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Language for Success: Creative Affirmations
by JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D.


Performance is 90% Perception and 10% Reality

Words can have tremendous power over our minds and, subsequently, our athletic performance. It has been said: Performance is 90% perception and 10% reality. Each of us is constantly engaging in our own internal thought processing. We talk to ourselves and interpret each situation based on our perception of what is going on around us. If this self-talk is an accurate representation of reality, then we function quite well. If our thoughts are irrational or exaggerated, then we may become anxious or emotional, and performance is likely to decline.

Reconstructing Your Thoughts

Thoughts and attitudes are cognitive in nature. Our perception and thoughts often lead to an emotional response. These thoughts and emotions then provide the direction and control over our actions. Thus it is crucial to become aware of what thoughts and self-statements you are using prior to training or racing. Self-talk can provide a sense of control if you learn to become aware of self-statements and direct them in a positive manner. You can, through self-talk, evaluate a potentially negative situation as much less threatening once you have a sense of control over your thought processes. How you interpret what is happening and the kinds of labels you place on each situation determine how you are affected emotionally.

Affirmations Defined

One powerful way to structure our thoughts and transform our goals into results is through the use of affirmations. An affirmation is a strong, positive self-statement, spoken in the present tense, about a goal that has the potential for being realized. It is a pre-planned statement of an aspiration, presented to the mind as if it has already been achieved. You present it to the mind in the present rather than the future tense. Although intellectually you know your goal is in the future, successful mental programming dictates that it be stated in the present tense as an already realized fact.

Affirmations are a powerful way to cancel or correct old negative thoughts or ideas. Negative thoughts are carried in our mental computers and are the source of self-limitation, fear, inhibition, and frustration for all of us. In contrast, self-image, health, physical abilities, relationships, and competition can all be affected positively by the repetition of an affirmation.

A positive affirmation creates an attitude or posture in life that says: "I can do this!" It is a conscious, carefully worded positive statement that guides our behaviors in a constructive way. It empowers us to replace old pessimistic scripts with new creative phrases to help us realize our dreams. Words are effective tools for transforming our perception of daily events.

The mind and body are so well connected that the body often does not know whether a phrase or image is real, dreamed, or imagined. So when your mind creates an image of success, your central nervous system and whole body will process that image as if it were real. Most of the time our actions are reflections of our mental pictures. These pictures are placed in our mind most often by words. So choosing the right words can make or break a performance.

I often use affirmations with my athlete clients to assist them in reconstructing their thoughts. If athletes find themselves saying: "I’ve never been able to beat this person before in a race," they are preparing themselves to lose again in this situation. I would help them to say something like: "I know I am capable of beating this person. All I have to do is take it one mile at a time. I have to focus on what is happening and what is about to happen. I can then control my own performance. I have worked hard, and I am well prepared for this competition."

How Affirmations are Used

Whenever you want to maximize your chances of getting the results you want, affirmations are one of the fastest ways to arrive there. If you want to create real changes in the way you train and compete, use affirmations to:

  • Improve concentration
  • Relax and sleep well
  • Build self-confidence
  • Accelerate learning of athletic skills
  • Deal with fear and negativity
  • Heal quickly from injuries
  • Increase endurance and strength
  • Train faster and lighter

Guidelines for Using Affirmations

The subconscious mind is literal or factual in nature, just like the hard drive of a computer. It receives information exactly the way you present it. Thus, in using affirmations it’s best not to use statements that are negative (e.g., "I hope I don’t bonk in this race"). If I say: "Don’t think of pink elephants," what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? You end up drilling into your mind the very thing you’re trying to avoid doing. Thus, affirmations need to be presented in a specific way to optimize their effectiveness.

I was recently working with a bicycle racer, Jill, who had a fear of riding in large groups. She had fallen down several times while riding in a close pack and would get anxious whenever she got too close to other riders. The problem intensified whenever she was riding in a road race, having to make sharp turns in close quarters. I asked Jill, what are you saying to yourself while you’re riding? She answered, "I repeat to myself over and over: I hope I don’t crash, I hope I don’t crash." Can you guess what happened after that? She was continually programming her mind and body to anticipate crashing. Consequently, she was bracing herself, holding her arms and shoulders so tightly that she could not handle the bike effectively. I then taught her to turn her goals into positive self-statements: "I am riding the bike smoothly and easily." "I am growing more relaxed with each mile." That was a turning point for Jill’s cycling career. For the first time, she could really enjoy riding.

Principles to Follow in Constructing Affirmations

Use the present tense: Act as if it’s already happening. If you have a race coming up, avoid using the future tense because the mind will see it as if it were still in the future. Instead of saying, "I will be strong and fast," say, "I am strong and fast." Or you can say, "I am becoming stronger and faster every day."

Employ a positive outlook: When you use negative words, they may be taken in by the brain without your awareness. Affirm what you do want to happen rather than what you don’t want to occur. Rather than saying, "I won’t tighten up in races," say "I remain relaxed and focused at all times."

Use self-image statements: Whenever possible, construct affirmations beginning with "I" or "I am…" or "I enjoy…."

Use specific, brief phrases: Make each phrase a short, clear statement of your feelings, so that you can remember the phrase, and the mind can then take it in more easily.

Make them permanent: Use the words "I always…."

Use mood words: Include words that suggest strong, positive emotion: "I always get excited and enthusiastic at races."

Anticipate success: When creating your affirmations, don’t let your critical side limit the type of phrases you create. Use whatever thoughts seem to work for you.

Use cards or post-its: Write each affirmation on an individual index card or post-it, and place them where you can view them regularly - by your desk, refrigerator, or at a night stand.


The Author

Your Performing Edge

JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., best-selling author of Your Performing Edge, is an internationally recognized sports psychologist, past winner of the San Francisco Marathon and 2nd in the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. For your FREE NEWSLETTER with valuable training tips and helpful articles, or for your autographed book visit Dr. Dahlkoetter provides coaching by phone for optimal mind-body performance. For information, email, or call 650-654-5500.

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Copyright 2002 by JoAnn Dahlkoetter. All rights reserved.

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