A cue, or “trigger” word, is a sport psychology tool where athletes develop words, acronyms, or phrases that help with focus, motivation, and resiliency. Athletes of all ages and skill levels can use trigger words, and often you will see pro and college athletes with trigger words written on their hands, arms, hats/helmets, and various other places on their equipment or uniform. Trigger words can be in the form of action words, future goals, Biblical verses, and personal commitments — as you can see there are no restrictions or parameters when it comes to developing your own, unique trigger word.
Trigger words can even be acronyms, or letters that stand for words. For example, “RYFP” can stand for “Reach Your Full Potential,” and “SC” can stand for “State Champ.” The key is to develop a trigger word, phrase, or acronym that elicits the best emotional and cognitive responses that provide for better mental toughness, and ultimately a greater chance of performing at a high level.
Why do trigger words work?
With so many athletes using trigger words, we must assume that they “work” in some way, albeit from the focus an athlete improves upon when thinking of the word, or the placebo effect occurs where good things happen to the athlete but the success is a product of other factors, and not the trigger word. If we agree that trigger words do, in fact, have value to athletes who use them (including kids), then efficacy of the trigger word is likely due to the following reasons:
- We can’t simultaneously think about two things at the same time. Our minds are only able to focus on one thought at a time, meaning it is impossible to think about making the next play on the field and at the same exact time also think about completing a math equation. Athletes who deal with nerves and anxiety might use trigger words to stomp out negative thoughts — for example, rather than worry about striking out, an athlete might instead look at his trigger word (i.e. “calm” or “focus” or “mental toughness”) and re-focus his energy on success rather than failure.
- Helps with rhythm and pace, conditions that help with getting in Flow. As humans we are creatures of habit, and we tend to do our best under steady, consistent, predictable conditions. When athletes discipline themselves to look at their trigger word before each play, the routine helps regulate thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that can increase the odds an athlete gets in the zone (or Flow) more regularly.
- Triggers immediate cognitive and emotional thoughts and images (classical conditioning). When a trigger word is conditioned (or prompts an automatic, immediate response) athletes benefit immensely from the effect. We are all conditioned to automatic responses based on specific stimuli (think how you feel when you immediately see a traffic light turn red as you approach the intersection), the key for athletes is to condition their trigger word to positive, powerful thoughts and feelings. For example, for many young athletes the words “state champ” trigger countless childhood dreams and aspirations, and provide for immediate positive energy in the moment they think about one day becoming a state champ.
- Channels focus to what is relevant. When an athlete focuses on and follows through with a trigger word prompt, all his or her attention will be targeted to what is relevant and provides the best chance for future success. For example, rather than becoming nervous because of a hostile crowd (that is irrelevant), he can look at the rod written on his palm that says “RELAX” and remind himself that he can relax, and that the fans have nothing to do with his likelihood for success on the field.
For more help on this topic please check out The Mental Toughness Guide to Athletic Success.