We all have a little voice in our head, that can sometimes be a force for good in our life, and at other times it becomes our worst enemy.
With the Commonwealth Games being held on the Gold Coast as I write this, I’m taking the time to look at how you can employ some of the mental skills that athletes use, to improve your own performance and quality of life.
Managing the little voice in your head, or self-talk as it is often referred to in psychology, is one of the most common tools used by athletes to help them get the most out of their performance – and it’s something that everybody can apply to some aspect of their own life, from managing anxiety to overcoming imposter syndrome, or doing one more rep at the gym.
I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’ – Muhammad Ali
Just to be clear:self-talk is not the same as ‘positive thinking’.
If you’ve ever had a down moment in your life, you’ve probably also had someone tell you that all you have to do is ‘think positively’ – and at the time it probably wasn’t very helpful. This is because trying to think positive thoughts 100% of the time is not realistic, and can be harmful because you’re setting yourself up for failure.
On the other hand, there are a lot of benefits that come from actively fostering a more positive overall mindset or approach to dealing with adversity, and developing helpful and constructive self-talk is one way to do that.
What is self-talk?
Humans have the incredible ability to think and process an estimated 50,000-70,000 thoughts per day. Some people describe the nature of our thoughts as having a radio running in the background that you can’t turn off.
Self-talk specifically refers to the thoughts or words said out loud that we direct towards ourselves, which can take many forms (see end of the article for a more detailed look at the different types of self-talk). Often we don’t notice exactly what the radio station in the background is saying, because our thoughts are so frequent and automatic, but even the self-talk we’re not fully aware of can have an impact on our mood and behaviour.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the main areas that self-talk strategies are employed is in sport and exercise psychology. Athletes use self-talk to help them:
- Regulate their emotions;
- Direct their attention and focus in the most effective way;
- And to help them get in the ‘zone’ and reach their optimal performance.
But self-talk goes beyond just improving performance in sport. Identifying unhelpful self-talk and using deliberate positive or instructional self-talk, is a technique that has been successfully applied to:
- Improve confidence;
- Reduce anxiety;
- Improve attention;
- Improve motivation;
- Improve performance;
- Regulate difficult emotions (eg anger and stress management).
Many of our thoughts are automatic thoughts that stem from existing beliefs we have about ourselves or the world. These automatic beliefs can pop up anytime, and sometimes will pass through our mind without us even noticing – even though they have an effect on how we feel and behave.
Becoming Aware of our Automatic Thoughts
Automatic thoughts aren’t always negative, they can be neutral or positive too, which is why developing awareness of what our mind is saying in challenging situations is an important step to take.
Paying attention to our thoughts gives us an idea of the negative self-talk that we might want to change, as well as what positive or constructive self-talk we are already engaging in that we can take and use to our advantage.
Because these beliefs are quite automatic it can sometimes feel like we have no control over them, and this is when you are likely to experience that trapped or stuck feeling, where you are caught in a negative spiral that you can’t seem to break.
Using techniques such as self-talk and deliberate action, you can rewire some of these connections in your brain, changing the automatic thoughts that come up. Regularly using specific self-talk in a situation, makes it more likely for the brain to automatically generate that constructive self-talk in response to that situation down the track – and this is how we can influence and change those unhelpful automatic processes.
It may sound easy, but if you’ve tried to ‘think positively’ before in a difficult situation, you may have found that it actually had the opposite effect. This is because self-talk that is not appropriate, or used at the wrong time, can have a sort of whiplash effect where instead of making you feel better, it cues the mind to bring up memories of all the times that contradict the statement you just used.
For example, if you are not feeling very confident and you say to yourself something like ‘you’ve done this a million times before, you can do it again’. Sounds good right? Except that every time you say that phrase, instead of giving you more confidence, it triggers a landslide of thoughts and memories about why you can’t do it, even though you’ve done it before.
When this happens it’s important to reassess the type of self-talk and language you’re using and try something different. In this case, it may be more useful for you to adopt an instructive approach. Focus less on trying to inspire a feeling of confidence, and more on what is the next manageable step in the task or activity, shifting the attention from feeling to doing.
Here are some suggestions for changing self-talk:
- Pay attention: Identify and write down key self-talk, both negative and positive.
