Mental-toughness: a performer’s perspective – Self-talk strategies

Mental-toughness: a performer’s perspective – Self-talk strategies

Here it is, the highly-anticipated “part 3” of this series of blog posts about mental-toughness. Check out part 1 HERE and part 2 RIGHT HERE.

Today, I want to share with you some of the strategies that I use when I both prepare music for a performance, and as I train for running races and triathlons. I hope that you can use these ideas to inspire and create your own personal game plan.

The English language is wrought with negatives. “Don’t slow down!” and “don’t give up!” are meant to be positive, uplifting phrases. Our brains don’t perceive this correctly. The main message received is the “slow down!” and “give up!”, because our minds don’t want to take the extra step to reverse the inherent negative of the word “don’t”. Please use that previous sentence as an example!

Try something right now. Think of a sentence or phrase that you tell yourself on a daily basis. Give it some analysis. Is it

  • inherently negative
    • “I have to go to training but I’m so tired. This is going to suck”
  • phrased as a double negative in order to positive
    • “Don’t wuss out!”
  • as a positive
    • “I’m so stoked to go to training tonight- I feel strong and I’m going to crush it!”
  • total nonsense
    • “I want a clif bar”


Being aware and being clear with the language with which we speak to ourselves shapes the neural-pathways we form. The more we use certain neural-pathways, the more often we will continue to use them, as our thoughts like to take the path most worn. Read this sometime in the near future if you’re interested to understand this more deeply.

Today, as I prepare music, I practice my mental strategies at the same time. I approach my music and practice from a place of love. I begin by expressing gratitude: “I love what I do. I’m so lucky to get to do what I do. How lucky am I? So lucky.” From there, I often get here: “I want to do this; I want to express this to the fullest of my abilities; I want to share what this music makes me feel with others.” I make a point of coming back to these phrases and mantras when I’m in a rut and feeling really stressed or anxious about something.

The word “want” in the previous example is important. I used to think things like “I need to practice or else I’ll suck”.  That comes from a place of fear or necessity, which works but only to a certain degree. Just like in Pixar’s Monsters Inc,  laughter is stronger than screams. By changing “need” to “want”, I’m changing my motivation.

“I want to run/bike/swim/play music because I love it.”

From here, basic logic takes over: I want to play this music/run/swim/bike to the best of my abilities. In order to do so, I must now do XYZ.
As someone who has been playing music for over twenty years now, I have a pretty firm grasp on my weaknesses and what I need to do to improve them. In order to iron out these wrinkles and weaknesses, I must practice a lot. That practice needs to be so focused. Focus is the key. Focus comes from motivation. Motivation comes from love.

As someone who tends to connect all aspects of her life to the nth degree, these mental practices inundate my running and triathlon training. While doing even the easiest of runs, I try to remember to practice positive mantras. “Running is easy”. “I love running”. “Swimming is the best”. Easy.

It’s the most important to have these mantras rolling through my mind when training is the hardest. Consequently, it is the most challenging to practice these mantras when pushing myself the hardest. But let’s be real: while competing, that’s when we could be facing the darkest of demons. Metaphorically, of course. If our mental skills are strong, even if our physical bodies might not be, we can make a marathon feel perhaps only like an extremely challenging walk in the park.

When I’m pushing myself at my hardest, my mantras turn very simple: “go go go go go” and “you’ve got this”. It is so important to establish these mental thoughts when the going is the toughest.
During very difficult interval training, when my entire body is screaming with hate towards itself, it becomes a chore to keep those positive thoughts louder than the negative. I firmly believe that the more I practice the proper synapse connections while training in both music performance and endurance sport, the more I will surprise and surpass myself.

Now, as you will have understood from the Marcora lecture video from the first blog post, mental fatigue is real, and so mental training should be just as important as physical training. Implementing positive self-talk and serious focus during long training hours, should be on your radar, and it should be done incrementally so that you avoid mentally “crashing”. Dip your toes in. Give it a try!

Katherine Watson

X3 Team

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