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Self-talk: make it your friend.

“verbalizations addressed to the self” — Hardy (2006)

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Self-talk is something we all already use in every day life. It can be that voice inside our mind or the words we say to ourselves out-loud. It comes in various forms and orders; perhaps we need to raise awareness “S***!”, observe something “I’ve not got my keys.”, execute tasks “Don’t let the door shut!” or feel emotion “You idiot.”. We may already use it to our advantage but if not, we can train ourselves to do so.

Why is it important?

Self-talk can help you to overcome challenges whether they are physical or psychological. Through instructional self-talk we can enhance focus of attention and improve execution of fine motor skills, and through motivational self-talk we can improve arousal, mood, and drive (Theodorakis et al., 2000). The use of self-talk has also been seen to increase self-confidence and lessen cognitive anxiety, both contributing to improved function (Hatzigeorgiadis et al., 2009).

Skilled and emotionally intelligent performers tend to use self-talk more than those less skilled and less emotionally intelligent (Lane et al., 2009; Thelwell et al., 2009).

When should I use it?

Before, during or after anything you may find physically or psychologically challenging. Here are some examples:

Photo by Fortune Vieyra on Unsplash

When you wake up in the morning. “No one will outwork me.”

Before heavy lifts. “Shoulders back. Sit. Push through the floor.”

During explosive lifts. “Aggression!”

New exercises. “Rings close. Shoulders forward.”

After a set. “Don’t quit.”

Where does your success start?

By understanding the different types of self-talk and being aware of the characteristics, we can learn to make self-talk our friend. Awareness means we can recognise our habitual preferences, be more mindful of the situation or problem we are presented with and how we individually respond to these (i.e. whether our natural processes contribute to our success or failure). We will be able to decide whether there is a need for change or improvement and how we can achieve this.

Self-talk can be categorised as organic or strategic and can be distinguished by origin (Hardy et al., 2019).

Organic Self-talk

This refers to the automatic, inherent thoughts and/or statements addressed to the self. These reflect either psychological processes or self-recognised, metacognitive (‘thinking about thinking’) knowledge and skills. Organic self-talk can be either uncontrolled e.g. spontaneous or associated thoughts or controlled e.g. self-regulation.

Organic self-talk has been conceptualised into two forms: spontaneous and goal-directed.

Spontaneous Self-talk

This is a default process that helps raise awareness of current experiences and emotions, and identify psychological challenges (Van Raalte, Vincent and Brewer, 2016). The better we are at understanding why we unconsciously use this method of self-talk, the better we become at realising the challenge at present.

Example 1: You feel conscious that people are watching you…“I feel light headed. I’m panicking.”

Example 2: “My squat feels terrible.” “My knees are unstable.”

Goal-directed Self-talk

Goal-directed, as the name suggests, is specifically used for reasoning, problem solving and decision making when faced with a challenge (Latinjak et al., 2019). It is automatic and controlled; yet it can take time to learn and implement effectively.

Example 1: When experiencing anxiety: “It’s ok, take a deep breathe.”

Example 2: As soon as you feel your knees wobble: “Don’t let them fall-in!”

Strategic Self-talk

Strategic self-talk is a deliberate, methodical employment of a cue word, phrase or statement to enhance performance or achieve an outcome. It stems from pre-determined, planned interventions. Implementing strategic self-talk is the start to transforming your habits.

Example 1: “Breathe in… And out.”

Example 2: “Glutes on. Knees out. Rip the floor apart.”

Research has suggested that over time practice can improve the transition between strategic and organic self-talk (vice-versa) and individualising will heighten its effectiveness (Hatzigeorgiadas et al., 2014).

Reflexive Self-talk

Reflexive self-talk derives from a situation; it promotes self-reflection and can be used to develop future uses of self-talk. It is a self-determined tool which is optional and can be used either during or after the situation, and should be seen to initiate the self-awareness and learning process.

Example: “Did that work?” “No.” “Why not?” “I was motivated but I forgot the correct technique.” — this type of scenario could lead to the introduction of instructional self-talk interventions opposed using motivational interventions.

Personalising your self-talk.

Elements and preferences to consider:

Overtness — self-talk can be used sub-vocally (the voice inside your mind) or aloud (others may hear) or mouthed (lip-sync to the voice inside).

Function — motivational “You can do this!” vs instructional “Pull yourself under the bar.”

Valence — The nature of the cue, phrase or statement can be:

  • positive “Great form.”
  • neutral “Chest needs to stay up.”
  • or negative “That was rubbish.”

Grammatical structure — I-statements “I can do it” vs You-statements “You can do it”.

Personality and interpretative elements — There has been ambiguity around valence, in particular, between the content and the function.

For example, a negative statement (the content) may have a motivational effect (the function) for one person and a debilitating effect for another. Alternatively, when the athlete or performer feels the task cannot be done, positive content may be debilitating or distracting (function). If this content is not altered or stopped accordingly, this can lead to detachment from the effects of self-talk, also known as self-talk dissonance (Van Raalte et al., 2019).

Dynamic nature — at times there may be a resemblance of dialogue, this could be interaction between spontaneous and goal-directed self-talk (Latinjak, Maso and Comoutos, 2018). You may wish to embrace this if you react well to it.

Finally, you may want to consider the context and environment. Timing, different tasks and surroundings may dictate the type of self-talk you feel comfortable with.

The take-home message.

Creating the self-awareness is the first step to your success. Each challenge may call for a different use of tools so be creative with the personalisation; experimenting and learning will be a key process. Most importantly, however, practice and persistence will yield the most effective results and could lead to cognitive and behavioural changes.

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Andy Wright

Andy Wright

Short, digestible research-based overviews