Optimize performance through positive self-talk

Self-talk is what you say to yourself in your heat-of-the-moment thoughts. Throughout the day, you interpret and review the different situations you face. Effective use of self-talk can improve your performance by helping you regulate your feelings, thoughts, and energy about those events. Positive self-talk can help you feel confident, improve coordination, control fine motor skills, enhance your focus, and perform better at endurance events too.

No matter your skill level at a particular task, self-talk can help you perform optimally. To get the most from self-talk, use statements that are specific to you and what you’re doing. The strategies below will help you develop instructional and motivational statements, so you can stay energized, maintain good form, and remember your training.

Motivational self-talk

When your self-talk is productive, it can motivate you to stay on track and work through challenges. Other times, your self-talk can become your worst enemy, distracting you or weakening your motivation. Sometimes you might tell yourself, “You aren’t good enough,” “You can’t do this,” or even “You aren’t prepared.” When self-talk begins to get in your way, you need to grab control of it and fight back: Use evidence to prove your thoughts false or readjust your focus.

Examples: You’re running in an endurance event and thinking, “I’m never going to finish! I can’t do it!” The good news is you can fight back and motivate yourself by saying, “I know I can do this! I’ve been training 5 days a week for 3 months to prep for this event!” Self-talk such as “Take a deep breath” or “I’m okay” can release the nervousness you might be feeling as well. Or simply repeating the word “focus” might help you concentrate on the task at hand.

Results: Motivational self-talk boosts performance by helping you build confidence, enhance your belief in your ability to perform, reduce jitters, and improve your mood. It’s also particularly useful for tasks that involve strength and endurance, reaction time when faced with making a choice, or speed. Motivational self-talk can improve reaction time and enhance your physical performance when it comes to balance and vertical jumps too.

Instructional self-talk

Instructional self-talk involves talking yourself through a task with step-by-step reminders at each phase while performing the task in order to complete it successfully. When you’re learning something new, instructional self-talk can help you remember all the necessary steps of the new task. Experts use this method to ensure that all steps are completed in the correct order and manner. To develop effective instructional self-talk statements, it’s important that the steps are accurate to begin with; being shown how each step looks is ideal.

Example: If you’re practicing marksmanship, statements such as “See the target…straighten elbows…lock onto target…and fire” are helpful. You might even want to number each step, especially if there are a lot of them, so the previous statement would become “Step 1, see the target; step 2, straighten elbows…”

Results: Using this method to break down complex tasks or activities that require, for example, precision (fine motor skills) can help you focus and complete them with greater accuracy.

Finish line

Your self-talk can either hurt you or help you. Grab control over your thinking and use your self-talk to stay motivated and focused! It can increase your performance at endurance events, work, school, and even your relationships. Self-talk is a skill, so the more you practice it, the better you’ll perform. Also, use HPRC’s “ABCs of Performance” worksheet to learn more ways to practice “trying on” positive self-talk for peak performance.

Resources

Arent, S. M., & Landers, D. M. (2003). Arousal, anxiety, and performance: A reexamination of the inverted-U hypothesis. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 74(4), 436–444. doi:10.1080/02701367.2003.10609113

Hatzigeorgiadis, A., & Biddle, S. J. H. (2008). Negative self-talk during sport performance: Relationships with pre-competition anxiety and goal-performance discrepancies. Journal of Sport Behavior, 31(3), 237–253.

Shoham, V., & Rohrbaugh, M. (2016). Interrupting ironic processes. Psychological Science, 8(3), 151–153. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00400.x

Theodorakis, Y., Hatzigeorgiadis, A., & Chroni, S. (2008). Self-talk: It works, but how? Development and preliminary validation of the functions of self-talk questionnaire. Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science, 12(1), 10–30. doi:10.1080/10913670701715158

Tod, D., Hardy, J., & Oliver, E. (2011). Effects of self-talk: A systematic review. J Sport Exerc Psychol, 33(5), 666–687. doi:10.1123/jsep.33.5.666