It’s no coincidence that many of the sporting greats share common traits. From hard-work and determination, to the many sacrifices they made for their sport. But whether it’s Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, self-talk is a skill that comes up time and again. As such, it’s an important tool to have.
The power of self-talk has been widely studied in sports psychological skills training for many years now. As an athlete, even if this isn’t something you currently practice, or give much attention to, it’s never too late. It’s something you can incorporate into your training regime and day-to-day life. It is something we can train ourselves and therefore improve on. This can take time and patience, and is often part of a positive-growth mindset.
Healthy self-talk can improve your performance and enhance your wellbeing. It has numerous health benefits that have been scientifically proven. In this article, we look at a few of the techniques you can adopt and how they can up your game.
What is self-talk?
Self-talk can be considered as the inner dialogue we have with ourselves. Van Raalte et al. define this as “an articulation of an internal position.”
Much of it comes from our subconscious mind, which can shape your thoughts, actions and beliefs. As such, self-talk can be positive or negative.
Researchers believe that positive self-talk can even aid an athlete’s performance and thus can serve an important role in training programmes. A scientific study back in 2014 was the first to demonstrate that self-talk “significantly reduces RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) and enhances endurance performance.”
Different Types of Self-talk
According to experts there are three main types of self-talk in sports, these include;
- Positive self-talk: this tends to consist of positive thoughts and words that make you feel good about yourself. The inner-voice is optimistic and confident, looking forward with a positive outlook. It can also be known as ‘motivational talk’.
- Negative self-talk: in contrast is the voice of self-doubt, which can be depressive, upsetting and has been found to have an impact on performance and recovery from mental health issues. Often times we find that negative thoughts creep in uninvited, but we can train ourselves to recognise and reframe these, as we later examine.
- Instructional self-talk: these thoughts can be used to guide ourselves. Often when learning a new skill or completing a specific task that we’re focused on. It helps us stay strong with a focused mind. It can also be described as ‘neutral talk’.
Psychological Skills Training
Adopting a positive outlook can have many benefits to athletes, and one way to achieve this it through positive self-talk.
Here’s some tried and tested techniques to include in core training and beyond:
- Training: positive self-talk is a tool that should be integrated into your long-term athletic performance training. This should start in training and extend into competitions and more. Research from Slimani & Cheour (2016) found that pre-motivational talk enhanced performance; in both strength training and physical movements.
- The self-talk grid: sports psychologists and sports coaches may use a personalised grid to help form a strategy. It includes; the activity, the type of talk you apply and the objective of the activity. It is a visual tool to bring to life the impact of a positive mindset.
- Positive affirmations: praise yourself for each achievement you reach. This can be as small as attending training on time, to breaking a new record on a sprint. Take time to reflect on the small wins and praise yourself for reaching them.
- Short and punchy: keep your self-talk prep short and punchy to remember easily. Use kind and positive words that reinforce confidence and self-belief.
- Repetition: using your short punchy phrases, repeat the words slowly. Take time to really listen to and believe in them.
- Reflection: asses the way that positive thinking can makes you feel, and how this can impact body and mind. Some athletes may want to log these down. This can be a great way to remember them in more challenging times.
- Wellbeing: whether through meditation, mindfulness, yoga or breathing exercises; taking some time out to breathe and reset.
Function of Self-talk
The self-proclaimed “greatest athlete of all time”, Muhammad Ali, is probably the most famous sports person to bring self-talk to the fore. Ali used self-talk as a tool to psych himself up before a fight, and get ‘into the zone’ for peak performance. It is a technique that has been used to great effect ever since. Some of the noted benefits of self-talk are:
Better quality of life
It’s no surprise that people with a positive outlook, have a higher quality of life. There is even some suggestion that they may live even longer. This has been documented in research from the Mayo Clinic.
Improved immune function
As we know all too well, stress can elicit a physiological response in our bodies. It can also be exhaustive, weighing us down in so many ways. Having a positive outlook through self-talk has been linked to keeping individual stress levels at bay, which in turn can help your immune system to keep strong.
The focus on mental health in recent years highlights the importance it plays in our day-to-day life. Mental Health organisations promote positive thinking as a way to reduce anxiety, encourage focus and to set goals.
Controlling pain using self-talk is possible through relaxation and diverting attention away from the pain. There are other detailed principles in the practice according to health science groups.
Better cardiovascular health
It’s not just a myth; there’s science to show that adults with greater optimism have better cardiovascular health than those who are pessimistic. This also applies to better blood sugar and cholesterol levels, in the 2015 study.
Self-talk can help lower stress levels. By focusing on the positives and really believing in them, we are effectively refocusing our energy in a positive manner.
Using the power of positive words can be a motivating tool. In sports, this is especially beneficial, when it demands so much from you physically as well as mentally. Positive self-talk can help you pick up and move forward again.
Overcoming Negative Thoughts
As touched upon, self-talk can be both positive and negative; and we can alternate between the two at any given time.
It’s only natural to have negative thoughts. But when this creeps in, we can train ourselves to deal with them in more efficient way. Although the natural response might be to ‘block them out’. This is not always the best course of action. It’s important to acknowledge negative thoughts, identify them and then reframe.
Reframing thoughts helps us to be less self-defeatist and be more optimistic. It is a great tool for coping with difficult situations. Sports coaches often advise to start by acknowledging the thought and reframing it with a positive spin. For instance; you might think ‘I feel exhausted in training’. So. reframe this and say ‘Of course I feel exhausted, I’ve just completed a gruelling competition. However, I’ve overcome this before and will again.’
Acknowledge & replace
Another option is to acknowledge the negative thought and replace it with a positive one from self-talk. Some athletes find that ‘allowing’ themselves to have a small window dedicated to negative thinking helps. This is part of controlling emotions and thoughts. Thus, if a negative thought enters your head, write it down and address it during your dedicated window. This can also help purge the thought, as well as better manage your thinking.
Returning full-circle to positive mindset, make a conscious effort to find things you like and appreciate and focus on them. During training this might be as simple as the weather, to overtaking a competitor.
Finally, meditation and mindfulness are great ways to focus your energies on the person you want to be. Self-talk can play its role in setting daily goals, and reminding yourself of successes and achievements you’ve made.
There is no better time to start incorporating self-talk into your daily routine and training programmes than now!
Wellbeing is essential – not just for state-of-mind, but for performance as well. Sports athletes can be especially hard on themselves, and too much self-criticism can be detrimental to their success.
Consciously take time to think about, write down, and articulate your achievements is the first important step. From this you can create a list of mantras to repeat in self-talk. Healthy positive thinking is motivational and can have impact on our wellbeing. From the many studies, it’s also clear that there’s a wealth of physical and psychological benefits associated with a positive mindset. It all starts with one important skill – self-talk.