Sport psychology is the study of how psychological factors affect performance. Similar to sports, poker is a game where psychology plays a major role in the outcome. My publishing company released a book by Travis Steffen titled Peak Performance Poker. This book looks at how diet, nutrition, and exercise can impact one’s cognitive abilities. There is also a chapter on sports psychology where Travis discusses popular sports psychology techniques such as self-talk, countering, affirmations, and visualization. This article includes excerpts by permission from that chapter.
The thoughts we have about ourselves internally—both positive and negative—are called “self-talk”. We’ve all got varying degrees of positive and negative self-talk, and it really does have a great effect on our stress levels, frame of mind, mood, and performance.
Self talk, if done effectively, has been shown to enhance self-confidence and reduce cognitive anxiety levels. Controlling your self-talk so that you’re thinking logically, positively, and constructively at all times will ensure that your self-talk has a positive effect on your performance. For those prone to tilting, positive self-talk might help. Here are some examples of negative self-talk:
- I hate the weather outside right now! Rain is so pointless.
- This is impossible.
- This opponent is killing me. I suck at poker.
If you find yourself thinking, or telling anybody else these types of things, you’re likely holding yourself back from achieving your potential.
When you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk, you can employ a strategy called countering to help eliminate these counter-productive thoughts. You essentially need to counter the negative thoughts by arguing with them. Use logic to refute the belief that led you to the negative thought process. Replace these types of thoughts with positive thoughts like these:
- I know that rain makes my lawn look great, and it helps the foods I love grow and become riper. When I think about it like that, I guess I like the rain.
- Why is this difficult for me? I think if I break down how to get it done it would make it much more manageable.
- This opponent is really good. I can learn a lot by playing with him—and I love a challenge.
You can also counter negative thoughts by turning them into positive ones. Remember, the purpose of countering negative self-talk is not just about finding the positives in a bad situation. It’s more about changing your subconscious outlook on a situation completely by continuing to tell yourself something. If you hate doing squats at the gym, continuing to repeat “I love doing squats” will eventually improve your outlook on squats - assuming you’re truly committed to changing your outlook.
- I love the rain! It’s so cleansing!
- Most people would find this situation impossible. I am not most people. This is nothing I can’t handle.
- I know I can beat this player. I just need to take a different approach.
You may often find yourself engaging in negative self-talk at the poker table after you take a bad beat, or if your opponent shows you a bluff. If you find yourself doing this, make a conscious effort to stop doing so immediately. If your thoughts aren’t positive or constructive, they’re going to have a negative effect on your game.
In addition to countering, there are some other helpful strategies you can use to help you control your self-talk.
Thought stopping is becoming consciously aware of your own self-talk, and using a certain cue or trigger to interrupt the negative self-talk before it has an effect on your play. This trigger can be a word (said aloud) such as stop, or it can be an action. Either way, it should function as a way to make yourself consciously eliminate negative self-talk immediately.
Another confidence-building technique popular with athletes is the use of affirmations. Affirmations are positive statements that you repeat to yourself, often about a goal or desired outcome. By repeating these to yourself over and over, you subconsciously build your confidence, making success much more likely.
An example of a positive affirmation is:
- I am going to play the best poker I’ve ever played today.
- There is nobody who is as prepared for this tournament as I am. I’ve put myself in the best possible position to win today. I will perform at my best.
Simply repeating these over and over won’t be very effective. In order for an affirmation to truly yield results, you need to say each one with emotion and feeling. The more you convince yourself you believe in what you’re saying, the more your subconscious will play along.
Another popular technique is visualization. You may have heard of this one before. High-level athletes often use visualization to get themselves into a successful mindset before competition by imagining themselves performing perfectly. While it's not going to do you any good to imagine the cards falling a certain way, it will help tremendously to imagine yourself performing perfectly with all your senses heightened during play.
I want you to close your eyes and imagine a time when you played the best poker of your life. What did it feel like? What did you hear? What did you see? What did you smell? Remember it all vividly. Everything was falling into place perfectly. You were making perfect decisions, you had control over your table, you were observing every move made by every opponent, and you had supreme confidence in your play. Nothing could stop you. Your actions were effortless and automatic. You were constantly one step ahead of your opposition. You were a machine.
See what we did there? That was visualization! Obviously, you're going to have to make a few tweaks depending on what you're doing or the situation you're in, but you get the idea. Using this before competition has been proven to help put competitors in a state of mind conducive to peak performance by improving concentration and confidence and reducing levels of anxiety.
This article contains excerpts by permission from Peak Performance Poker by Travis Steffen.
This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
Matthew is the owner of Dimat Enterprises, “Publishing Today’s Best Poker Books”. The Math of Hold’em by Collin Moshman and Douglas Zare is available now at pokerbooks.InternetTexasHoldem.com.