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by Ali Hall

January 1, 2012

Swimmers tell themselves (and others) all kinds of things. On deck, in the locker rooms, between the lane lines. You’ve heard it all, maybe even said it yourself. Some will talk about their achievements and how invincible they are in the pool; some will downplay or even trash talk themselves.

What’s the effect of all this? Well, it turns out that people who try to boost their self-esteem by telling themselves they’ve done a great job when they haven’t could end up feeling dejected instead, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association in the October 2011 edition of their journal Emotion.

Yet, some accuracy in self-perception seems to help self-esteem. In reported studies, high and low performers felt fine when they assessed themselves accurately. Researchers conjecture that this happens because the high performers recognized their strengths and low performers acknowledged their weaknesses and could try to improve their future performance.

“These findings challenge the popular notion that self-enhancement and providing positive performance feedback to low performers is beneficial to emotional health. Instead, our results underscore the emotional benefits of accurate self-assessments and performance feedback,” writes lead author Young-Hoon Kim, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania.

Those who rated their own performance as much higher than it actually was were significantly more likely to feel dejected. “Distress following excessive self-praise is likely to occur when a person’s inadequacy is exposed, and because inaccurate self-assessments can prevent self-improvement,” writes co-author Chi-Yue Chiu, of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

All that said, I checked around with some swimmers: what are some things you say to yourself?

Bob Bruce from Oregon Masters is clear about it: “Most of the things that I say to myself are unprintable.”

Quickly shaking that off, Bob continues: “Keeping it simple, always focusing on effort rather than results, my personal favorite self-talk is the advice from The Little Engine That Could (originally published in 1931), ‘I think I can....’”

Maryland Masters swimmer Fran Weston concurs. And adds: “When I do the 200 fly I just sing 100 bottles of beer on the wall.” (She didn’t say how many bottles it takes her to finish the whole 200 fly.)

Sue Marchetti, also from Maryland, says her focus is crucial. “I never compare myself to the other swimmers who swim my lane or at a swim meet. I guess that is why they call it a psych sheet! And I always say something positive to myself. If I train, then I know I can do it. Even butterfly.”

Maryland swimmer Chris Cullen keeps a very personal edge to it and says what ever is necessary to get to the pool and stay in the water: "If I don't swim, I don't move; simple as that! It keeps my joints from freezing up. I was in a serious car accident in which I had numerous crushed bones…so swimming is essential to my overall well-being.”

Maryland Masters coach and swimmer Nancy Brown thinks it is pretty cut and dried. “All I can say is that negative comments/thoughts produce negative results. Positive comments/thoughts produce positive results. This is true in all aspects of life not only in swimming.”

On that note, and in the spirit of visualizing what we want in life, a swimmer who spoke on the condition of complete anonymity detailed a few years of struggling with backstroke technique. Her mantra? “I have perfect backstroke :)!” Of course!

In 2012 and beyond, as we strive for our fitness…what will we say to ourselves?