What is Self-Talk?

Self-talk  refers  to  statements  that  athletes  and exercisers address to themselves; these might represent automatic verbalizations or more deliberate forms of speech. Although such statements can be said aloud, most self-talk is said covertly as a silent voice in one’s mind. The nature of self-talk can also reflect positive (e.g., I can do this) or negative (e.g., don’t screw it up) verbalizations. However, there is also an interpretative element associated with self-talk,  which  is  idiosyncratic  and  potentially  more important  than  the  content  of  self-statements  per se.  For  instance,  while  two  exercisers  might  say the same phrase to themselves when fatigued (e.g., this is tough going), one may view the statement as an indication to give up, whereas the other might interpret it as a sign that the intensity she is working at is the appropriate level and to keep going. Self-talk  is  sometimes  referred  to  in  the  research literature  as  private  speech,  verbal  rehearsal,  or inner dialogue.

Although  encouraging  athletes  to  use  particular  types  of  self-talk  is  commonplace  within  the sports  setting,  when  compared  with  most  other mental  skills,  self-talk  remains  relatively  underresearched  despite  researchers’  having  adopted  a more systematic approach to the study of self-talk over  the  past  decade.  Some  early  research  examined  the  effects  of  training  athletes  in  the  use  of self-talk as part of larger mental skills training that involved training in skills such as mental imagery, relaxation, and goal setting. Such studies provided evidence supporting the use of mental skills packages but did not allow researchers to identify the effect  of  each  individual  mental  skill.  However, more recent research has been focused on self-talk alone.  Systematic  reviews  of  the  research  on  self-talk have confirmed that the skill can be effective at enhancing performance and that these benefits hold  across  various  sports  or  tasks  and  skill  levels. That said, there is a relative dearth of research on the effectiveness of training skilled performers in the use of self-talk; most studies have involved unskilled university students as participants. There is  also  little  research  on  the  effects  of  self-talk on  performance  in  real  competitive  settings,  as opposed to on laboratory-based tasks or in practice settings.

Structures and Forms of Self-Talk

The  structure  of  self-talk  can  range  from  single “cue” words (e.g., head), to specific phrases (e.g., get there), to full intact sentences; regardless, most self-talk  is  abbreviated  in  form.  Also,  abbreviated cue words or short phrases are usually taught in  studies  of  self-talk  training.  It  is  suggested within  the  research  literature  that  the  content  of self-talk  interventions  (i.e.,  programs  of  self-talk training)  should  be  limited  to  a  few,  phonetically simple terms, logically associated with movement phases integral to successful task execution. When employing  these  recommendations,  research  has generated data to support these claims; for example,  saying  instructional  self-talk  words  such  as split and turn, representing the parting of the feet to create a firm base and turning of the shoulders to  control  the  racquet  head,  enhances  the  accuracy of a tennis net volley. There is also a research base supporting the use of motivationally oriented self-talk with tasks more reliant upon strength and power  (e.g.,  a  defensive  clearance  in  soccer)  than precision.  Even  though  most  of  this  research  has used  the  rather  bland  motivational  phrase  I  can, there  is  consistent  evidence  that  the  use  of  this benefits  performance.  This  suggests  that  the  uses of  self-talk  extend  beyond  the  use  of  movement-based cue words to organize and prompt the execution of technical movement patterns.

Recognizing that more instructional as opposed to motivational forms of self-talk might influence task execution differently depending on the characteristics of the task at hand, a matching hypothesis has  been  presented  within  the  research  literature on  self-talk.  It  states  that,  because  instructional self-talk helps athletes focus on task relevant cues, it should be more effective than motivational self-talk  for  tasks  dependent  on  technique  and  precision. Conversely, motivational self-talk ought to be more  effective  than  instructional  self-talk  for  the execution  of  gross,  strength-based  tasks  because it  helps  the  performer  achieve  a  more  appropriate  mind-set  reflecting  confidence  and  a  positive mood state. While there is some evidence supporting this hypothesis, at present the available literature suggests that the consistency or robustness of the different beneficial effects is questionable. For example, most studies find benefits for both types of  self-talk  but  with  no  clear  difference  between the “matched” and “unmatched” self-talk for the task type. For instance, instructional self-talk (e.g., straight and clean, referring to the backswing and contact  of  a  golf  putt)  is  not  significantly  more beneficial than motivational self-talk (e.g., you can do this) for aiding execution of an accuracy-based task (e.g., 6-foot golf putt).

