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Positive self talk can help you win the race--or the day

Manage your mental chatter, before it manages you

What are your inner voices saying? You know, the ones. Some days they sound like the paternal Obi-Wan Kenobi booming: "You Can Do It." Other days the self talk takes on the tone of a whiny child: "I can't. It's too hard. I'm not good enough."

No matter which tone they take, those inner voices talk incessantly. And we should be paying attention, because what we say to ourselves has a direct impact on our success - or failure. Plenty of research indicates positive self talk creates positive results. Now an analysis of 32 different studies of self talk in sports, indicates that the specific words we use when talking to ourselves also play a role in how well we perform.

Positive self talk usually consists of words or brief phrases which inspire, motivate, or remind us to focus and keep moving. Phrases like, "Keep your head down," "Let's go now," "Breathe," help us focus our attention and trigger the ideal (hopefully) response and action for the task at hand.

If you want to improve your technique or hone specific, precise skills you'll be better off with inner voices relaying technical reminders like "elbow up" or "head down," says sports psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, who conducted the study with colleagues at the University of Thessaly. Their findings will be published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

"Instructional self-talk" works better for improving technique. Motivational self talk, a la "you can do it" helps participants succeed (and survive?) in strength and endurance based tasks, according to the analysis. It can psych you up and keep you confident and moving forward.

The right kind of self talk gives athletes an edge over competitors. And, while most of us won't be competing in the Olympics - though I would be very good in 25-foot-dash-to- put- the-laundry-away-and-get-to-work-event - positive self talk has powerful benefits even when it comes to navigating your daily routine.

When you become aware of what you're thinking and saying to yourself you can then edit and revise the snarky voices with phrases that empower you or at least help you better manage the situation at hand. The right kind of self talk can keep you from flipping out after a 45-minute wait at the doctor's office; it can help you deal diplomatically with an ignorant boss; motivate you to exercise; help you diffuse anger when the four-year-old is wading through the puddle of milk he spilled.

My motivating, go-to phrase when I feel overwhelmed by the double work/home whammy? "Come on now, you can handle this. You got it going on." And my version of instructional self talk? "Just Breathe." Reminding myself to pause and inhale before I deal with a difficult situation often keeps me from losing it.

Ready to script some of your own powerful self talk? Here's how to start.

Notice what you're already saying to yourself. Most of us don't give conscious attention to the voices rambling in our heads. Yet, they impact us whether we notice or not. Consciously, tune into your self talk.

Politely acknowledge, then ignore the self talk that isn't helpful. When you hook into some negative self talk, notice it, and shift your attention elsewhere. Don't become angry or determined not to hear it - we tend to think about what we don't want to think about. Instead, let the negative voices jabber in the background. Clinical psychologist Steven Hayes, Ph.D., an expert in language and cognition, likens these negative thoughts to unruly passengers in the backseat of the car you're driving. Sure, you hear the noise and ruckus behind you, but you keep your attention focused on the road ahead.

Pick your power phrase. Choose words that inspire you, motivate you, make you laugh, or boost your mood: "You da Man" or "You go, girl," for example. Consciously pick a couple of phrases that feel good - you may even feel a rush of energy when you say them - and practice them out loud in a big, powerful Obi- Wan (or hero of your choice) voice.

Pick a phrase or reminder word to help you focus. Say you're performing open heart surgery or pruning a bonsai, or training a dog for show, or cooking a new recipe - use your self talk to remind you of your technique or a fundamental and critical skill you need to accomplish the job. When I'm writing an article I often say to myself: "Find your focus." It reminds me to stick to the main point.

By going through these steps and paying attention to how we talk to ourselves, we can use language that best supports the action we're after - whether it's cooking a meal without igniting the house, or presenting the annual report to stockholders, we're likely to do better and most importantly, feel better about what we're doing.

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