Positive Self-Talk

The use of self-talk is central to the management of cognitive anxiety. The regularity and content of internal dialogue is individual and situation dependent. Research has defined self-talk to be any time that a person engages in a conversation with themselves, which can be external or internal, aimed at providing instruction, reinforcement or interpretation of feelings. As most people will understand this can have either positive or negative consequences. Positive self-talk becomes facilitative when it enhances self-worth and performance, keeps an athlete focused on the present and helps to remove distractions of past or future events. While negative self-talk can be debilitating for performance by enabling the athlete to over-analyse situations, talk themselves out of it, or commencing a downward spiral of negative thoughts (especially when currently under-performing). In many ways the type of self-talk engaged in can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Self-Talk for Skill Acquisition

Using planned self-talk can enhance the learning of new skills, with the content changing as the performer becomes more adept. During the early stages, using some instructional cues can help an individual focus on key aspects of the performance / movement i.e. “shorten stride length” while running up hill. Working with a coach to establish the important technical cues for you is the best way to identify these. As skills become more proficient the focus can switch to strategies and optimal feelings i.e. “engage the core”; “smooth and fluid”. As an individual becomes more skilled the goal is to reduce the conscious control and move to an autonomous stage of learning. Using cue words and phrases ensure that it is possible to stay focused on specific components, building confidence in our personal ability.

Self-Talk for Changing Bad Habits

As we progress and learn new, more efficient methods it may be necessary to change from how we have performed previously and almost unlearn techniques in order to rebuild them more effectively. In such cases an athlete needs to intentionally force themselves to become more conscious of the movements. Using self-talk in these situations can be highly effective. The more severe the change the more detailed the self-talk needs to be. The aim, similar to early skill acquisition self-talk, is to utilise specific comments that focus on performing in the new, desired way. This should focus on the positive regarding what to do, and avoid what not to do. In general there is no benefit from focusing on undesirable actions and this approach only provides negative images that will impact the learning of the new technique.

Self-Talk for Creating Affect

Research, as early as the 1970’s, established that specific cue words can produce significant changes in performance. For example Meichenbaum (1975) found that runners could increase their speed by using words such as “fast” or “quick”., with similar performance improvements found in many other sports. For endurance athletes it may be necessary to shift between words throughout the duration of the activity, with words that focus on pace or energy conservation most effective early; persistence and tuning into the body during the middle sections; and speed and power words important towards the end of the activity. Meichenbaum noted that each word should have an emotional quality that is linked to the movement.

Self-Talk for Building Confidence

Self-confidence and in particular self-efficacy (a situation self-confidence) is known to be influenced by verbal persuasion, so why not use self-talk as a means enhance your confidence? Using positive terms, which have a personal meaning, allows for the development of confidence. By using key terms an athlete is able to instil belief in their own ability to accomplish goals, increase effort and maintain persistence. This can be especially important during rehabilitation from injury, where positive self-talk has been related to quicker return to action.

Controlling Self-Talk

As discussed the consequences of self-talk can be positive or negative dependent on the words that we say to ourselves. As such it is important that we maintain positive talk to produce performance enhancing results. As humans this is not always easy to do and regularly we can find ourselves repeating negative terms (“I can’t do it”; “It’s too cold”; “Everyone is faster than me”). Therefore it is necessary to become more aware of these negativities, stop them, and then follow up with some positive performance enhancing thoughts. Without going into the background of all of these, there are some highly effective strategies that all athletes can incorporate:
  1. Thought stopping – recognising the negative thought and use a trigger to stop or snap out of it. I have worked with athletes who say “stop” out loud, while others have snapped an elastic band on their wrist. The aim is to get a trigger that works for you.
  2. Couple negative thoughts with positive ones – putting a positive statement onto the negative changes the emphasis for the individual. For example “It’s too far, I can’t make it” is immediately followed by “I have trained really well and am in great condition”. I encourage athletes to make a list of common self-defeating thoughts and then provide a positive follow up statement for each.
  3. Reframing – the process of creating alternative ways of thinking to aid performance. This process does not downplay the negative thought but rather changes the focus to become more motivating. My athletes that I have worked with have talked about feeling really nervous or anxious about performing; this can be reframed to “these are the feelings that allow me to perform at my best”.
  4. Constructing affirmations – affirmations can be very powerful, as they inspire feelings of confidence and control. They reflect positive attitudes about yourself or the situation, stated as though you have already achieved them. The most effective affirmations are believable and vivid (“I’m fast, I’m strong, I’m powerful”; “I love it when it rains”). Affirmations should be in the present tense and should avoid perfectionist statements that may be impossible to live up to (i.e. “I always …” or “I never …”)
Research has established that there is a direct correlation between self-confidence and success. Positive self-talk leads to more self-confidence and belief that you can achieve. By using hypnosis we can embed these positive thoughts into your subconscious, which will then allow you to perform at your best / overcome adversity. When recently working with athletes competing at Ironman Melbourne one of the key suggestions I made with them was that when they saw each kilometre marker post on the run leg they would gain a sense of pride in their accomplishment, repeat to themselves that they felt strong and in control, and follow this with an individualised positive affirmation. Each of them has subsequently stated that this was important for their belief that they could do it. And they did.