Talk to yourself, it helps!
Athletes and coaches often believe that self-talk can improve performance, confidence and motivation. Here we take a look at how it works and what is the evidence for the power of self-talk.
What is self-talk?
Traditionally, there has been emphasis on positive and negative self-talk. More recently researchers also talk about instructional and motivational self-talk.
Positive vs. negative self-talk
Positive self-talk has been proven to help your performance. At the same time, surprisingly, while many think that negative self-talk causes detrimental performance effects, scientific research has found no confirmation for this belief. It seems that negative self-talk does not make your performance worse.
A possible explanation for this finding is that some athletes may interpret their negative self-talk as motivating (for example, following a silly mistake, athletes may give themselves a “talking to”).
Some scientists have even highlighted the importance of an optimal balance of positive and negative thoughts for well-being. So don’t be afraid to go harsh on yourself sometimes – as long as it doesn’t demotivate you and is balanced with sufficient positive self-talk.
Motivational vs instructional self-talk
A common belief is that the effects of instructional or motivational self-talk on performance depend on the type of task:
- Instructional self-talk, which focuses on technical, tactical, and kinesthetic aspects of movements, should be most effective for precision tasks.
- In contrast, motivational self-talk should work better for the condition-related tasks characterized by strength and endurance, as it is used to increase effort, enhance self-confidence, and create positive moods.
In reality, most research studies conducted to date show that both types of self-talk are equally effective for both precision and condition-related tasks. This means that you are free to decide what to tell yourself. Self-talk, be it “Lift that leg higher” or “Come on, let’s do it”, it will surely help.
How does it work?
Self-talk improves motor skills via four possible mechanisms: cognition, motivation, behavior, and affection.
Cognitive mechanisms include information processing, concentration, and attention. Athletes use self-talk for a variety of attention-based outcomes, for example, to concentrate, shift attentional focus and decrease interfering thoughts.
Motivation refers to self-efficacy, persistence, and long-term goal commitment. While it is not yet fully clear whether self-talk has any effect on self-efficacy, the use of self-talk has been associated with persistence and better performance on a challenging task.
Although self-talk is often promoted as a means of enhancing confidence (which in turn can boost motivation), research findings to date are inconsistent: motivational and instructional self-talk appears to enhance confidence, whereas positive self-talk does not.
Researchers have identified improvements in both subjectively and objectively assessed technique resulting from self-talk. Furthermore, during early phases of skill learning, novices sometimes “talk” themselves through movements. During later stages of learning, the performance becomes more automatic and self-talk may be less necessary. As such, novice athletes may benefit more frequently from the use of self-talk as compared with their skilled counterparts.
Many studies offer support that positive and motivational self-talk can reduce anxiety in a sporting context, even though this mainly applies to cognitive, but not somatic anxiety.
To sum up:
- The use of positive, instructional, and motivational self-talk improves athletic performance. At the same time, contrary to the popular opitnion, currently available data suggest that negative self-talk may not have a detrimental effect on motor skill performance.
- The strongest influence of the self-talk us upon concentration and attention, anxiety, and technical execution of the movement skills.
Full text: Tod, D., Hardy, J., & Oliver, E. (2011). Effects of self-talk: A systematic review. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 33(5), 666-687.