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The tiny blue star of The Little Engine That Could was onto something: She used a mantra to fill herself with confidence and pulled a long train up an ‘impossible’ hill. Stanford researchers and others have since proven the efficacy of positive self-talk such as “I think I can,” in helping real-life athletes enhance performance. “It’s also been proven that repeating a mantra doesn’t just help you physiologically during training or a race, it can help you enjoy it at the same time,” says exercise physiologist and sports psychologist Tom Holland, author of Swim, Bike, Run, Eat. “It’s a win all around.”
Holland is an Ironman athlete himself as well as a coach, and uses mantras whenever he trains and competes. For the maximum benefit, he suggests finding sayings that personally resonate and relate to your activity, along with what you may need to accomplish. Here are some of his favorites along with five ways to use them, to help you find your own motivating words and ace your game.
Win Your Pre-Game
Holland uses positive self-talk before every race to control his emotions. “From the moment I wake up, I say to myself: ‘I am ready, I have trained hard, I feel great,’” he says. “I’ll repeat it over and over. I’ll also say things like: ‘This is my day, I’ve done the work,’ and I keep it on loop in my head.”
Such words help Holland feel confident and calm, yet you could also reimagine any ‘butterflies’ as excitement. A recent study out of Harvard Business School showed that when students and athletes identified pre-performance anxiety as ‘excitement,’ and said “I’m excited,” to themselves before an event, they performed much better than those who hadn’t used the mantra.
Control Your Pace
“One of my favorite mantras comes from Beastie Boys song lyrics,” Holland says. “Sometimes you don’t want to go too fast right away, so I’ll say to myself: ‘Let it flow, let yourself go, slow and low that is the tempo.’ Reminding myself to focus on my pace doesn’t just help me conserve energy, it helps calm any anxiety by taking my mind off the event.”
Mind Your Form
“I’ll often use performance cues during a race, which not only improves my mechanics, but also serves as a distraction from any sort of pain,” Holland says. “For example, if I’m running, I’ll say to myself: ‘Soft foot-strike,’ or ‘Drop the shoulders.’”
Give Yourself a Boost
When you need to find extra energy, for example—during longer swim distances, you can talk yourself into feeling it. “Often I’ll say: ‘As the race gets longer I get stronger,’ and I’ll repeat that over and over, convincing myself of it,” Holland says. “I end up convincing my body that it’s true.”
Pick Yourself Up
“Regardless of the sport, mental cues and mantras can help you turn things around,” Holland says. “Perhaps you’re a tennis player, and you’re down five sets to Love. Say to yourself: ‘You got this,’ because every point is a new point and new chance. You can utilize this mantra throughout your entire performance.”
Lara Rosenbaum is an award-winning journalist and wellness expert whose work has appeared in SELF, Shape, Men’s Health, Runner’s World, Men’s Journal, Prevention, Yoga Journal, and countless other publications. She has held editorial positions at several magazines and brands, including Women’s Health, where she was the founding fitness editor, and at Fitbit. Lara is also a former elite athlete, having traveled the world as a member of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team. She is a certified personal trainer and yoga teacher, and in her free time enjoys traveling, playing with her dogs, and adventuring outside.