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Self-Talk: what it is, what it isn’t, and how to make it work for you

Self-talk can be an important tool of a mental skills training program. In fact, self-talk is one of the most used mental skills in sports. With its popularity has come several misconceptions about its place in performance psychology, including the prevalent belief that if you just talk positively to yourself then positive things will start to happen. The question is, does it really work this way? The short answer is the same one given in response to most general questions in performance psychology: It depends. Let’s break it down a bit and try to provide you with some useful information that may help you successfully implement a self-talk practice in support of your goals.

Self-talk can serve many functions, and it can come in different forms. Let’s start with the two basic forms: positive self-talk (“It is okay that you missed. Focus and move on!”) and negative self-talk (“C’mon, you suck and can’t make a shot right now. Get it together!”). While positive self-talk is more common, some individuals respond positively to negative self-talk in certain situations. You may already know which of these two categories you would place yourself in, and if not, it is worth giving this some thought. Just because a higher percentage of athletes respond better to positive self-talk doesn’t mean that you do, and this can change based on the situation and what you are targeting. As with most principles of performance psychology, self-awareness is the platform for success.

Next, let’s look at what self-talk can be used to accomplish. This is where it can get a little more complex. It goes beyond just going faster. Knowing what specific area of performance we are targeting is very important. Are we looking to control a cognitive or thought response, increase motivational focus, improve a specific movement or motor behavior, regulate arousal levels or an emotional response, or something else? Are the stimuli that are influencing each of these areas coming from within or from our situational environment? We must identify what it is that we are looking to influence, change, or control. To simplify this a bit, start by simply thinking of things in terms of motivation verses self-instruction.

In some cases, it might be our current self-talk that is the issue. It is a natural tendency to beat ourselves up after a poor performance or race decision and praise ourselves (and, yes, we can overdo it here, too) after a good performance or decision. Both have the potential to influence our overall outcome in either direction. One tip is to start by practicing self-talk with things that are not overly easy (a recovery run) or overly difficult (the peak “A” race of the season). This will allow you to practice and fine-tune things with less of a chance that our natural human tendencies will get in the way.

Now, you can work to identify your individual self-talk strategy targeting a specific area of psychological performance. Let’s look at how we individualize the self-talk program. We will all react differently to self-talk depending on the frequency, method (internal verses spoken, first person verses third person), and length of the “conversation.” As with most things, self-talk can lose its impact if used constantly and without specificity, leaving us without its benefits when we truly need them.

We can also lose impact in the moment if we use too many words to remind ourselves of what it is we are trying to do. This is where a mantra can be very useful. An example of one of my favorite instructional mantras would be “cage and cadence.” Toward the end of an event, as fatigue sets in form can start to break down. What I sense this, rather than try to think about each of the specific components of run form that could be starting to break down (head position, shoulders, arm swing, position of the chest relevant to the hips, run cadence, foot strike position, etc., etc., etc.), I simply start telling myself, “cage and cadence, cage and cadence, cage and cadence.” This triggers me to check in on things one at a time as I run without distracting me from the overall goal of continuing to run as fast as I can push my body to run. We haven’t talked about the possibility for self-talk to become a distraction and move our attention away from other areas of performance, and mantras can serve this dual purpose of representing more complex thoughts without diverting our attention away from primary goals.

I hope this has provided useful information on principles of self-talk and how to go about implementing it in your performance strategy. Remember: self-awareness is key, and take the time to understand what type of self-talk you respond to best, the specific area of performance that you are targeting (motivational, instructional), and what is currently influencing performance (situational or internal). Practicing in lower risk, mid-level intensity situations will provide you with a solid platform to get started. As always, if you have questions or would like to learn more, please reach out to a qualified professional who can guide you.


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