It’s tough to overstate the importance of positive self-talk. We all go through it. If you think you can do it, you can. And if you think you can’t, you won’t. Our eight-year-old says that.
You can see the impact of owning that kind of positivity everywhere. Positive people enjoy more positive outcomes and lead happier lives. But the best examples are most obvious in sports, where the things you say to yourself before, during and after a workout have a MASSIVE impact on your performance.
That’s all good. There are literally hundreds of thousands of books and feel-good blogs you can follow if you’re into that. But I like practical things. I like tips and “life hacks” that actually move the needle for me. So when I got the chance recently to train with a couple of top ten CrossFit athletes in Zürich at “CrossFit Kreis 9” I had questions.
If you’re into fitness and you’re not familiar with CrossFit then shame on you, but for the sake of brevity here it’s “constantly varied, functional movements executed at high intensity.” Lots of weight lifting, gymnastics, intense group workouts, rarely the same workout twice..
The top athletes compete under extreme load and are arguably the fittest people on the planet. I wanted to know how they managed to train and compete with such intensity. I came away with three HUGE insights that have not only transformed the way I train but the way I want to live my life.
1. The Obstacle Is The Way
Look for where it’s hardest. Where you see resistance and struggle, that’s GREAT. That’s where you know if you really focus effort you’re gonna get massive gain and massive satisfaction. Go there.
The obstacle is the way. When you find an obstacle LOVE IT. It’s what’s gonna differentiate you and your results from everyone else.
This is why you see some pros are ACTUALLY SMILING when they’re working out. They’re happy because the way forward is obvious to them. All they need to do is execute.
I love that.
..Ever say you are “wasted” or anything like that during or after a workout. NEVER say it! Do not let your mind go there. This is so important.
Do not say „omg I’m *$# !“ after a workout – or you know what I mean. Whatever you usually joke to the person next to you right afterward. It’s not a joke. Never say it.
NEVER go to your knees and talk about how destroyed you are.
Lots of us do it. It’s cool somehow. But these are trigger words and they’re extremely damaging.
The truth is for 99.9% of us you are nowhere near being brought to your knees after a workout. Unless you’ve hit your head hard or something similar it’s never anything like that. You’re not really that tired. So physically it’s not necessary – it’s much better to walk around getting rid of lactic acid and doing some deep breathing – but mentally this is *MASSIVE*
Because in those moments where your physiology is experiencing a heightened sense of awareness, the language you use and the messages you send to your subconscious have extreme meaning and impact attached to them. Your mind sets them as anchors.
The best thing to do in that moment is actually to tell yourself how awesome you are. Even if you failed a set. Talk about how lucky you are to work out. “Self talk” yourself on how super strong you are. Laugh and anchor the experience as positive and empowering. Again, look at the pros after their events. Sometimes they DO fall down because they really are in trouble but 9 times out of 10 they’re actually laughing. Almost all of that is self talk.
Your mind is paying attention to everything when you’re in that extreme state. If you say „omg I’m so exhausted” even if you’re just joking, your mind will anchor that and associate that negative talk with working out. And that’s gonna hurt you next time you work out.
(Note: it should be obvious but NONE OF THIS is any kind of medical advice. See a physician before training yada yada. If you really are broken after a tough set then by all means go and lay down. We’re talking about performance here)
3. Be Your Own Boss
Ask yourself this: how much does your internal narrative affect your output? What do you think?
That’s widely variant for me, as I would expect for many. But it’s probably close to 90% at times.
Mid-workout or mid-set, when you’re really positive and owning that internal conversation, and you know “you can do it” then you just shut that negative voice down right?
All of your focus is on moving and working and you’re loving it. That other annoying “you“, the one coming up with excuses for stopping, or distracting you with life’s problems and sapping your energy, that voice is nowhere.
Sometimes that negative self talk can stop you even getting to the gym in the first place. Many people don’t even work out at all because of this. Sometimes it’s completely rational „I’ll feel even better if I get xyz done.“ But it has no place inside the gym.
There’s a method you can learn right now though that will shut that voice down forever. I did it, I tested it and the results are profound.
Test one: Stop Thinking Inside The Box
To be crystal clear (again): I do not recommend the following. You really need to be your own person sometimes. This was an experiment. I needed to see if you could get this “mind over body” thing and shut that voice down.
I used to talk to myself like this after a workout: „That’s already good. Important to just keep moving. Think of the long term. Do a better workout tomorrow. Dont want to overdo it.” Sound familiar? I even cheated a lot. “Noone will notice you did 7 instead of 8 reps“ and so on.
