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Let’s start by clearing one thing up: Self-affirmations, the kind we’ll talk about here, are not the same as mantras. In endurance sports, mantras are often pithy statements repeated to get us through rough patches. Think: Cyclist Jens Voight’s “Shut up legs!” Self-affirmations are a bit more cerebral.
Simply put, self-affirmation is the act of focusing on our core values, or the sources of meaning and purpose in our lives. Science suggests doing this can improve feelings of self-worth and, in turn, make us better at handling negative emotions or threats to our sense of self when they arise. Like if you had a crap swim, you will not then think that you are crap.
In a study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience in late 2015, subjects ranked eight values in order of importance to them: creativity, relations with family and friends, sense of humor, independence, business or earning money, politics, religious values, and spontaneity or living life in the moment.
Then the subjects jumped in a brain scanner and were asked to think about a time they did something related to that core value, like when they had fun with friends and family, if friends and family was a top ranked value. They were also asked to consider a scenario in the future where they may have fun with friends and family.
The researchers found self-affirmation works because it’s pleasurable; practicing self-affirmation increased activity in the reward/valuation part of the brain. And practicing it while looking toward the future activated areas of the brain associated with self-insight, processing, and preferences.
As a bonus, both self-affirmation activities led the research subjects (who were generally overweight) to be more receptive to messages encouraging increased physical activity and, in turn, they became more active.
What’s this all mean for triathletes? Taking time to focus on your core values can help you take everything that comes with this sport–from great finishes to times of injury, and everything in between–in stride. At the end of the day, you’ll always be you, no matter how fast you swam that Base 400s set from Day 2.
So instead of walking away from today’s Challenge with three quick-fix statements (I’m the greatest! I’m the best swimmer! I can win!), try making time to consider your core values. Write them down. Then pick your top three and visualize a scenario for each one in which you will experience that value in the future, because, as neuroscientist Dr. Christian Jarrett explains in this Cut article, orienting self-affirmations in the future is like giving them a turbo boost. Below, a prompt to get you started:
Think about a time in the future when you’ll experience [insert core value here].
A time in the future when you might be having fun with family and friends, for instance, for those who rank family and friends highly. Or a time in the future when you might be inspired by people taking political action, or when you might read about current events, should politics top your values list.