Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
“I am capable of winning. I deserve to win. I will win.” Those are the three things Valarie Allman repeated back to her coach before their training sessions leading up to her Olympic debut.
It’s what she repeated before the women’s discus finals on Monday. Competition at the Olympics is high pressure already, but after Allman threw her first attempt, there was a rain delay that left the athletes waiting to continue for an hour—giving time for the pressure to mount.
Ultimately it was her first throw, an impressive 68.98m, that clinched Team USA’s first track and field gold in Tokyo.
Allman credits the mantras as the turning point in her road to winning. She has also focused on nutrition, her technical knowledge, added more training sessions, and been more intentional about the meets she competed in over the last three years. But there is no denying that the mind-body connection is important; mental conditioning can make or break a performance.
“There is a vast amount of research supporting the effectiveness of using effective self-talk in improving performance, skill development, focus, confidence, [and] arousal regulation,” says sports psychologist Amber Shipherd, Ph.D.
When first introduced to the mantras, Allman struggled with doubt, not feeling like she embodied the words her coach was asking her to repeat. As time went on, she started to believe. “As I thought about the words, they started to resonate with me,” she said in a post-competition interview.
She went from doubt to believing she could do it. The affirmations solidified an understanding that her training was solid and the work was done. “The fact that it happened, that’s a dream come true,” she said.
Curious how affirmations can work for you? Shipherd gives us her top tips for adding positive self-talk into your training and daily life.
7 Tips for Creating Affirmations that Stick
According to Shipherd, positive self-talk works in two ways: cognitively and motivationally. The first being to literally instruct yourself on a task, initiate starting it, or strategizing. “Likewise, it can also assist with breaking bad habits or correcting errors to improve performance,” she says.
Motivationally, self-talk can help you cope with challenges, improve confidence and focus, and regulate arousal. These are the seven principles that make mantras work.
1. Be optimistic.
Focus on the positives. Allman’s mantras checked this box for sure. “They are phrased in a way that likely served to boost her confidence,” says Shipherd. And that’s just what mantras should do.
Start to think about “successes as replicable and failures as surmountable.”
2. Focus on the present.
Put past slip-ups, rounds, performances, and DNF’s out of your mind. The same goes for ‘what ifs,’ the next race, the next workout, or any other thoughts of the future. Allman’s affirmations were rooted in the present, “I will win.” Not, “I will win next time.”
3. Think about problems as challenges rather than threats.
This goes along the lines of remaining optimistic and positive. Shipherd gives the example of a young runner hearing a college scout is at a race and viewing that as an opportunity to show their strength and resilience, rather than worrying about the consequences of a bad race.
4. Focus on the process, not the outcome.
Another trick to remaining optimistic. “Rather than thinking about how it’s important to place in the top 3 or 5 in the race, concentrate on improving on a technical skill that needs to be worked on, like driving the arms, which will ultimately help improve performance,” says Shipherd. This is an example of how a simple instructional mantra can still help you reach your goal.
5. Keep phrases short and specific.
Five words or fewer seems to be a nice sweet spot. They’re easy to say and easy to remember. As Allman says: “I am capable of winning.”
6. Use first person and present tense.
Self-talk should be about you. Right now. Shipherd likes the example of Muhammad Ali, whose affirmation was “I am the greatest.” He used that before he actually was, she points out.
7. Mean what you say. Then keep saying it.
This is perhaps the key to why Allman’s mantras worked for her. Though she didn’t necessarily believe them at first, she got to a point where she did. Repeating them at practices and before competition solidified them in her mind.
Affirmations are not just for elite athletes. Shipherd notes that we all use self-talk and mantras every day, even if we’re not aware of it. “What I’d recommend is for anyone who is skeptical, track their self-talk during a task or run.” During the run, count how many times you say or think something to yourself. “Keep a tally or use objects to help track. For example, fill one pocket with something small, like paperclips, and move one to the other pocket every time you use self-talk.”
When starting this practice, you may notice how often your self-talk is negative. And realizing that can be helpful in transitioning to more positive thinking. “Increasing one’s awareness of their self-talk use is the first step to take in demonstrating the effectiveness of self-talk and helping them to enhance their own,” says Shipherd.