The categorization of self-talk as either instructional or motivational in terms of the function of self-talk is a relatively new within the research on self-talk concerned with sport. A traditionally held view  among  sport  psychologists,  still  currently prevalent, is that positive self-talk is to be encouraged over negative self-talk. To this end, a number of mental techniques (e.g., thought stopping, cognitive restructuring) have been espoused within the applied  literature.  Given  the  apparent  interest  in this  aspect  of  self-talk,  the  accompanying  lack  of experimental examination is notable. Nevertheless, the available research does support the belief that positive  self-talk  can  lead  to  enhanced  performance although the opposite is not necessarily true for negative self-talk.

One key area to consider, therefore, is that performers’ interpretation of their self-talk may be of greater importance than its content. Early research exploring  athletes’  self-talk  identified  that  some athletes reported negative self-talk to be motivating. While the motivating effects of negative thinking may be only realized by certain athletes under certain circumstances, these findings emphasize the importance of discussing how an athlete views and responds to self-talk as an integral part of working with him or her. For example, if an extremely resilient athlete uses negative and self-critical self-talk to increase his or her own effort or refocus attention  following  a  lapse  in  performance,  this  may be  an  entirely  functional  use  of  self-talk  and  not something  a  sport  psychologist  would  necessarily want to change.

Recent  theory-based  studies  of  self-talk  have examined   its   interpretation   in   greater   depth. Research drawing from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s  self-determination  theory  (SDT)  has  suggested  that  whether  self-talk  is  interpreted  as self-pressurizing  or  self-supportive  may  be  an important  determinant  of  subsequent  motivation,  emotion,  and  behavior.  Specifically,  self-talk that  emphasizes  the  perspective  of  the  athlete, provides  the  athlete  with  information  and  feedback  about  his  or  her  competence,  and  fosters  a sense  of  empowerment  is  likely  to  result  in  more positive  forms  of  motivation,  positive  emotions, and  ongoing  task  engagement  and  application  of effort.  Conversely,  self-talk  that  is  pressurizing, critical,  and  undermines  personal  empowerment is likely to result in a lack of task engagement and more negative emotional effects. Thus, a positively phrased self-instruction (e.g., keep your head still) perceived by the individual as controlling and pressurizing  may  in  fact  have  negative  consequences. Equally, a stern self-administered “talking to” may emphasize that the athlete has the ability to alter his or her situation, with adaptive consequences.

This  aforementioned  work  goes  some  way toward  helping  address  the  general  limitation associated  with  research  on  self-talk—namely,  a lack  of  theory-based  research  and  the  absence  of an  actual  theory  of  self-talk  to  date.  In  an  effort to systematically make sense of the existing data, frameworks  summarizing  the  effects  of  self-talk are currently being developed and refined. A sport-specific model, suggested by James Hardy and his colleagues, centers around the relationship of self-talk  to  performance,  with  theoretically  grounded causes of self-talk and potential mechanisms helping  to  explain  the  performance  effect  identified. Specifically, the model emphasizes that both individual  difference  factors  and  situational  variables can  influence  athletes’  use  of  self-talk.  Individual difference  factors  may  include  the  athletes’  preferences  for  processing  information,  their  belief in  the  efficacy  of  self-talk,  and  also  more  global personality   characteristics   such   as   optimism, trait  anxiety  (TA),  and  neuroticism,  for  example. Situational  variables  include  task  difficulty,  game circumstances (e.g., having lost an important point in a tennis game), and the influence of significant others  (e.g.,  coaches).  There  is  some  evidence  to suggest  that  athletes  model  their  self-talk  from coaches’ comments and feedback, consistent with social learning-based models of behavior.

