Skip to main content

Self-talk and Improving your Performance

self talk

Self-talk seems like a bizarre concept, it doesn’t literally mean talking to yourself, although, you could and it would still be effective. However, self-talk is a very intricately studied concept, especially in the last decade. Many of the top athletes discuss concepts such as:

  • Flow state.
  • Mindfulness.
  • Self-talk.
  • Visualisation.

All various practices of one main concept… the power of your mind and the control you give it over the outcome for what’s ahead.

What is Self-talk?

Self-talk is used often with athletes to help influence behavioural outcomes, and manage situations that would otherwise have an inhibitory response on their performance. Be that across social anxieties, performance anxiety/pressures, mental blocks, and more. Many individuals title it as ‘thought stopping’. To switch what the head wants to say to stop you vs what you choose to say instead.

This isn’t an unheard-of concept – in fact, many of the world’s most elite sportspeople use it, but this flows parallel with business leaders, coaches, and the corporate world in general too. In 2004 Hall and Hardy conducted one of the most famous studies on this concept, conducted on 291 athletes. A multi-dimensional finding and mental skillset that encompasses both verbal and imagery combination and comprised of four main components:

  • What is said.
  • Why it is used.
  • When it is said.
  • Where it is said.

These are personal and variable to the environment, the interesting element of the question is “how”, how does an athlete or professional go about using self-talk.

Is self-talk always focused on negative proponents to drive motivation?

There are two stigmas to break down on this facet, the first being that self-talk needs to be derived from darkness, or a grim “if you want to avoid this place, you need to do this!” ‘psych up scenario. We all fear failure, however, that doesn’t need to be the basis of your mental focus triggers. It can also be personalised and positive. I think we have come to associate the darker mental chatter with elite athletes because that’s what worked for them, and they are at the top of their league so, this must also be what we do if we wish to succeed. Statistics state otherwise – Male athletes tend to use this form of trigger for themselves, in an overt, external, and less internal manner than their female counterparts. Moreover, team sports athletes tend to do the exact opposite.

The second is that motivation is not something that is always there. Its fleeting, consistency beats motivation, but motivation will always be the greatest catalyst. So, if your version of self-talk and putting yourself in a head-space is ‘motivating’ you, but you are doing that every time to get going… that’s actually more likely to be a habit, a consistent one, and you can make that your everyday game plan rather than just a “motivator”. You are already there, this is just part of your strategy now and you don’t need to be motivated each time.

How does Self-talk work?

Individual athletes seem to apply this more than team sports athletes but are also applied by high mental performance demand corporate types too. It is illustrated and described as a ‘time wedge’

Whereby an individual creates a wedge between the activity that’s being described by the self-talk and the self-talk itself. Allowing for the capacity of decision reflection about ‘what’ is occurring around them or about to happen and self-awareness of that part the individual themselves in playing in that occurrence around them. Often this dialogue refers a lot to ‘I’ or ‘me’ self-reflection and accountability of the individual at that moment.

This isn’t just theory, physically this method actually has been shown to exhibit activity in a key part of the brain called the ‘Brocas Region’ and Wernicke area. The Brocas region of the brain is responsible for motor speech. Segmented near the motor cortex within the frontal lobe of the brain and utilised in speech production. It regulates breathing patterns while speaking and vocal differentiation required for speech deliverance and language comprehension. The Wernicke area of the brain is involved in sound and language comprehension.

Developing your Internal Monologue

Self-talk and implementing it takes practice, it was noted in studies that most use self-talk before and after an event, with a small few using it during where the individual seems to maintain focus and motivation. Implemented often when attention is required, and the blocking of invading thoughts needs to occur to centre their attention or persistence and the subsequent performance towards a task is required.

There is no right or wrong way to do self-talk. It comes down to your environment around you, what you are working towards, and paying attention to what point you are at during your role within that environment. The invading thoughts start flowing in, which works to overcome those thoughts by switching up your language. Creating that wedge that we talked about earlier, between being aware of the environment around you, what’s happening in it, and how you see yourself performing in it.

This is not limited to just sporting professionals either remember, this can be implemented by anyone wanting to push past those mental blocks –

  • Sports.
  • Corporate performance.
  • Events.
  • Personal performance towards goals.
  • Academic environments.

Anything that requires you to show up and perform where emotions, anxiety, and doubts can hinder you; self-talk practice to overcome this can be extremely beneficial. Remember, it doesn’t need to come from a place of angst or aggression anchoring either, it’s what alternative emotion and monologue works best for you as an individual while you are having this “I” and “me” discussion with yourself.

References: 

  1. Tod D, Hardy J, Oliver E. Effects of self-talk: a systematic review. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2011 Oct;33(5):666-87. doi: 10.1123/jsep.33.5.666. PMID: 21984641.
  2. St Clair Gibson A, Foster C. The role of self-talk in the awareness of physiological state and physical performance. Sports Med. 2007;37(12):1029-44. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200737120-00003. PMID: 18027992.
  3. Self-talk influences vertical jump performance and kinematics in male rugby union players.Edwards C, Tod D, McGuigan M.J Sports Sci. 2008 Nov;26(13):1459-65. doi: 10.1080/02640410802287071.PMID: 18923954
  4. The ‘I’ and the ‘Me’ in self-referential awareness: a neurocognitive hypothesis.
    Tagini A, Raffone A.Cogn Process. 2010 Feb;11(1):9-20. doi: 10.1007/s10339-009-0336-1. Epub 2009 Sep 11.PMID: 19763648
  5. Geurts B. (2018). Making Sense of Self Talk. Review of philosophy and psychology9(2), 271–285. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-017-0375-y
  6. Effects of Self-Talk: A Systematic Review David Tod,1 James Hardy,2 and Emily Oliver11 Aberystwyth University, Aberystwyth; 2Bangor University Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 2011, 33, 666-687 2011 Human Kinetics, Inc.
  7. Hardy, J., Hall, C. R., & Hardy, L. (2004). A Note on Athletes’ Use of Self-Talk. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 16(3), 251 257. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200490498357
  8. Linnér, L. (2010). The effects of instructional and motivational self-talk on self-efficacy and performance in golf players. (C-essay in sport psychology 61-90 ECTS credits). School of Social and Health Sciences. Halmstad University.