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Chapter Three: Self Talk

Among mental skills, self-talk is one of the most well-known. However, athletes may struggle with a definition of what self-talk is, and how it might help or hinder performance. This chapter provides detail on what self-talk is, different types of self-talk, how it affects performance, and how to actually use it. Self-talk, put simply, is an individual’s inner dialogue. Depending on the style of inner dialogue, or self-talk, it can be very beneficial to performance. It can enhance performance if the self-talk is useful, focused, positive/motivational, or instructional. It can, however, be detrimental to performance if self-talk is distracting or negative. This brings up a more in depth discussion of different categories of self-talk. Weinberg & Gould (2019) discuss three types of self talk:

  • Positive or motivational self-talk: Focused on increasing energy, effort, and positivity. Not task-related. Ex: “I’ve got this!”

  • Instructional self-talk: Helps the athletes focus on tasks or technical aspects of performance. For instance, a weightlifter might think “shoulder shrug” when performing a power clean.

  • Negative self-talk: Self-critical, counterproductive, and demeaning. An athlete might tell themself “You’re terrible.” This kind of self-talk increases self-doubt and anxiety.

When to Use Self Talk

Self-talk can be used before, during, and after competition. Before competition, self-talk can help athletes increase arousal or decrease anxiety, increase confidence, and turn their focus to task-relevant thoughts. During competition, self-talk can help athletes refocus after a distraction, regain composure after a mistake, and stay focused on task-relevant information. This might include thought stopping. Thought stopping is a technique which includes concentrating on the unwanted phrase shortly, then using a trigger to stop the thought and clear the mind (Weinberg & Gould, 2019). This trigger can be a word or an action, such as using the cue “move on,” or the action of snapping the fingers. Athletes should be mindful of their inner dialogue, and when a negative phrase or thought occurs, use a cue or action to stop the thought.

After competition, athletes can reflect on their self-talk. They can gauge whether their inner dialogue was helpful or harmful, focused or distracting, and develop strategies to improve their self-talk. If an athlete notices that their self-talk is negative, they can take steps to make it more positive and useful. They would do so by creating a chart with their negative self-talk on one side, and a reframed positive statement in the other column. For instance the negative column may have a statement “Come on, that was awful,” the positive column might rephrase it as “One mistake, on to the next play.” The more athletes are aware of their inner dialogue, the more they will notice when their self-talk is negative, and the better they can be at changing it into positive or motivational self-talk.

Six Rules for Improving Self Talk

  1. The first step is to make sure that self-talk is short and specific, for a weightlifter prior to their power clean, this might sound like “fire those hips.”

  2. The next step is using the first person and present tense (ex. “I am firing my hips”).

  3. Third, these should be positive phrases.

  4. Fourth, the athlete should be assertive with their phrases, each one should have meaning.

  5. Fifth, self talk should be kind.

  6. Finally, it should be repeated often.

The more often we repeat phrases and experience thoughts, the more likely we are to accept them as beliefs, or truths about ourselves. Therefore, the more often we think positive and productive thoughts, the more we believe it, and the more confidence we can achieve. Beliefs drive behaviors, and beliefs that are self-limiting set us up for self-defeating behaviors (Mack & Casstevens, 2001).

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