Pathways to Influencing Performance

In  terms  of  the  mechanisms  explaining  how  self-talk might influence performance, four main pathways  are  highlighted:  cognitive,  motivational, behavioral, and affective. Although conceptualized as  separate  pathways,  it  is  likely  that  the  underpinning  explanations  actually  work  in  combination.  First,  the  category  of  cognitive  mechanisms refers to processes such as information processing, concentration,  attention  control,  and  attentional foci.  Athletes  report  using  self-talk  to  aid  concentration  and  to  direct  and  redirect  attention  to selective and important aspects of the skills being executed. Specific cue words have been implicated in  the  deliberate  changing  from  one  attentional focus to another (e.g., prior to the start of a race a sprinter pulling her attention away from the cheering crowd and on to the immediate task at hand— driving as quickly as possible out the blocks after the  gun  blasts).  There  is  also  some  evidence  that self-talk can reduce the occurrence of more internally  oriented  distractions  such  as  interfering thoughts  (e.g.,  task-irrelevant  thoughts,  such  as What  am  I  going  to  have  for  dinner?)  while  performing sport skills.

In  terms  of  motivational  mechanisms,  self-talk may improve performance by triggering enhanced effort  and/or  greater  long-term  persistence.  For example,  self-talk  may  act  as  a  form  of  verbal persuasion, improving an athlete’s self-confidence, which in turn causes them to invest greater effort, for  longer.  However,  to  date,  controlled  experiments  have  found  equivocal  support  for  the  role of  confidence  in  the  self-talk  to  performance relationship.   Nonetheless,   the   use   of   specific motivational  self-talk  phrases  (e.g.,  I  can)  has resulted in increases in athletes’ confidence levels. Alternatively,  motivation  and,  in  turn,  performance  might  be  influenced  by  the  interpretation of  self-talk  such  that  self-talk  viewed  as  reinforcing  ability  and  choice  ought  to  be  beneficial  and phrases which are self-critical, increasing pressure will likely have detrimental effects.

Behavioral   or   biomechanical   mechanisms underlying  the  effect  of  self-talk  on  performance have  perhaps  greater  evidential  support.  Changes in  athletes’  form  and  movement  patterns  have been  shown  to  result  from  the  use  of  either  cue words (e.g., “knee” referring to keeping one’s knee over the ball when executing a low driven shot in soccer)  or  longer  instructional  phrases.  Typically, these  types  of  self-talk  focus  on  segmented  parts of a movement or action (e.g., phases of a tennis forehand or golf swing); however, some movement changes have been noted following the use of more generic instructional commands—for example, the use of the phrase drive up as an attempt is made at a vertical jump.

Last,   self-talk   may   influence   performance through  a  variety  of  mechanisms  concerning  the regulation  of  affective  states  (e.g.,  positive  and negative moods) and arousal (e.g., being “psyched up”). Different patterns of self-talk are associated with a number of different mood states including depression, anger, anxiety, and so on, and counseling techniques often emphasize changing the nature of self-directed statements as a way of enhancing mood  state.  Although  athletes  frequently  report using self-talk as a psyching-up strategy to increase levels  of  arousal,  the  effectiveness  of  self-talk  for this  function  has  not  been  experimentally  determined.  There  is,  however,  some  evidence  linking the  use  of  self-talk  (e.g.,  cue  word  calmly)  to  the effective control of anxiety levels.

Conclusion

Although the development of the literature regarding  self-talk  has  greatly  advanced  in  the  past decade, there remain many unanswered problems regarding  how  best  to  use  self-talk,  the  way  in which  self-talk  enables  athletes  to  maximize  performance,  and,  crucially,  exactly  why  this  might be. Contemporary models associated with self-talk have  begun  to  provide  some  guidance  regarding these questions; however, the role of key moderators, such as the athlete’s skill level and the type of task being completed, has yet to be fully examined.

References:

  1. Hardy, J. (2006). Speaking clearly: A critical review of the self-talk literature. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 7, 81–97.
  2. Hardy, J., Oliver, E., & Tod, D. (2009). A framework for the study of self-talk in sport. In S. D. Mellalieu & S. Hanton (Eds.), Advances in applied sport psychology. London: Routledge.
  3. Oliver, E. J., Markland, D., & Hardy, J. (2010).Interpreting self-talk: Associations between informational and controlling self-talk, and post-lecture anxiety and affect in higher education students. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 307–323.
  4. Theodorakis, Y., Weinberg, R., Natsis, P., Douma, I., & Kazakas, P. (2000). The effects of motivational versus instructional self-talk on improving motor performance. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 253–272.
  5. Tod, D., Hardy, J., & Oliver, E. (2011). Effects of self-talk: A systematic review. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33, 666–687.

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