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Body Language is Self-Talk

Ball is Psych LV

Hands on Your Knees vs Hands on Your Head

Most athletes were taught from a young age not to put their hands on their knees after a sprint. Putting your hands on your head was believed to be the superior way to recover. Many coaches claimed that putting your hands on your head would open up your lungs to allow more oxygen in. Contrary to popular belief, new studies have proven that the posture of having your hands on your knees will allow you to recover faster.

Many athletes who felt misguided wanted an apology from every coach who told them to stand up straight and get their hands off their knees. ​In light of these new findings, the debate continues over whether or not players should recover with their hands on their knees. However, the new findings fail to acknowledge the power of body language and the mind-body feedback loop.

The Science Behind Body Language

Your mind and body are in constant communication. Subconsciously, your brain is always taking inventory of your body language. Your brain is always aware of analyzing things like your facial expressions, muscle tension, posture, breathing, and hand gestures. 

A study done in the 1980s found that people found jokes to be funnier when they held a pencil between their teeth. The pencil trick forces your face to mimic a smile, and your brain doesn’t care if it’s a fake smile, it’s still going release the happy chemicals.

A more recent study was done by Tarah Kraft and Sarah Pressman at the University of Kansas called, “The Role of Positive Facial Feedback in the Stress Response” ( Participants were put through stressful tasks while holding chopsticks in their mouths. The picture below demonstrates the facial positions used in the experiment and the electrodes with wires were measuring muscle activity.

Those who had the facial expression most similar to a genuine smile (far right) were less stressed and showed faster physiological recovery. Your emotional experience is heavily influenced by your facial expressions, and so is your physical experience. Your body language tells you what to think and how to feel.

Not only do we smile because we feel happy; we feel happy because we smile.

Not only do we stand tall when we feel confident; we feel confident because we stand tall.

Not only do we maintain eye contact when we feel engaged; we feel engaged because we maintain eye contact.

Not only do we breathe deeply when we feel calm; we feel calm because we breathe deeply.

Great body language is not about faking feelings, it’s about recognizing that you can behave your way into feelings.

Act tired (even if you don’t feel tired) = feel more tired

Act unbothered (even if you don’t feel unbothered) = feel more unbothered

Act energized (even if you don’t feel energized) = feel more energized

The Influence of Body Language

When Dr. ​​Albert Mehrabian (researcher of body language) was comparing the best way to decipher someone’s attitude, he developed the 7-38-55 rule. This rule indicates the breakdown through which attitude is communicated:

7% words: what you say

38% voice: your tone, pitch, pace, and volume 

55% body language: the visible actions you show with your body

In other words, 93% of how you communicate is not about what you say, it’s about how you say it. Your tone of voice and body language carry more weight than the words that you use. It’s hard to overstate the importance of body language because it influences how you think, feel, communicate, respond, recover, and perform.

Sport Psychologist Michael Gervais says that confidence comes from 1 place: what you say to yourself. I agree, and I’d like to add that body language is a form of self-talk. Although it often happens on a subconscious level, what your physical body is doing informs what you are saying to yourself. When you keep your head held high, stand tall, and look focused, you are sending a message to yourself that conveys strength and a confident mentality. When you frown, hang your head, and drop your shoulders, everything you are saying to yourself is likely negative.

Managing Emotions Through Body Language

The Miami Heat are known for having one of the NBA’s most disciplined cultures and conditioning regimens. Pat Riley does not want his players in good shape or even great shape. He wants them in world-class shape. Reportedly, the Miami Heat fine their players each time they rest with their hands on their knees in practice or games.

You don’t have to ignore all of your feelings for the sake of great body language. Listen to your feelings, but be picky about which emotions you decide to show. This is performance psychology. If you play a sport, you are a performer. You have to think like an actress (or actor). When you are on the court, if you show every emotion you are feeling, you give your opponents a huge advantage. You can be aware of your emotions without being hijacked by them and becoming emotional in a costly way. This is the game behind the game. When you see your opponents doubled over from fatigue, you know that you can take advantage of how tired they are by pushing harder. If you are intentional about having great body language, and you never let them see you like that, they are going to get frustrated. It’s intimidating when you see a team that always looks strong, confident, and unwavering in their effort and attitude. It’s hard to stop a player who maintains great body language, even when they are not performing well.

A good way to test your body language is to ask yourself this question: 

If someone was only observing your body language, would they know what was happening in the game?

  • Would they know based on your reaction that you missed the shot?

  • Would they be able to tell that your team was losing?

  • Would your frustration inform them that you were not playing well?

Embracing the Mind Games

Kobe Bryant managed his emotions and body language masterfully by creating an alter ego on the court. The Black Mamba was so much more than just a nickname, it was the costume he dressed up in before he went out on stage.

Kobe was in charge of handling everything going on in his personal life. Kobe was responsible for coping with the pressures of being an NBA superstar. Kobe’s job was to address everything that he was struggling with and make sure his body was healthy.

The Black Mamba was in charge of performing on the court. The Black Mamba’s job was to portray a cold-blooded assassin.

Kobe was the actor. The Black Mamba was the character he played.

This persona allowed him to move on mentally much quicker than his opponents. When things went wrong and where Kobe would have overreacted, The Black Mamba didn’t have to. The Black Mamba knew his job was to win, and he wasn’t going to let Kobe’s emotions get in the way.

“There’s a difference between who you are and what you are. What I am when I step on the court is, I become that [black mamba]. I am that killer snake. I’m stone cold.” - Kobe Bryant

If it helps you to manage your emotions and body language, create an alter ego. Name and describe your on-court character.

Say it With Your Body

Body language screams; it broadcasts your toughness for all to see, but body language is loudest to the person displaying it. Your facial expressions, posture, and emotional outbursts are loud and clear instructions that your mind listens to.

Body language is powerful, not just because of the message it sends to the world, but because of the message it sends to you.

Body language is self-talk. What are you saying to yourself with your body language?

Written by Julie Fournier

Both of Julie's books are available on Amazon:

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