The power of positive self-talk: Mind over matter

By Natasha Mehta, MD

Mind over me.

“I can do anything for 5 more minutes…Don’t let your mind get in your body’s way…I am strong…I will get up this hill.” — me to me

Considerable emphasis has been placed on the study of how what we say to ourselves can improve our performance. Self-talk has been explored in many different domains, and in sports and exercise psychology it has been described as an effective strategy to facilitate learning and enhance performance. Narrative reviews have supported three types of self-talk — positive, instructional, and motivational self-talk. Positive self-talk is largely more supported then negative self-talk. Instructional self-talk is usually better for precision-based tasks with technical or kinesthetic aspects to the movement. This is in contrast to motivational self-talk which is better for tasks involving strength, endurance, and conditioning. Its use has also been associated with persistence and continued execution of a challenging task.

Task oriented thoughts have been shown to improve confidence and motivation when compared to an outcome-oriented mindset. Studies on youth English football players found that overemphasis on results of a match led to a “climate of fear,” and those who perceived the outcome of the match as the fundamental measure of success had a “fear of failure”. These athletes were more apt to self-blaming, attacking, and neglecting statements with heightened levels of pre-performance anxiety. In another study, tennis players had improved serving accuracy in the two groups that focused on positive imagery or self-instruction versus the control “serve-as-usual” group.

It is tough to empirically evaluate self-talk as it relates to outcomes. As language is not universal, and studies depend on what is going on in a participant’s mind, a variable that cannot be measured, or very easily controlled. Many people describe their minds as spinning, or continuously switching tasks. This is why mindfulness, the meditative technique of being focused and aware of the moment and associated feelings, has become so popular. It enhances our perception of control, improves confidence, and spiritual wellbeing.

Senay et al used a meditative technique to compare interrogative versus declarative self-talk for one minute before completing anagrams. The interrogative group would focus on the task while priming with self-formed phrases that start with “Will I”, while the declarative group would start with “I will”. Interestingly, there was better task performance in the interrogative group. The hypothesis was that less directive influence on a future behavior allowed for autonomy and individualized intentions, which tapped into intrinsic motivations to pursue the goal.

I used motivational and positive self-talk to help improve my half marathon time, AND it worked! The training processes became meaningful when I focused on each run as a task, not a means to an end. I found when I focused on the outcome (ie. final minute mile), I was easily drained with a worse time. So is this something I can apply to medical training? This process is long and grueling, with countless hours spent towards various different career goals and a smaller number of hours spent thinking about how to be a better significant other, daughter, friend, and person. I like this idea of interrogative self-talk; it not only creates a challenge and taps into my will to succeed, but it also opens up the opportunity for chance occurrences, for mishaps, and for barriers. It allows the opportunity to be gentle with my sensitive ego, to try again and say it’s ok: “Will I next time?”

Natasha Mehta, MD

Natasha Mehta, MD is a fourth year resident in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation/ Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.


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