Jesse Jackson once said “If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it.” Though I’m not sure how I feel about the Dr. Seuss-like rhyming scheme, I like this quote, and it’s consistent with both sport psychology research and what other highly accomplished individuals have said themselves (e.g. “If you can dream it, you can do it” ~Walt Disney).

‘Tis all very nice of course, but many of us run into a brick wall which prevents us from getting to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Where is this sticking point?

Getting your heart to believe.

How do we get ourselves to wholeheartedly believe something that is not (yet) true? How do we get ourselves to believe that we could make a living as a musician, or become principal bass of the Boston Symphony, when right now we are something less than that?

“The Greatest”

On February 25, 1964, a brash, outspoken, 22-year old boxer named Cassius Clay was scheduled to challenge current heavyweight champion Sonny Liston for the title. Liston was the overwhelming favorite to win (7-1 odds), and not many gave Clay much of a chance.

Nevertheless, the young upstart beat the odds and won the match. His speech following the match contains within it one of the most iconic statements in all of sports history.

“I am the greatest”

This athlete, now one of the most recognized people on the planet, is of course Muhammad Ali.

See part of this moment in the video below…

There are two fascinating things about this story. One, Ali said “I am the greatest” before the fight as well as after. Two, even though he had won the heavyweight title in convincing fashion, nobody else would have thought to call this cocky kid “the greatest.” Later, Ali acknowledged that he said this before he knew he was. Furthermore, he said “I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”

Now, however, Ali is considered to be one of, if not the greatest of all time.

This “I am the greatest” statement is an example of a technique that many others have used to help themselves believe something that is not yet true. The technique has a name — and you’ve probably heard of it.

It’s called an affirmation.

The legacy of Stuart Smalley

Unfortunately, affirmations have a bit of an image problem. People often think they are silly, goofy, corny, even embarrassing. Case in point, do you remember the Stuart Smalley skits on Saturday Night Live? SNL is great, but these skits certainly didn’t do affirmations any favors. Here's a refresher...

You’ll see it when you believe it

Did Muhammad Ali become the greatest just because he said so? No way. Greatness comes with a price tag (and a steep one at that) and Ali certainly paid his dues. As with any great figure, he went through, over, and around many walls in order to reach his current place in history.

Nevertheless, did Ali believe he was the greatest way before everybody else did? I believe so, yes. Absolutely. Were there moments of doubt? Perhaps, but none that he would allow himself to dwell on, or which would undermine the beliefs he was working so hard to cement into his mind.

How does this help?

Affirmations help you do two things.

One, they help you stay focused on what you want. Affirmations force you to articulate your goal, and repeating the affirmation keeps that goal in the forefront of your mind, making it more likely that you will make choices and act in ways that get you closer to this goal.

Two, they help increase our positive expectancy, and make us more likely to expect good things to happen. And when we expect good things to happen, we are more likely to get better results. For instance, how many gold medalists do you think are out there, who went in expecting to lose, but surprised themselves and won a gold medal?

Affirmations in action

I’ve written previously about the pictures and movies you see in your mind’s eye. Affirmations, on the other hand, are the stories you tell yourself, and the words you use to describe yourself. Here are a few guidelines.

1. Find your enthusiasm

Avoid creating an affirmation that you feel lukewarm about. Make sure it is something that means something to you on a fundamental level, that inspires you, or creates a rush of enthusiasm. I could say “I am a world-class runner” until I’m blue in the face, but because running is something I tolerate rather than enjoy, this affirmation is not going to change my life much.

2. Think big

Think big enough that the affirmation gets you excited, but not so big that you can’t help but roll your eyes. For instance, saying “I am getting into the best shape of my life” might be more helpful than saying “I have the body of a supermodel”.

3. Suspend disbelief

Having fun at the movies requires a certain suspension of disbelief, right? You have to be able to imagine that it is possible for a man to turn green and huge when he gets angry because of some lab experiment gone wrong. If not, and you start dissecting all of a movie’s details because “that wouldn’t happen in real life,” you’ve pretty much sucked all the fun out of the experience.

4. Say it out loud

Yes, seriously. Does it feel weird? That’s the point! It’s one thing to think it, but it’s yet another to say it out loud or to write it down on paper. And don’t just say it out loud once or twice. Continue to say it, repeat it, hundreds, thousands of times.

But wait — don’t just put this on autopilot. Say it like you mean it each and every time. Otherwise it just becomes a pointless and mindless drill akin to all those times in grade school when I had to stay in from recess and repeatedly write out the rule I had broken earlier that day (e.g. “I will not bother others, I will not bother others, I will not…”). I swear I was a good kid –  the teachers just couldn’t figure out how to get me to stop talking to everyone.

The one-sentence summary

“Aerodynamically the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumblebee doesn’t know that so it goes on flying anyway.”  ~Mary Kay Ash

photo credit: Martina Rathgens via photopin cc

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About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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