The truth about positive self-talk

confidence Apr 07, 2015

There’s a lot out there about positivity and the importance of having a positive mindset: talking to yourself positively, talking to your kids positively, even talking to your pets positively. (Groan... Yes, it’s a thing!)

All this positivity can be a bit much.

And that’s saying a lot, especially coming from someone like me who’s a big believer in the power of the glass-is-half-full mentality. The complication with positivity is that it can be hard to distinguish what is actually helpful and what is just, well, fluff.

That’s why I want to talk specifically about self-talk. Because, self-talk serves as the basis for so many things in our lives: our beliefs, our outlook, our confidence, how we interact with others, and much, much more. But I don’t just want to talk about self-talk alone, I also want to dive into the research behind it to make sure this isn’t just another ‘positive self-talk is great’ article. Yay!

Positive self-talk is an important tool for athletes and coaches, and it's important for all parties to understand the 'why' behind the practice of self-talk. If you're a coach who is teaching your athletes to practice self-talk, you should be able to talk about it on several levels, including scientific terms. That's why, in this blog, I will be specifically analyzing the research behind the relationship between self-talk and performance. My big question is:

Is teaching athletes positive self-talk worth it?

  • Positive self-talk does positively affect performance.
  • Self-talk affects motor skill performance more than cognitive performance.
  • Self-talk is best scripted ahead of time and practiced.
  • Research shows there are differences in what type of statements you should say at different times, but…
  • What works for each person is fundamentally a matter of personal preference.
  • Addressing yourself by name or ‘you’ is found to be more powerful than ‘I’ statements.
  • Self-talk should focus on what you should do rather than what you should not do.

First, let's establish a solid definition by answering the following questions:

  1. What IS self-talk?
  2. What are different types of self-talk?
  3. Are there types that are more helpful in certain situations than others?

These questions get really specific, really fast, so I'll start with a basic overview of self-talk and go from there.

Defining self-talk

The Mayo Clinic defines self-talk as “the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head… [that] can be positive or negative.” Furthermore, “[i]f your thoughts are mostly positive, you're likely an optimist — someone who practices positive thinking.”

Positive thinking, therefore, is the result of positive self-talk, and those can offer multiple health benefits, such as increased life span and increased immunity.

The Mayo Clinic then gives us examples of both positive and negative self-talk.

The Mayo’s cover-all rule: “Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to anyone else.”

Simple enough right? Not so fast. Let’s dive into this a little deeper…

Types of self-talk

Research shows there are 4 specific categories of performance-based self-talk:

  • Calming/relaxing (“Take a deep breath.”)
  • Instructional (“Bend your knees.”)
  • Motivational (“Yes! Come on, let’s go!”)
  • Focus (“Don’t think about anything. Just concentrate.”)

This list got me paying attention. Why? Because these categories are all so different. Even for myself, I can see one type of statement working in a certain situation and not working in another. (Leaving the research aside for a moment, this is where I encourage athletes to build up self-awareness and to practice what works with some trial and error.)

But, back to the research…

What to say, when to say it

In Perspectives on Psychological Science[i], a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Thessaly did a meta-analysis on 62 research studies on self-talk. Their analysis revealed that not only did self-talk improve sports performance, but different self-talk cues work differently in certain situations.

Here is what they found:

  • Instructional self-talk (i.e. “Elbow-up”) is most helpful for tasks requiring fine skills or for improving technique.
  • Motivational self-talk (i.e. “Give it your all”) seems to be more effective in tasks requiring strength or endurance, boosting confidence and psyching-up athletes for competition.
It is a matter of personal preference or what works for each person; but generally, it is advised that self-talk is positively rather than negatively phrased and focuses on what you should do rather than on what you should avoid…” - Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, researcher at the University of Thessaly

A small trick

According to an article in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology[ii], a researcher by the name of Kross and his associates at the University of Michigan did an experiment with one small caveat: participants would either use the word ‘I’ or ‘You/[their name]’ when addressing themselves with their self-talk.

This is what the experiment looked like:

Kross asked volunteers to give a speech. Catch: they were only given five minutes of mental preparation. During the five minutes, he told some to talk to themselves and to address themselves as ‘I’. For the rest of them, their five minutes was spent using ‘you’ or by addressing themselves in the third-person (using their own names).

At the close of the study, this is what Kross found:

  • People who used ‘I’ said things like 'Oh, my god, how am I going do this? I can't prepare a speech in five minutes without notes. It takes days for me to prepare a speech!'
  • People who used ‘you’ or their own names said things like, "Ethan, you can do this. You've given a ton of speeches before."

Clearly, the people who used ‘you’ or their names sounded more rational and less emotional—perhaps because they were able to get some distance from themselves.

Truly, it sounds like they are coaching themselves.

Self-Talk can influence results

Research done out of Waseda University in Japan[iii] shows again that motor skills especially are greatly affected by self-talk. The results of their research show that positive self-talk improved physical performance by 11%.

Their research was based on a simple balancing exercise. Students completed the exercise, and were given 30 seconds to rest before completing it a second time. In between the sets, students were told to pay attention to their self-talk. Some students reported having negative self-talk; others reported positive self-talk; still, another group reported using a combination of positive and negative self-talk.

The results were shocking.

Students that reported using positive self-talk exclusively during those 30 seconds were able to hold their balance a full second longer than those who used exclusively negative or had a mix of both negative and positive self-talk.

The positive self-talk resulted in an average balance time of 9.29 seconds, while the other two groups averaged out at 8.29 seconds. This is more than an 11% increase in performance, really close to the proven 15% increase in athletic performance we see with Positive Performance’s mental training.

The investment of self-talk

Based on the above findings it’s obvious that teaching athletes how and when to use positive self-talk, that is, using positive self-talk appropriately, is not only a good time investment but a worthwhile one.

While talking about positive self-talk can seem merely warm and fuzzy, research shows that it is a powerful, actionable tool in achieving one’s peak performance. 


Want to pump up your performance even more? Click HERE to attend a free mental training masterclass for coaches wanting to build a team of consistent competitors. 

REFERENCES: [i] Girodo & Wood, 1979; Goodhart, 1986; Mahoney & Avener, 1977; Van Raalte et al., 1994; Weinberg, 1985 [ii] Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremner, R., Moser, J., & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. [iii] Belief in Self-Talk and Dynamic Balance Performance.Kaori Araki (Waseda University, Japan), Joseph K. Mintah (Azusa Pacific University), Mick G. Mack, Sharon Huddleston, Laura Larson, and Kelly Jacobs  (University of Northern Iowa).

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