“Whether you think you can or think you can’t—You’re right!”
Self-talk is critical when it comes to mental performance. I mentioned that athletes use motivational self-talk to build self-confidence, stay focused, increase effort, cope in difficult circumstances, and reach their potential in the Bodylogix Blog post “The Mental Side of Sport.” I briefly introduced the idea that you should pay attention to what you are saying to yourself, especially when things get hard. I would like to expand on that in this post, which will heavily feature some psychoeducational components pertaining to our inner dialogue.
To review, self-talk is the verbalizations or statements we make to ourselves. Self-talk is multidimensional, dynamic, and can serve two basic functions when it comes to sports: instruction or motivation.
Instructional self-talk is used for skill development, skill execution, strategy development, and general performance improvement. For example, in wrestling, cues like "fast," "head up," and "turn the corner" would all be examples of instructional self-talk for a single leg takedown. Studies have found that using cue words like this during skill execution can improve technique and performance.1
Motivational self-talk, as mentioned above, can build self-confidence, help you stay focused, increase effort, help you cope in difficult circumstances, and reach your full potential. For example, before every match, I repeat the following to myself: "I am strong, I am fast, I am a great wrestler, and I am ready." This motivational self-talk helps me focus on a positive performance. There have been a multitude of studies demonstrating that psychological interventions including self-talk training for sports athletes are more effective than methods that do not including self-talk training.1
"Self-talk is the most powerful form of communication because it either empowers you or defeats you." This quote definitely resonates with me because I know firsthand—through lived experience as an athlete and through theoretical knowledge from studying psychology—that what people think influences their actions. This is why self-talk strategies were developed in sport psychology, to direct and facilitate human performance. Based on that, here are three suggestions to direct your self-talk for performance:
Self-talk should be POSITIVE and FREQUENT! Research has found that positive self-talk is consistently better for improving performance than negative self-talk. Which sounds intuitive, but research has also shown that successful athletes use more self-talk than unsuccessful athletes.2,3
- Self-Talk should be BRIEF and SIMPLE! Verbal cues should generally be brief, phonetically simple, and logically associated with the task to be more effective. Choose a couple key words that resonate with you and the task you are performing, something that is quick to say and directs your performance.
- Self-Talk should be CHOSEN and OVERT! Self-talk chosen by athletes has positive effects on their levels of intrinsic motivation and research has found it has a more motivational influence than assigned statements.3 There hasn't been much research into whether it is more beneficial to use covert (internal) or overt (external) self-talk, but due to research on goals being more effective if they are publicly known, it is suggested that at least some of an athlete's self-talk to be outward verbalizations.3
Now, that’s all well and good on paper, but no one comes to see me for help when things are going great, they are able to follow the tips above perfectly in every situation, and all of their self-talk is positive, motivational, and effective in producing peak performance. Clients come for help when they are unhappy or aren’t performing well and they want to target and change the negative thoughts. Here is where the psychoeducational piece comes in:
There are two ways the brain forms thought: automatic and intentional.
Automatic thoughts are the fast, automatic, and unconscious mental activity that occurs in response to a triggering event or action. They are stereotypic, emotional, and can be either beneficial or detrimental. For example, when you are driving and it starts to rain you think, "The roads are wet, I better slow down and be careful" which is a beneficial automatic thought. However, automatic thoughts can also be negative and detrimental. You may mislabel cues like someone frowning as "They must dislike me" when that person may just be having a bad day and it has nothing to do with you.
Intentional thoughts are the opposite, they are slow, effortful, logical, calculating, and conscious. This is why intentional thought can also be referred to as "critical thinking." This is where we have some control and can influence what we are saying to ourselves—where self-talk interventions come in!
Our thoughts about an event or experience powerfully affect our emotional, behavioural, and physical responses to it. However, THOUGHTS ARE NOT FACTS! There are a whole slew of logical fallacies or "cognitive distortions" that we fall prey to and it is important to recognize those.
Cognitive distortions are simply unhelpful thinking styles; ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually employed to reinforce our negative thinking or emotions. Think of them as mental traps we can fall into. You may have heard of some of these before, they include but are not limited to: overgeneralizing, all or nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing, etc.
Eckhart Tolle said, "The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking." That is why we must be aware of our thoughts in order for us to intervene when negative or maladaptive patterns emerge.
Now you may be wondering how to do that! Changing our inner dialogue does take consistency, but practicing new ways of thinking can give you a broader perspective and shift your mood. I've got a few helpful tips to begin the process:
- Become consciously aware of your self-talk. Knowledge is power and being aware of unhelpful thinking will help you overcome it more often. In Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), counselling therapists and psychologists use Thought Records. The key is to begin identifying the automatic thoughts and to distinguish between situations, moods, and thoughts. In sport, mental performance consultants (MPCs) use the Self-Talk Use Questionnaire (STUQ). This asks athletes to self-report when they use self-talk, what they say to themselves, why they talk to themselves, and how they use it. Both tools are used to begin the process of analyzing your thoughts and logging them in a quantifiable way to later assess. You can even write them down in a journal or on the Notes app on your phone. Writing things down commits people to it and recording helps cement evidence.
- Dispute the evidence and question the validity. Once we have got at the thoughts, we can challenge the self-criticism by considering whether it’s even true (because often it isn’t) and we can begin to start negating the evidence for any negative thoughts. Once we learn to identify these distortions, we can then answer the negative thinking back, and refute it, dispute the evidence, and question the validity of these ways of thinking, especially when we have those statements written down. Then…
- Replace exaggerated negative thoughts. Find new evidence that supports a more positive and logical narrative and replace the negative thoughts with more realistic statements that move you toward self-acceptance and confidence. By refuting the negative thinking over and over again and replacing the exaggerated negative thoughts with more realistic statements, those negative patterns will slowly diminish over time.
1 Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Galanis, E., & Theodorakis, Y. (2011). Self-talk and sports performance: A meta-
analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(4), 348–356. doi: 10.1177/1745691611413136
2 Ryan A. Hamilton, David Scott & Michael P. MacDougall (2007) Assessing the effectiveness of self-talk interventions on
endurance performance, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19(2), 226-239, doi: 10.1080/10413200701230613
3 Hardy, J. (2006). Speaking clearly: A critical review of the self-talk literature, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 7(1), 81-97, doi: 10.1016/2005.04.002