Positive Self Talk in Athletes Improves Performance

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One of the simplest concepts of sports psychology is developing positive self-talk. It’s also one of the hardest sports psychology skills to master.

What Is Self Talk?

All day long, most people have a running dialogue with themselves. If you actually stop and listen to these messages, you may wonder how you accomplish anything at all.

How many times in a given day do you find yourself mentally rehearsing the worst possible outcome, or telling yourself you can’t do something, or it's too hard? If you are in the middle of a 5K run and someone darts past you, does that little voice in your head encourage you or shoot you down?

Getting a handle on our self-talk is one of the hardest things many of us will attempt, whether we play sports or not.

In fact, developing positive self-talk is at the heart of many mindfulness-based programs. For an athlete, negative internal messages and thoughts are among the biggest contributors to pre-race jitters and performance anxiety.

How to Practice Self Talk

So just how can we reduce these negative messages? In sports psychology, the goal is to replace negative self-talk with more positive messages.

A basketball player shooting free-throws who tells himself, "I’m not going to make this basket," will need to practice replacing that negative statement with a positive "I’m going to make this shot." While this may not seem like it can work, over time and with repetition an athlete can develop a new habit of thinking positive statements and thoughts and expect a more positive outcome.

It’s this connection between the words and the belief that is the ultimate goal of this technique. Another important factor of positive self-talk is that it must be possible (realistic) and believable.

Making a free-throw is just as much a possibility as missing one, so this message can be believed by the athlete on a very deep level. Telling yourself that you’ll be the next NBA all-star won’t have the same impact because (1) there isn’t any immediate feedback to reinforce the self-talk, and (2) the message may not be believable, and therefore, it’s unlikely to improve self-esteem or efficacy in the athlete.

Research supports the theory that an athlete who continually practices positive self-talk will improve their sports performance. Succumbing to negative mental self-talk is a sure way to reduce performance and sports success.

How to Develop a Self Talk Habit

  • Choose a mantra: To get started with creating more positive self-talk, choose one of two mantras you can use during your training. This could be a simple affirmation, such as "I feel strong," or the mantra "Go, Go, Go," or another simple, positive phrase you can repeat over and over.
  • Practice multiple scenarios: Once you have developed the habit of repeating this phrase during practice to the point where it is automatic, start expanding the dialogue so that you have familiar and comfortable statements for a variety of situations during your sport. For example, if you are cycling and reach a hill, you might say, "I’m a great hill climber," or "I’ve done this before and it’s doable." If you get dropped from the pack you can say, "Anything can happen, and I’m definitely not out of this. Don’t let up."
  • Create a positive mental image or visualization: The phrases and words you choose should be those that you can immediately call up and create a visual picture of yourself doing exactly what you say. The image along with the words is a powerful combination that creates a positive message tied to a belief.
1 Source
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  1. Hatzigeorgiadis A, Zourbanos N, Galanis E, Theodorakis Y. Self-Talk and Sports Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2011;6(4):348-56. doi:10.1177/1745691611413136

Additional Reading
  • Evans S, Ferrando S, Findler M, Stowell C, Smart C, Haglin D. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, July 2007.
  • Hatzigeorgiadis, A., et al. Self-Talk and Sports Performance A Meta-Analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science July 2011 vol. 6 no. 4 348-356

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.