Jun 25, 2019 • 4 min read
The tiny blue star ofÂ The Little Engine That CouldÂ was onto something: She used a mantra to fill herself with confidence and conquered an â€˜impossibleâ€™ hill. Stanford researchers and others have since proven the efficacy of positive self-talk such as â€œI think I can,â€ in helping real-life athletes enhance performance. â€œItâ€™s also been proven that repeating a mantra doesnâ€™t just help you physiologically during training or a race, it can help you enjoy it at the same time,â€ says exercise physiologist and sports psychologist Tom Holland, author of Swim, Bike, Run, Eat. â€œItâ€™s a win all around.â€
Holland is an Ironman athlete himself as well as a coach (and TeamSnap dad!), 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 ace your game.
Holland uses positive self-talk before every race to control his emotions. â€œFrom the moment I wake up, I say to myself: â€˜I am ready, I have trained hard, I feel great,â€™â€ he says. â€œIâ€™ll repeat it over and over. Iâ€™ll also say things like: â€˜This is my day, Iâ€™ve done the work,â€™ and I keep it on loop in my head.â€
Such words help Holland feel confident and calm, yet you could also reimagine any â€˜butterfliesâ€™ as excitement. A recent studyÂ out of Harvard Business School showed that when students and athletes identified pre-performance anxiety as â€˜excitement,â€™ and said â€œIâ€™m excited,â€ to themselves before an event, they performed much better than those who hadnâ€™t used the mantra.
â€œOne of my favorite mantras comes from Beastie Boys song lyrics,â€ Holland says. â€œSometimes you donâ€™t want to go too fast right away, so Iâ€™ll say to myself: â€˜Let it flow, let yourself go, slow and low that is the tempo.â€™ Reminding myself to focus on my pace doesnâ€™t just help me conserve energy, it helps calm any anxiety by taking my mind off the event.â€
â€œIâ€™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,â€ Holland says. â€œFor example, if Iâ€™m running, Iâ€™ll say to myself: â€˜Soft foot-strike,â€™ or â€˜Drop the shoulders.â€™â€
When you need to find extra energy, for exampleâ€”during longer swim distances, you can talk yourself into feeling it. â€œOften Iâ€™ll say: â€˜As the race gets longer I get stronger,â€™ and Iâ€™ll repeat that over and over, convincing myself of it,â€ Holland says. â€œI end up convincing my body that itâ€™s true.â€
â€œRegardless of the sport, mental cues and mantras can help you turn things around,â€ Holland says. â€œPerhaps youâ€™re a tennis player, and youâ€™re down five sets to Love. Say to yourself: â€˜You got this,â€™ because every point is a new point and new chance. You can utilize this mantra throughout your entire performance.â€
Lara Rosenbaum is an award-winning journalist and wellness expert whose work has appeared in SELF, Shape, Menâ€™s Health, Runnerâ€™s World, Menâ€™s Journal, Prevention, Yoga Journal, and countless other publications. She has held editorial positions at several magazines and brands, includingÂ Womenâ€™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.