Talk is Cheap and Very Effective


One of the easiest and most powerful ways to use the mind to stimulate peak performance is through self-talk. Self-talk is the running dialogue that goes on inside the head of an athlete leading up to, and during competition.

What we say to ourselves really matters – self talk has been proven to have a significant impact on performance output. Few of our thoughts are neutral, and a good rule of thumb is to consider that every thought is either building our confidence or diminishing it.

Combining self-talk with visualization can be a potent combination for athletes to manage their mindset. Where visualization is seeing something in order to generate a mental state you want, self-talk is consciously thinking things to yourself – or even saying them out loud – to do the same thing.

Former England goalkeeper Joe Hart is a huge believer in the power of self-talk and regularly practices it as part of his pre-game routine. Hart’s belief in the power of self-talk is clear when he says,

“Our thoughts have a huge impact on how we feel. If you can learn how to think
before a game, you can influence your performance on the field. Self-talk is a
technique that positively manages your inner voice. It only takes a few minutes
and helps you prepare for the ninety minutes ahead. Let any negative thoughts
go and replace them with positive “I will” or “I can” statements. Before a game
I tell myself, “I can stop anything, and I will dominate my area.”

The power of self-talk is also strongly supported through research, which we will explore next.

In 2011, researchers conducted a series of 32 tests to determine the impact of self-talk on sports performance. Overall, the study found resounding evidence that self-talk positively impacted performance across a variety of sports.

The research also looked at the “type of talk” and its impact. Researchers labelled two different types of self-talk, motivational (telling yourself you can do it) and instructional (telling yourself exactly what needs to be done). Not surprisingly the tests showed that motivational self-talk was more effective on novel tasks requiring less skill, whereas instructional self-talk was better for fine tasks (like executing a difficult golf shot or completing a complicated drill during a hockey practice).

So, while the studies showed that self-talk is a positive contributor to performance, it seems that the type of dialogue is also important for the task at hand.

The results of the study suggest that athletes can benefit from working on their self-talk. The more athletes can be generating thoughts that build their confidence the better. Like a lot of performance habits, self-talk requires practice and often experimentation to suit the individual.

Below are a few techniques for athletes to consider for developing positive self-talk:

  1. Establish a Baseline: This begins with journaling (oh no not more journaling!). After practice and competition athletes should track their thinking patterns by writing down their mix of positive vs. negative thoughts. They should also keep a tally of how much of their competition requires instructional versus motivational self-talk. Once they know where they currently sit, they can work with a coach (or on their own) to establish a plan for improving their self-talk output.
  2. Create Your Stop Sign: This is where visualization can play a big role. Athletes should develop a word or symbol that they can direct their mind to when negative thoughts creep in. For many elite athletes, they actually picture a stop sign in their minds as a cue to stop their negative thinking patterns. The idea behind this cue is to drive awareness of what is going on (ie negative thinking or self-talk) and refocusing on the task with positive thoughts.
  3. Develop a Positivity Bank: Again, visualization plays a big role in this technique. Athletes work on building a memory bank of great performances, great execution and great thinking to be tucked away in their brains (writing these down will also improve memory recall). 2 or 3 memories of “in the zone” performances are usually enough to change the mindset of the brain. These memories can be called upon as the next step after athletes see their stop sign.
  4. Learn to Reframe: When athletes are struggling with a pattern of negative thoughts and self-talk, reframing the situation is often a helpful technique for getting out of the spiral. A great way to do this is to use the “reverse golden rule”. The golden rule is of course to treat others as you’d want to be treated. In this case the athlete is encouraged to treat themselves the way they’d treat a teammate. Most athletes wouldn’t be critical or hard on a teammate but would instead try to be helpful and supportive. Picturing a friend or teammate struggling with the same negative thoughts that they are, usually helps the athlete practice and develop self-empathy.

Dr. Michael Gervais, one of the leading thought leaders in the world of sports and performance psychology shares a very pointed warning for parents and coaches,

“be careful how you speak to young athletes … your words
and your tone become their self-talk”.

Parents and coaches need to think twice about the messages they deliver to young athletes, knowing the relationship that positive self-talk has on performance.

While maybe not the best example of a humble athlete, one of Muhammad Ali’s greatest strengths was his ability to tell himself things to help grow his confidence. Years after being on top of the boxing world, he famously shared, “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was”.

Enjoy chatting with yourself.
Hatzigeorgiadis, Antonis & Nikos, Zourbanos & Galanis, Evangelos & Theodorakis, Yannis. (2011). Self-Talk and Sports Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Perspectives οn Psychological Science. 10.1177/1745691611413136.

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