- Examine whether there are any distortions in the negative self-talk you’re engaging in (catastrophizing, overgeneralising, jumping to conclusions, being too black and white).
- A simple test of whether the self-talk is unhelpful, is to ask yourself if you would be comfortable saying it to someone you care about – and how they would feel if you did say it?
- Using the positive and negative self-talk you’ve identified as a guide, modify your self-talk to be more in line with what you want (eg changing negatives to positives).
- Give them a go, and make adjustments if you feel that the words of phrases you chose are having the opposite effect.
The words you choose don’t really matter as long as they are meaningful to you. If it has the right connotations, using the word ‘banana’ might be just as useful to help you redirect your attention, as something like ‘focus.’
Examples of Different Types of Self-Talk
Positive/Motivational: This category encompasses re-framing self-talk in a positively worded or motivational way. The standard examples are statements like ‘I can do it’ or ‘just one more.’ The quote by Ali at the beginning of this article is a great example of how motivational self-talk can be used.
Affirmations: Affirmations are a form of motivational self-talk that describe the type of person you are/want to be. Affirmations are often phrased in the form of ‘I’ statements and are commonly used as part of a morning, evening, or pre-competition routine, but they are highly personal, so what works for someone else may not have the same effect for you.
Some examples of affirmations:
- I am strong/smart/important/[insert valued quality here];
- Confidence comes naturally to me;
- I’m okay just the way I am.
Instructive: Instructive self-talk is used to direct focus to the specific steps or actions required at a given point in a situation. This type of self-talk is great for learning or effectively executing a skill, particularly those involving fine motor skills, but can also be useful in emotionally overwhelming situations by helping you to focus and break down a task into the small logical steps.
This applies to a lot of emotionally charged situations. For example, ‘stay calm. Just because he/she is getting angry, doesn’t mean I have to as well,’ combines both instructive and positive self-talk in a way that can help you keep your calm during an argument.
Cue words: Cue words are a single word or short phrase, used to cue a certain response. Cue words can be instructional or motivational, or both, and are an effective tool for creating a shift in behaviour or attitude.
For example, a rock climber might use the phrase ‘push hard’ when he reaches a difficult part of the climb to help him find the additional strength and determination he needs to make it past that point.
Another example could be a track athlete who uses the word ‘power’ when they get to a certain part in a race, to symbolise a change in strategy from conserving some of their energy to really pushing through and using all their strength.
In everyday life cue words can be used for a variety of tasks, including to help remind you to ‘relax’ before a stressful presentation or to ‘concentrate’ when you notice that your mind has wandered.
Negative: Negative self-talk is used to describe self-phrases that are negatively worded. For example, ‘don’t mess this up’ is negatively worded because it starts with the word ‘don’t’. Negatively worded self-talk is often unhelpful, but not always. The phrase ‘you can do better than that’ can seem quite negative, especially when it’s said in an aggressive tone of voice. However, some people may find that when they use this type of self-talk it makes things worse, while others may find it quite motivating.
Just be aware of where the phrase directs your attention. Statements that start with ‘don’t’ are usually not effective because they direct your focus onto what not to do. For example, if you tell yourself not to think about ice-cream most people will find themselves thinking about ice-cream.
If you are interested in finding out more about athlete tools and how you can use them to your advantage in everyday life, feel free to make an appointment with me.
Author: Nikki Crossman, B Psych Science (Hons).
Nikki Crossman is a Master of Psychology (sport and exercise) candidate at the University of Queensland, passionate about the benefits of using athlete tools in everyday life. She takes a holistic approach to wellbeing that recognises the strong connection between our body and our mind, and draws on evidence-based therapies such as CBT and Interpersonal therapy.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129
- Critcher, C. R., & Dunning, D. (2015). Self-affirmations provide a broader perspective on self-threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(1), 3-18.
- Epstein, N. B. (2016). Anger Management Self-Talk. Techniques for the Couple Therapist: Essential Interventions from the Experts, 111.
- Hardy, J. (2006). Speaking clearly: A critical review of the self-talk literature. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 7(1), 81-97.
- Schimel, J., Arndt, J., Banko, K. M., & Cook, A. (2004). Not all self-affirmations were created equal: The cognitive and social benefits of affirming the intrinsic (vs. extrinsic) self. Social Cognition, 22(1: Special issue), 75-99.
- 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(3), 253-271.