Genuine Belief and Self-Talk

I just finished reading Herb Benson’s Beyond the Relaxation Response the follow up to his seminal work The Relaxation Response (1974). Although published in 1984, this text provides timeless health and stress management strategies.  Beyond the RR takes Benson’s initial RR approach (meditative breathing paired with a cue word or phrase) and adds the “Faith Factor.”

While Benson cites many potential ways that the words of organized religions or spiritual paths might add some strength to the Relaxation Response, the “Faith Factor” is not necessarily about either.  The “Faith Factor” in my eyes is actually about what is too often missing from the psychological skill of self-talk or cue words – phrases or statements that are both meaningful and believable to the athlete.  As stated by Benson in step 1 of the RR with the Faith Factor: Pick a brief phrase or word that reflects your basic belief system.

The importance of this concept is perhaps best highlighted by the failings of a simple phrase told to athletes regularly, “Be positive.”  Away from the action most athletes agree with the idea of being positive, but when the ball is in play, sport becomes serious business and positive just doesn’t quite feel genuine.  As stated to me a handful of years ago by an Ivy league tennis player, “I know I need to be more positive on the court, but saying things like, ‘You can do it,’ or ‘Don’t worry, you’re a good player,’ just feels so disingenuous.”  Clearly steady dialogue of kind words to herself would not benefit this player, they were outside of her belief system… or not within her “faith factor.”  Certainly negative self-talk was not a benefit to this player, but she had little chance of changing the dialogue to something that was simply unbelieveable to her at the time.  Self-talk has to be both productive language and dialogue that the athlete can comfortably embrace.

Benson’s Relaxation Response clearly has health and wellness benefits.  When he chose to encourage adding the Faith Factor to the meditative phrase its power to truly resonate with a person was greatly enhanced.  This is an important lesson that needs to be incorporated into an athlete’s self-talk.  Phrases and words should be chosen not because they they are positive or the right things to say, but rather because they are both productive to performance and embraceable to the individual.  Learn from the “Faith Factor,” think about the self-talk you chose, making sure it will resonate and be remembered in the heat of competition.

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