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The Mental Edge: Phillips Academy’s Mental Skills Training Program

Good luck? Tang Fellow Lani Silversides, mathematics instructor and head girls varsity basketball coach, says you don’t need it. Working at the Institute on her project, “The Mental Edge: Phillips Academy’s Mental Skills Training Program,” she is helping students and athletes alike to control their minds efficiently and consistently. Here she describes self-talk as “one of the most influential agents for honing self-confidence”—and encourages simple statements like “I got this!” over hoping for luck. 

Coaching Students

Improving Performance on the Field … and in Class

By Lani Silversides

“I am not ready for this.” “I’m going to fail.” “I’m so nervous.” “I can’t wait until this is over.” “This is going to be terrible.”

We’ve all been there. At some point during our careers as teachers or students, we’ve heard or said these types of comments in class—right before a test.

Sometimes students may feel better by making these types of negative comments and hoping to prove themselves wrong rather than “risking” being positive and then not doing so well.

The reality is the most tried-and-true way to increase performance is to improve confidence.

And self-talk is one of the most influential agents for honing self-confidence. It is said that the average person has up to sixty thousand thoughts per day. (That’s a lot!) And extensive research shows one’s internal dialogue significantly influences performance[i].

In sport psychology research, self-talk and confidence are important techniques that have been studied extensively. Athletes may learn tools and strategies in this area to prepare them best for performance. In the classroom, my students prepare to perform on an assessment like they would prepare for a game, practice, musical, or any other performance. We discuss the same questions I ask of my team:

  • How are you eating?
  • How much sleep did you get the night before?
  • Did you get breakfast?
  • Are you hydrated?

By showing our students that self-talk is a way to improve performance (and in fact that outcome goals or negative thoughts are NOT proven ways to increase performance), we can help them to create a more positive classroom atmosphere before taking a test. Here is some background information I share with my students:

lani-graphic_web

What is Self-Talk?

You engage in self-talk any time you carry on an internal dialogue with yourself[i].

Why Does it Matter?

The most consistent finding in peak performance literature is the direct correlation between self-confidence and success. What we say to ourselves in practice and competition is critical to performance. Our thoughts directly affect our feelings and ultimately our actions.

self-talk-bubble_web

 

A practical way to implement this technique in the classroom and to help our students start to think this way is through helping them to create a self-talk performance statement. I require my students to write a positive self-talk statement on the top of each test. The first time they do it they feel a little silly, and then it gets easier. This statement should not focus on the grade itself,  and it must be positive. For example, “I won’t fail this,” or “I’m going to get a 100” are unacceptable statements. Instead, I suggest statements like, “I got this.” “I have prepared for this.” “I am ready.”  On the first test, if a student writes a double negative, I will comment and reword it for them. They get the hang of it pretty quickly.

What about Good Luck?

dsc_3827I say they don’t need it. I have stopped telling athletes and my students “good luck” before an event or performance. That implies they need luck, when the reality is that they have been working really hard and preparing for it. Instead, I use statements that remind them of that fact. “Have fun today.” “Trust your stuff.” “Do your thing.” “You’re prepared.” “You got this.” These are some possible substitutes for “good luck.”

One afternoon, I walked by a senior athlete from my sport psychology seminar as she was heading to field hockey playoffs. She knew I wasn’t going to say “good luck.” And indeed I just said, “Have fun today.” She looked at me and replied, “I got this.”

In the classroom, I surveyed my precalculus students at the end of the term to see if they were using their statements in other classrooms. Some students shared with me that they hesitate to write a statement on someone else’s test since the teacher wouldn’t know what it was about (hence my desire to share with you this practice).  Here was some other feedback students gave:

  • “Yes! My teacher puts a smiley face next to it each time.”
  • “I do it in chemistry too.” (x7 students)
  • “ON EVERYTHING”
  • “I only write it for math, but I think more positive things before I take other tests.”
  • “I only write it for math, but I make an effort to only think positively when it comes to an assessment.”
  • “I usually think it now, but don’t write it on others.”
  • “I write it down for math, but have started maintaining a more positive attitude going into tests, and that has had a positive effect on my exams.”
  • “Only for math, but I am in a habit now of speaking more positively when I enter a room for a test.”
  • “Yes, I have done it on chemistry too and I did better on the last test. 🙂 “
  • “No, but I should!” (x3 students)

After sharing some of this practice with parents during Family Weekend, one parent came up to me and said:

“That explains it. I called to wish him good luck on his test last week and he replied to me, ‘Mom, I don’t need luck. I got this.’”

That is the mindset I hope to continue to ingrain in our students and athletes. These statements have also become my favorite things to read on the top of each test, and I have loved watching their statements evolve over time.

[1] Selk, J. (2009). 10-Minute Toughness: The Mental Training Program for Winning Before the Game Begins. McGraw-Hill

[2] Williams, Jean (2005). Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. (7th Edition). Mountain View, CA.: Mayfield Publishing

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