Written by therapist Zach Seifert

What is Self-talk in Sport?

Self-talk is a mantra, expression, praise, and/or statement aimed at building ability and confidence, etc, and is expressed inwardly, aimed toward a stated goal or event performance. Self-talk includes your direct thoughts; it reflects your active cognitive environment and can be positive or negative. Anytime you think, you are communicating with yourself, and have a direct influence over your cognitive, emotional, and physical state which can impact outcomes in sports performance. Self-talk engagement can improve performance and decrease feelings of anxiety or nerves before competition leading to successful outcomes for athletes. It can also be extremely detrimental to outcomes, as negative thought patterns can hinder sport performance and instigate anxiety and nerves. Finding a balance is crucial as both have relevance in developing as an athlete while increasing mental fortitude when performing.

Ultimately, it requires determination and awareness to implement healthy self-talk practices into routine and repetition to recognize what kinds of thoughts can help or hinder performance. There are two main categories of self-talk in sport: instructional and motivational. More importantly, there are two opposing postures that occupy the above categories and impact sport performance: positive self-talk and negative self-talk.

Instructional

Instructional self-talk focuses on processes and/or procedures, focusing attention, providing instruction, or creating rhythms. This type of  self-talk can aim at increasing technical ability in a specific skill or simply remind the body of a process integral to a skill. For example, “raise your elbow”, “twist through contact”, “see the target”, “remember the win conditions”.

Motivational

Motivational self-talk focuses on building confidence, improving mood, gathering inspiration, and increasing effort. This type of self-talk is often used before an event, game, or match to increase confidence that the athlete can in fact compete at the level they have set in practice. For example, “let’s go”, “you’ve got this”, “I can do this”, “I feel confident”.

Positive

Positive self-talk includes internal dialogue aimed at more positive forces including: praises for success, encouragement when failure occurs, belief that you can succeed in a coming skill, or simple recognition of a developed skill. This type of self-talk allows the mind to engage in a more positive way and positions an athlete’s physiology in a more relaxed posture, where they will be more prepared for adversity on the field, court, etc. Positive self-talk allows athletes to feel more prepared for engaging in competition and pushes more successful participant outcomes. This type of self-talk aids in decreasing anxiety, improving concentration and focus, and better performance.

Negative

Negative self-talk includes internal dialogue focused at the negative aspects of sport performance including: criticism in failure, extended time focusing on failure, lacking belief that success is possible, avoidance of skill recognition, etc. When an athlete engages in negative self-talk, they tend to be disconnected from the moment and can find it difficult to perform at previously proven standards. Often an athlete’s physiology responds negatively by becoming more uncomfortable in high pressure moments, struggling to perform, increasing anxiety responses, and struggling to engage with already developed skills. This self-talk increases anxiety, decreases concentration and focus, and performance worsens overall.

Self-talk is important in understanding outcomes of sport performance as a function of one’s mindset when entering a sporting activity, whether it is practice, a game, engaging for fun, etc. Self-talk can improve outcomes or distract an athlete from finding success. Overall, it is important to develop an awareness for thoughts, as our thoughts can ultimately dictate physiological responses to stressors, adversity, pressure, etc.

You have the power to posture yourself in a positive way, allowing more cognitive space to make better decisions and react in competition to achieve goals of sport. If this sounds like you or someone you know, and you believe it could be helpful to explore mindsets and self-talk, please reach out. I would welcome the opportunity to work with you. 

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