How Self-Talk Can Help You Overcome Any Obstacle

Those voices in your head? Don’t worry. They’re friendly.

(This post was written by Alison Levy, M.Ed. Sport Psychology, SGX and originally published on

Imagine that you’re four miles into your eight-plus-mile Spartan Super, and you see it — the one obstacle that you dread the most, the one that makes your heart race, the one that sends all sorts of thoughts buzzing around your head.

“Here come 30 burpees.”

“Are you crazy? I can’t do that.”

“Don’t mess up. Don’t screw this up.”

In sport psychology, the internal conversation we have with ourselves is called “self-talk,” and it can have a profound impact on our ability to build mental strength in tough circumstances. In fact, when you’re up against your toughest obstacle, self-talk can determine your success even more than your physical strength.

Here’s how you can use self-talk to your advantage in a race.

1. | Understand how you talk to yourself.

The first step in developing your self-talk skill is to become aware of what you already say to yourself. Whether we realize it or not, we’re talking to ourselves all the time. From running through your ‘to do list’ in your head to telling yourself to focus on your work when you need to meet a deadline, our internal dialogue and stream of consciousness are constant.

One way to become aware of how you talk to yourself is to listen. Practice being mindful of your self-talk during training sessions. Begin to notice when thoughts “pop” into your head. Keep a notebook nearby during your workouts and jot down your internal dialogue throughout your training session. As you become more attuned to this, you can add more detail to the notes and gradually begin to redirect unproductive self-talk into productive dialogue over time.

The best athletes are not only aware of their inner dialogue, but they also practice what they say internally so that their self-talk helps and does not hinder their performance.

2. | Understand why we talk to ourselves.

Now that you are becoming more aware of what and when you talk to yourself — and remember that this is an ongoing process — you can start to dig into the reasons why you talk to yourself.

According to Sport Psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, “there are generally three reasons why we practice self-talk: to instruct, to motivate, or to evaluate.” Think of yourself at your most dreaded obstacle. Are you talking from the first person or third person perspective? What goes through your head?

Are you judging the obstacle? “I hate the spear throw.”

Are you trying to build confidence? “You can do this!”

Are you trying to remember what your coach told you? “Middle of the spear, hold it to the ear, straight forward, light grip, shoulders square…”

Knowing the reason behind your self-talk helps you not only to understand how you react to your surroundings but also to understand how you relate to yourself. Are you using self-talk to teach yourself? To express frustration in yourself? To encourage yourself?


3. | Encourage yourself as you would encourage a friend.

In academic literature, self-talk is often referred to as either ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’ but I don’t think that captures the whole picture. Think of your self-talk as being ‘productive’ or ‘unproductive’ instead. Productive self-talk helps you work toward your goals; unproductive self-talk does not.

For instance, say you miss your spear throw and your instinct is to be down on yourself and dwell on the fact that you missed the throw and are doing burpees. Take a moment to consider whether those thoughts are helping or hurting your performance for the remainder of the race.

Think about how you would encourage your best friend or teammate if they were in your situation. Research shows that thinking of yourself as another person allows you to provide more objective, helpful advice than you may give yourself. For example, if you watched your friend miss the spear throw, would you be hard on them and not let them forget the mistake for the rest of the race? Chances are, you would say something like, “Shake it off,” or, “Everyone misses sometimes. Don’t worry about it. Get back out there!”

On or off the course, one of the best things you can learn is how your thoughts impact your actions and how to use them to your advantage.

4. | Use self-talk to build mastery.

In a study of athletes, researchers from the University of Ontario found that self-talk had two main functions: cognitive and motivational. We talked about motivational self-talk above. Cognitive self-talk is what we use when we’re strategizing or solving problems. Mastery self-talk uses both cognitive and motivational functions of self-talk to help build concrete skills.

People who engage in mastery self-talk will use cues and phrases that fit a few basic core beliefs:

  • Failure is an opportunity to improve.
  • Improvement is success.

When you step up to the spear throw or find yourself having just missed hitting your target, mastery self-talk can help you to calm your nerves, refocus, and clear your mind. It leads you to say things like, “Stay focused, you know how to do this. Keep it simple,” or if you miss the throw, “Keep your eyes up next time and you’ll have it.”

Find cues and phrases that work best for you.

5. | Aim for excellence, not perfection.

Nobody is perfect, but we can strive for excellence. Thoughts, like actions, can form habits. The more we practice productive self-talk, the better we get at it. And because self-talk makes up such a large part of our attitudes toward life, changing the way you talk to yourself is life-changing.

If productive self-talk isn’t your strong suit, it will feel pretty weird to say encouraging things to yourself. It might feel unnatural. Embrace that. You’re breaking new ground, and pretty soon, with consistent practice, you will get into a groove.

It is important to remember that even Olympic and world class athletes have to practice mental skills. Recognizing how, when, and why you talk to yourself during your training and races is not an easy task. It takes time and patience, and like building physical strength, it takes hard word and practice.

Next time you step up to the spear throw, stop and take a breath and remember that what you say to yourself will set the tone for the rest of your race.

A revolution that will last your whole life starts with one moment, one decision. It starts in your mind.

A former member of the US Ski Team, Ali Levy has participated in just about every sport imaginable over the years. She earned her master’s degree in Sport Psychology from Boston University, and her goal is to pass on the lessons she learned as a professional athlete. She is also the business analyst of Spartan’s training and wellness team.

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