I know, I know I talk about affirmations and positive self-talk all the time. I am a true believer in positive affirmations, inspirational quotes, and empowering words that build athletes up. My thoughts are that if we fill our lives with comments that remind us how wonderful, strong, beautiful, and talented we are, then we will tend to eventually believe them.

So what’s the problem?

Well some specialists in the Sports Psychology and Mental Toughness world sometimes mention that affirmations do not work. In an article published in Psychology Today, author Ray Williams states that people with low self esteem actually feel worse after using positive affirmations.

When people say positive affirmations, they can actually feel worse because they are reminders that they are NOT these things. Just stating affirmations doesn’t make someone believe them. Sometimes these affirmations are just words. So how can we use affirmations or positive self-talk so they are helpful?

Most (Okay I would even say, ALL) of the clients I coach are smart, very smart. If they tell me that they think that they are not a good athlete, ugly, or that they hate conditioning, by having them change those into positive affirmations or self-talk and say “I am a great athlete, I am beautiful, or I love conditioning” will not make them change their thoughts. They can come up with ten reasons why these statements aren’t true and telling them to say them does not make them believe them any more.

Sometimes affirmations or positive self-talk don’t work because we are just too smart to believe such an opposite statement. The words feel fake and empty and there is no connection to the affirmation. But instead of conceding and giving up all affirmations and positive self-talk, we need to make sure we say the correct statements.

My daughter’s cheerleading team was in a slump and all the parents thought it would be a good idea to post positive quotes, stories, videos, and letters on the team’s Facebook page. My daughter read some and then said, “Why are they doing this? It is so annoying because they are just meaningless.” At that time in my daughter’s season she was convinced that she and her team had lost all hope. Reading posters that read “A rainbow appears after the storm” or “You are Awesome.”did not inspire her at all it just made her mad.

She didn’t want to hear empty words of inspiration. But she did want to believe there would be a rainbow and that they were awesome. She wanted to believe that everything would work out. So I asked her, ”What do you believe will help you and your team out of the slump?”

She did believe that they could continue to work hard, listen to and make corrections, understand her teammates feelings, not judge others, stop worrying about gossip, and to focus on what they were doing during practice.

What did help was changing those empty affirmations into statements she did believe. For example, if her self-talk was “We stink, we can’t even hit a routine”. Instead of changing it to “We are awesome, we can hit every routine” we changed it to something she believed like “We are going to work hard from the beginning to the end of our routine”.

She and her team believed that they could work hard, and they did. They worked hard, they focused on what they could do, and they ended up having the best performance at the most important competition of the year.

Affirmations and positive self-talk only work if we believe them. We can only change our behavior if we believe we can. Don’t get rid of affirmations and positive self-talk but make sure to use them correctly.