The benefit to athletes of positive self-talk

Whether muttering under your breath, urging yourself on or cursing ourselves in frustration at a simple mistake, we all engage in self-talk daily. For an elite athlete in the centre of a roaring stadium, internal voices may have a critical effect on how they are feeling, and how they perform.

Sport psychologists have long been interested in how athletes might use self-talk to affect their performance.  Typically, positive self-talk (encouraging, instructional or motivational) has been shown to improve performance for sports as diverse as endurance running, golf, skiing, tennis, and darts.  Researchers have shown that using simple positive phrases, such as “I can” or “ball-target” help with both power-based and more precision-based skills. 

Interestingly, recent researchers have identified that, at present, negative self-talk does necessarily impede performance. Indeed, there may be athletes who respond with increased effort and better performance following a negative outburst or venting of emotions. 

Psychologists are now trying to establish exactly how self-talk might help performance. For example, technically focused or instructional self-talk may assist with the timing of complicated movements (e.g. a gymnastics tumble), whereas motivational self-talk may help to block out distractions or increase pain tolerance.