Monday, 18 July 2011

Mind Your Language (Article for Fighting Fit Magazine)

It is said that “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you”. Unfortunately, this is far from being the case. The words we use can cause all sorts of problems which can hurt your personal life, your working life and also your ability to train and fight effectively. There is a great power in the words we use to ourselves. The writer Rudyard Kipling once said “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used my mankind.” Kipling’s theory is supported by scientific research which has found that we respond emotionally to the words we hear or say to ourselves even though we are usually unaware of it. If you want to improve your performance in the ring, it may just be time to take out the dictionary and start improving your language skills.

Choose your words carefully

It has been found that we respond literally to the words that we hear. If we hear the word ‘bad’, we tend to feel worse than we did before we heard it. If we hear the word ‘good’ we tend to feel better.

An interesting study was carried out at an American university where one group was given a test to do which involved putting together a puzzle containing a lot of random words on it. Afterwards they recorded how long it took each member of the group to leave the building. They then took a second group and asked them to repeat the exercise; this time using a puzzle that contained a lot of words relating to being old such as ‘ancient’, ‘Florida’ and ‘bingo’. Significantly, it was found that those in the second group took considerably longer to leave the building because of the aging effect the words had on them.

It is therefore important to consider the kind of language you tend to use when you are training or fighting. I have demonstrated this to my clients by getting them to repeat the word ‘weak’ to themselves while they are trying to bench press a weight that they would normally be able to lift comfortably. In every case the client has struggled to lift the weight and in most cases has failed completely. I then ask them to repeat the exercise whilst repeating the word ‘power’ in their heads. In this case, each one of them has lifted the weight easily. So, if you want to feel strong, just say the word.

Say what you want (not what you don’t want)

One of the biggest problems I have found when working with fighters over the years is the language they use when they talk to themselves. This inner chat, otherwise known as self-talk or internal dialogue, is that voice we hear in our heads when we are thinking to ourselves. When we are stressed, angry, anxious or generally in a negative mindset, we tend to speak far more using negative statements. The anxious fighter, for instance, would say things such as “don’t mess up”, “don’t miss your punches”, “don’t make yourself look stupid” or “don’t drop your guard”. This becomes a problem because our brains cannot process negatives. If I was to say to you “whatever you do, do not think about a purple rhinoceros with pink spots” what do you think about? Exactly, you think about the purple rhinoceros with pink spots. When you make a negative statement to yourself you actually end up playing an internal movie of doing the thing you do not want to do. If you are a coach you can be sure that if you want your fighter to be scared the best way to go about it is to say “don’t be scared”.

Unfortunately, we do seem to spend a lot of our time using negative language. How often, when you ask a person how they are feeling do you hear them say “not bad”? “Not bad” certainly doesn’t mean “good” – it actually means “bad”.

Accentuate the positive

A fighter’s ability to perform to his best is largely dictated by the emotions he is feeling. Our emotions are the by-product of the way we think and our language can play a massive role in deciding how we feel at any given moment. A fighter will tend to perform well when he feels positive emotions and will tend to perform poorly when he feels negative emotions. However, very often there is a tendency for people to use words or phrases that make the negative emotions even worse and at best will neutralise the impact of the positive emotions.

I once worked with a boxer who was so good at using words that reinforced his negative emotions that by the time he got into the ring he always thought he was going to have a panic attack. The way he would achieve this state of near collapse before the fight had even begun was by putting great emphasis on his fears by using highly emotive negative words. When I asked him how his previous fight had gone he used phrases such as “my performance was dreadful”, “I was shocking”, “I was shitting myself” and “the result was sickening”. As he talked, I could see the emotion building up in him to a point that he was almost in tears. However, when I asked him to describe a fight that went really well for him the best he could summon up were phrases like “it was okay”, “my jab was alright”, “my movement was acceptable” and “my counter-punching was fine”. Here, the positive emotion was completely lacking.

An important thing to know about emotion is that it plays a big role in allowing us to recall memories; the stronger the emotion the easier the recall. Because my client was putting so much emotion into his bad performances, he found it far easier to remember them than his good performances. This meant he had a distorted view of himself and considered himself to be far worse than he actually was.

Interestingly, I had a client who was constantly using words like “fantastic”, “brilliant”, “excellent” and “superb”. His words were reflected by his body language, his energy, his tone of voice, his self-belief and his ability to draw on past successes. However, when I asked him to tell me about a poor performance, he struggled to find one, because he put so little emotion into them.

If in doubt change the label

I am very often working with fighters to overcome what they refer to as “nerves”. They tell me that they experience dreadful feelings which make it impossible to perform well. The problem, however, isn’t usually the feelings themselves but how they are labelled. The singer Carly Simon had to give up touring because of the immense stage fright she suffered from. She described how her heart would beat really fast, she would feel butterflies in her stomach and a buzzing in her head. She said she was terrified. Bruce Springsteen heard this description and stated that he couldn’t perform without these feelings. They had exactly the same feelings but one of them labelled them as “terror”, the other labelled them as “excitement”.

The words you use to describe how you feel about a fight will have a massive impact on you, so remember - always choose your words wisely.

Andy Barton