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How to improve your athletic (and other) performance through self-talk

When researchers asked runners to repeat a specific phrase in their heads, like “push,” the runners performed substantially better than they had prior to the intervention. 

Photo credit: ARYEH RABINOVICH / AFP / Getty Images

In 1997, two researchers decided to try their hand at training elite sprinters in a 100m race. They developed a three-stage race plan and assigned a cue to each stage: in other words, at every point, the runners were told to repeat a specific phrase in their heads. For the first phase, acceleration, they were told to say push; for the second, maximum velocity, to say heel; and for the third, speed endurance, to say claw. The result? The runners performed substantially better than they had prior to the intervention, reducing their race time by an average of .26s. And what’s more, they were able to perform more consistently, both in training and in racing, hitting their time more closely and more regularly than before.

What the researchers were doing was training the sprinters in a traditional therapeutic strategy known as self-talk. Since then, a great deal of work has been done on the effectiveness of self-talk on athletic performance, and the results, according to this recent meta-analysis, are striking. Self-talk, it seems, is more than just a gimmick. It actually works.

The type of self-talk matters

But, not all self-talk is created equal. Consider, for instance, the content. What exactly are you saying when you talk to yourself? Go, go go! I can do this! Feeling great! I’m the best! Give it all I’ve got! Or, is it more along the lines of, See the target! Push! Heel! High elbow! Left knee! The distinction is one of the more significant elements of self-talk. The first category of exclamations is known as motivational, the second, as instructional. And they don’t work equally well.

In general, instructional self-talk seems to have an edge, especially in activities that require fine motor skills. Why? The data suggest that instructional talk helps hone concentration and focus attention, two skills that are essential to athletic performance, especially when the pressure is on.

However, motivational self-talk has a place, too. In feats of simple endurance, strength, and other so-called gross skills, it works well. In these areas, specific attention is not as essential. It might just be enough to keep motivated long enough to push through. Presumably, you already have the baseline strength; now, it’s just a matter of not giving up easily.

Don’t worry: You don’t actually have to talk to yourself

Many people balk at the idea of talking out loud to themselves as they engage in anything, be it a sport or another activity entirely. It’s embarrassing. It draws attention. It can make you seem loopy to those who aren’t in the loop.

As it turns out, that’s just fine. Talking to yourself in your head is just as effective as saying the words out loud. As long as you are really saying them, and saying them conscientiously and at the right time, the process is what actually matters. So, just do whatever feels most comfortable and right.

Self-talk helps both novices and experts

And there’s more good news. Novices and experts alike benefit from self-talk. For beginners, it can help overcome learning hurdles. Self-talk is easy to learn and the benefits are immediate – something that can’t be said of many other interventions (and isn’t it better to nag yourself than to have someone else nagging you?). But, training helps. It helps a lot. The more you do it, the more effective it becomes. And there, the experts benefit, too. Even those who have reached the seeming peak of their career might find that self-talk gives them the necessary push to reach just a little higher, or more consistently, or more effectively under stress and pressure.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that top athletes in all areas, and especially in those that require fine motor skills and concentration, like golf or tennis, use self-talk on a regular basis, perhaps without even realizing they are doing it.

Going beyond sports

But what if you’re not an athlete? The benefits of self-talk are not confined to sports. In fact, the technique originally came from cognitive behavioral therapy, as a tool to help people overcome persistent thought patterns, behaviors, and interpretations of events. You talk to yourself to direct your own attention, instead of letting it be directed by something else, and in so doing, you learn to manage your behavior.

The technique has proven effective in everything from learning to coping with depression. A specific type of self-talk, self-affirmation, has been shown to help in test performance and learning, in overcoming social stress, and in dealing better with negative situations. In fact, whenever you need to enhance your attention or overcome a thought pattern or behavior that you find disruptive, self-talk is one strategy that can come to the rescue.

How do you learn effective self-talk?

Self-talk is not a difficult skill to learn. What you need to understand are two basic and closely-related questions:

(1) What are the features of the task at hand? To maximize the value of self-talk, you need to match it to the situation. Is it something that requires attention, concentration, fine skill? Use an instructional approach (for the specific instructions, see step 2). Is it something that requires sheer endurance, something you need to get through, something where you find yourself wanting to give up just a little too early? Use a motivational approach.

(2) What do I want to accomplish? Once you understand the task that needs to be done, ask: what is standing in my way? What is it, exactly, that I want to improve? That will inform the actual content of your self-talk message. If you’re an athlete, is there a persistent mistake that you make? If you are studying for a test or learning a new skill, is there something that prevents you from learning? Maybe your mind wanders; maybe you are too easily distracted; maybe you focus too much on the beginning and don’t have time to get to the rest. Whatever it is, focus on that as the main point of your self-talk message. And every time you find yourself doing it, give yourself a gentle reminder. And if you are pursuing a motivational approach, think: what most motivates me? Do I want to be the best? Do I want to not let down someone else? Do I just want the satisfaction of finishing? And again, whatever it is, let it be the center of your message to yourself in those moments when you find yourself tire.

Self-talk is just one tool of many

Now, self-talk is not a cure-all. It is just another strategy to add to your arsenal of techniques for improving your ability to perform to your highest standards. Also important—and, I should note, part of proper self-talk—is goal setting, or setting specific targets for yourself to accomplish. Then, there is relaxation, or the ability to loosen your mind and body even in moments of stress. Imagery, or visualization of whatever goal you have, can also be immensely helpful. And the list goes on.

But the beauty of self-talk is its relative ease. It’s both easy to learn and easy to use. You can build it into almost any task or any routine you already have, without significant disruption. And in my mind, any tool that might improve my ability to perform is a good one to know. You might not always use it. You might find it not always working for you. But unless you give it a fair shot, you’ll have no way of knowing.


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