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How Self-Talk Provides the Edge In Big-Game Pressure Situations

By Mike Candrea
Head Coach - USA National Team & University of Arizona

Think about this situation:

You are playing in the championship game of the Women’s College World Series. It’s the bottom of the seventh, two outs, 3 - 2 count, bases loaded, your team is down 4 - 3 and you’re up to bat. The ESPN cameras are focusing in on you as you step into the box for the next pitch. What is going through your mind?

Self-talk plays a key role in big-game pressure situations.Option A: If you’re like some athletes, you probably hear something like, “Why me?” I hate being in the pressure situations. Just don’t strike out - that would be the worst! Oh, no, if I strike out, I will let the whole team down and the whole nation will see that I am a choker. I am so nervous!

Option B: Championship athletes hear something like, “Yes, this is a great opportunity. She’s got to come to me with a good pitch. Bring it on. All I need to do is see the ball and drive it hard somewhere. I’m ready.”

How players view situations and what they tell themselves about them often determines how well they will play. The little voice inside your head is known as “self-talk” and it affects your confidence, focus, motivation, stress levels and ultimately your performance. As you can see in the example above, Option A produces a nervous, tight, unfocused athlete. Option B leads to a confident, focused, and pumped athlete. Thus, the situation does not determine the “pressure” of the situation, but what you tell yourself about the situation certainly does. It’s obvious which person has the better chance of being successful. Because, self-talk is so important, we teach our players to take control of their self-talk and use it to their advantage.

Five Steps to Taking Advantage of Self-talk

Step 1: Become aware of your present self-talk.

Many players and coaches do not realize how much self-talk they use during practices and games. Tune into what you are saying to yourself while you are playing. Realize that you are the person who controls your self-talk, not the situation. After practice write down the various words and phrases that are going through your mind.

Step 2: Evaluate your present self-talk.

Notice which words and phrases are helping your confidence, focus, motivation, and stress levels and which ones are hurting you. Circle the ones that are helping you and keep using them. Take a look at the self-talk that is hurting you and notice if there is a pattern to it. Certain situations can be more of a challenge to you (facing a certain pitcher/hitter, accepting criticism, recovering from an error or strike out).

Step 3: Change the negative self-talk.

Change the negative self-talk into something more productive. For example, “I’ll never hit this pitcher,” can be changed to “Relax, just see the ball and throw the barrel at it. Or, “I can’t walk this batter or we’ll lose the game,” to “ Just throw one pitch at a time and focus on hitting my spots.”

Positive and productive self-talk centers on your strengths and deals with the things you can control during the present moment - seeing this pitch and driving it, and hitting your spot on this pitch. Negative and destructive self-talk focuses on the opponent’s strengths, your weaknesses, the things you cannot control, and future or past outcomes.

Step 4: Set a goal to focus on positive self-talk.

Commit yourself to using positive self talk as often as possible. See situations as challenges rather than threats. See running and boring drills as investments rather than sacrifices. View mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve instead of embarrassments or failure. Find the possibilities and advantages that are available in every situation rather than the limits and the disadvantages.

Step 5: Practice what you preach to teammates.

What would you say to a teammate when they are struggling? Probably not, “You’re terrible. You are such an idiot. You’ll never get it right. Give up this game while you still can.”

If you did, it would destroy any bit of confidence, focus, and motivation she might have had left in her. Instead, most teammates say, “Keep your head up. You’ll get it next time, I know you can do it.” These words help to encourage and support the person who is struggling.

Our challenge to you is to say the same things to yourself that you would say to a teammate. In this way, you become your own biggest fan by using and focusing on positive self-talk.

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