Running was the worst. I love to run but I would rarely go all out. Especially sprinting. I would plan 100m and do 80m. Then tell myself that still puts me in a top percentile of most people and way better than doing nothing which is all true. You even hear good trainers say „yeah great man you kept moving that’s the important thing.“
That is all bullshit.
The big takeaway I got from my pro CrossFitter friends was as follows. “The only conversation you should have with yourself when you are training is about moving and working. Technique and effort. Motion and intensity.”
Of course we’re talking about focus here, but focus inherently means different things for all of us. For training we want to shut down other distracting thoughts. Do you want to put more energy and discipline into what you’re thinking, or free up that energy so you can go heavier and love your workout?
To test this thesis I picked a simple exercise that’s physically challenging for me but technically easy so I didn’t have to think much – burpee box jumps. (If you want to try this yourself pick something that’s tough but kind of easy to do, and something you like so you’ll want to go for it. Do NOT try this with a bar!)
Burpee box jumps are exactly that: burpee, then jump up on a 24 inch box, jump back down, repeat. All you need to think is drop. get up. jump. drop. (Here’s how they’re done if you’re curious)
So I started to do these and was determined not to allow any other single thought into my head. If I caught myself drifting (which is natural) I just went back to my chant. “Drop. Get up. Jump. Drop.”
You can even shout this to yourself. Single word orders are extremely powerful and will disrupt almost any thought pattern instantly. That’s why it works so well when you bark at your kids (note: Kids, if you’re reading this, relax. We love you very much. Go read something else)
I’m usually pretty tired after 10 of those burpee box jumps, and I am cooked by 20. I did 52.
Well, technically I did 51 and then I fell onto the box and then hard on the floor. I got quite a bad bruise on my side and hip and it hurt a lot. My legs failed on the 52nd rep and I fell. (I strongly suspect the 50th rep was some kind of mental milestone and I gave up, but who knows.)
My point is it’s EASY to push past your max once you know how. Using single word instructions you can shout at yourself to control that internal conversation during a workout is extremely powerful.
If you’re doing squats then just “drop” – you’ll figure out how to get up again. If you’re doing press then just control the weight down to your chest and then “pop” or “drive.” Like that.
Shouting the words to yourself shuts down all of the other internal talk so you can just focus on moving and working and feeling good.
Test Two. You Don’t HAVE TO Do This. It’s a privelege.
The second test I did was a more controlled one and something you can carry over into life (which is kind of the idea of all this.)
Last week I had a reasonably tough CrossFit workout here in Noosa that was split in two rounds. It was kind of a weird workout with strict pull-ups (lots of them!), double unders (skipping), shoulder press (I think), then more double unders, then more pull-ups.
The rounds were timed with a four minute break in between. Four minutes is sweet. You can bring your heart rate right down in that time. It’s that long. You could probably even get to sleep.
Anyway, I was tired after the first round. I was dripping sweat, everything hurt, my heart rate was maxed out, and I was out of breath. You know the feeling.
So I went outside to try to cool down and I was looking around and there’s palm trees around us and I was breathing deep and just saying to myself omfg you are so fortunate right now. This place is amazing. All the people here are so good to you. Everyone here wants to see you crush this workout. You feel amazing and ALIVE and how lucky are we all to just be ALIVE right now? Now go in there and have some respect. Give everything. Give! Everything! (Note: Pick whatever works for you OK? This is just the way I talk to myself)
I had 4:42 for the first round. I did the second round in 3:18.
That should not be possible. Not even close. I was already warm and I felt good when I started the first round. I’m reasonably fit and I genuinely went for it. When I started the 2nd round I was tired and burned physically. But I didn’t match my time. I smashed my time!
The Most Successful People Don’t Have The Best Of Everything. They Make The Best Of Everything.
Choose your own self talk. But find something empowering. Whatever does that for you. Dumbing your chant down to single word instructions that you shout at yourself shuts down any other voice. (The last thing you need when you are mid set is some intellectual talking to you.) Putting yourself in a positive state of gratitude makes it physiologically impossible to feel weak and tired at the same time.
I’m far from being any kind of top athlete but these were both massive results for me. And I think the lessons here are powerful insights you can carry over into all aspects of your life.
Look for the pain, look for the challenge and LOVE it. Because that’s where you’re gonna grow and that’s where you’re gonna feel most fulfilled. And don’t ever, EVER give up. Don’t allow it to happen.
Nobody can do this for you. You can pay doctors, physios, personal trainers or life coaches all day long to coach you and advise you on what to do. Getting help from experts and modelling behavior of those that have succeeded before you is enormously helpful in achieving your goals. But in that moment where you need to act – it’s all you.
Feel better. Move better. Live better.