Stop Trash Talking Yourself... it Doesn't Work
By: Leda McDanial
“Everything else can wait, because your health and wellness cannot” -Dr. Balcom
Imagine that are stressed out with a deadline at work and you glance up at the clock and it reads 5:45pm…your face flushes and you start to panic. You were supposed to pick up your son at daycare at 5:00pm! How could you be so dumb, so selfish, such a terrible mother…
Have you ever had an experience like this one? A situation in which you made a mistake, and your first reaction was to berate yourself for it? In fact, you wouldn’t let yourself “live down” this mistake for the next 6 months of daycare pickups!
This is just the type of exercise that Sports Psychologist, Dr. Kayla Balcom uses with athletes as a demonstration of most people’s tendency towards negative self-talk. In her work with the Atlanta Track Club, Balcom instructs individuals to write down a situation in which they messed up (like the example above) and then write down what they were saying to themselves after it happened. As the example above suggests, many people reported engaging in pretty negative self-talk. But Dr. Balcom takes this exercise one step further. She then has volunteers stand in front of each other and asks them to read off some of the statements of self-talk they wrote down as if it was the other person who made the mistake. The athletes were often quite uncomfortable and surprised to discover how truly negative their self-talk was when said out loud (e.g., “I would never be this mean to them!”).
In Episode #32 of the More Than Miles Podcast, Physical Therapists Dr. Kate Mihevc Edwards and Dr. Kacy Seynders interview Dr. Kayla Balcom and discuss ways to improve self-talk and other techniques to cultivate positive mental health for athletes. As the example above indicates, awareness of some of our negative thought patterns may be the first step in starting to change to a more positive inner dialogue. Not only can this nudge towards speaking nicer to ourselves feel better mentally and emotionally but practicing being nicer to ourselves can have physiological effects as well! Dr. Balcom explains that when we barrage ourselves with a negative inner dialogue, our body reacts as if there is a bully following us around all day and the stress this causes can manifest in an increase in anxiety, depression, fatigue and can negatively impact sleep, and performance.
Sometimes, though awareness alone cannot change an athlete’s habit of being hard on themselves. In Dr. Balcom’s experience, she has encountered many athletes with tendencies toward perfectionism and it could feel scary to change to being kinder to themselves (i.e., “If I give myself too much slack, I will get lazy” etc.). But actually, the opposite is often true. Think about something that you value very highly, for example you own a Porsche. Would you treat that car better or worse than if you owned a beat-up old jalopy? Obviously, our bodies and our mental psyche is not a car, but the message that valuing something highly can lead to taking better care of it still holds true.
The podcast episode continues as all three women break down the notion of “being tough,” which is a pervasive, and potentially harmful, message in female and male athletics. Dr. Balcom recognizes that male athletes may have more messages that encourage this “tough-first” mentality and that this message could prevent athletes from seeking help for mental or emotional health when they wrongly believe that doing so would be perceived as “weak.” As Dr. Balcolm states, “There’s this common theme of ‘if i need help or I am vulnerable, then I am weak’ and ‘weakness and toughness are on opposite ends of the spectrum.’”
She dispels that myth saying, “you can be tough and strong and also incredibly vulnerable… sometimes the bravest thing you can do is to be vulnerable and admit you need help in a certain area!” They also discuss how hard it is to talk openly about our mistakes and why it can help to have a safe space in which to start practicing this. As Kate says, “when people are vulnerable, we can rally behind them and support them!”
Just like with athletic pursuits, having a coach to guide you through some positive changes for your mental and emotional health is important. Dr. Balcom suggests that some of what mental health support provides is a problem-solving plan and goals to work towards (like a training plan!). She also reinforces that student athletes have a significant burden to take on, because they basically have two full time jobs. Collegiate athletes are tasked with being an athlete and being a student in a very formative time of life and that can be HUGELY challenging! In the podcast interview, she expands upon the various ways that working with a sports psychologist can be helpful, including improving self-talk, dealing with performance pressures, and also mitigating life stresses.
To learn more about how to prioritize mental health as an endurance athlete, check out the full interview: Episode #32: More Than Miles: Dr. Kayla Balcom: Vulnerability is Not a Weakness