechanism – a tendency towards the negative has helped humans survive as a species. Simply, to be able to spot danger, and to be able to consider paths out of danger, we have always needed to orient ourselves towards threats. We, as humans, have evolved to anticipate potential problems. So as you row, as you take each and every stroke, your brain searches for things that might threaten your ability to focus positively on your stroke and meet your immediate objectives (for example, to win the race or to beat your time).

The presence of ANA means your thoughts will constantly threaten to invade your conscious mind (with many of them unhelpful and negative). Internally, a lot of us are a cacophony of noise that’s capable of distracting even the most Zen-like of rowers.

What to do about this?

The old adage: “Stop listening to yourself and start talking to yourself” can apply here. In my consultancy work I find the psychological tool of self-talk a really valuable addition to a competitor’s toolbox.

In simple terms, self-talk is as its name suggests, talking to yourself. Whilst this sounds rather crude, remember that everything about your brain and body…the inner noise that’s constantly vibrating… tends to cause you to get in your own way as a competitor, so actually utilising self-talk is a lot more challenging than you might think.

A more granular definition of self-talk is that it’s a series of words, sentences and phrases that you say to yourself, but which guide you through your everyday life, and in particular, your performance moments. It’s that inner voice that sends you left or right. It’s the one that tells you to stop or to go. It’s that monologue that works somewhere between thinking and doing and helps you act on the decisions you mentally make.

You can use your self-talk in three ways in any performance environment:

-to energise yourself (“keep going, keep rowing, keep working”)

-to instruct yourself (“keep my posture and drive the legs” – remember, the technical cues in the last article)

-to retain a sense of positivity (“I really can do this”)

I find the number one key to using self-talk is to actually plan to use it. Once again this may sound obvious, but I rarely hear sports participants say, “In this event, I’m going to use my self-talk to stay focused!”

Be a little different from your fellow rowers and make self-talk a big deal. By doing so you’ll give yourself a better chance to focus through those distracting moments.

When you’re in the boat, or on the rowing machine, use your self-talk when you feel yourself getting distracted or when things get tough. The more energising you make your inner voice, the more you’ll take charge of your inner self. And that really is half the battle won – to maintain an efficient stroke by taking control, by dominating your own mindset, by being in charge!

Self-talk is powerful. Words, sentences, phrases, commands or instructions can help you to quieten ANA, maintain concentration, and focus your attention on the tasks that help you row efficiently.

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