One Motivational Technique Really Works (And It's Easy!)

Telling yourself “I can do better” improves performance most effectively.

Posted Jul 03, 2016

Source: Tom Wang/Shutterstock

A massive new study has pinpointed the most effective motivational technique for improving performance—and it’s incredibly easy. Simply using self-talk to tell yourself “I can do better,” has the power to improve performance on any given task, according to a new study by researchers from the UK who collaborated with the BBC.

In conjunction with BBC Lab UK, Professor Andrew Lane and his colleagues created an intricate study to pinpoint if one motivational method is most effective for improving achievement on specific tasks. The main question the researchers wanted to answer was: “What psychological skill is associated with the greatest improvements to performance?”

The June 2016 study, “Brief Online Training Enhances Competitive Performance: Findings of the BBC Lab UK Psychological Skills Intervention Study,” was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Because of the involvement of the BBC, this study benefited from high-levels of mass media exposure. On average, most psychological studies only include about 300 hundred participants. What makes the empirical findings of this new study especially persuasive is that 44,000 people participated in this complex research to identify what motivational techniques work best. 

There are a wide range of individual and societal benefits gained by teaching people simple and effective self-motivational skills that allow someone to optimize his or her potential. Hopefully, these findings will inspire you to harness the power of your inner dialogue. 

Self-Talk Is the Most Effective Motivational Technique

The effectiveness of three motivational methods were tested in this experiment: self-talk (a person's inner dialogue), imagery (using visualization for situation rehearsal), and ‘if-then’ planning (a strategy for coping with setbacks).

Each of these three psychological motivational methods was applied to one of four components involved in a specific competitive task. These included: 1) process 2) instruction 3) arousal-control 4) outcome.

Across the board, the researchers found that those using motivational self-talk—for example telling yourself "I can do better next time"—led to optimal performance during every portion of a competition task.

More specifically, the researchers found that the greatest improvements were seen in those who used: self-talk-outcome (telling yourself, "I can beat my best score"); self-talk-process (telling yourself, "I can react more quickly this time"); imagery-outcome (imagining yourself playing the game and beating your best score); and imagery-process (imagining yourself playing and reacting more quickly than last time).

Interestingly, “if-then planning" was found to be the least successful motivational technique. Implementation intentions within the "if-then plan" often take the form of strategizing ways you'll cope with a setback in the heat of competition. (e.g., “If I start to doubt myself…then I'll remind myself I have practiced hard and have the skills.”) 

The hypothetical “if” identifies a specific response to a future situation in a competition (such as bad weather), while the ‘then’ identifies a specific planned response you can implement in order to overcome a barrier and achieve the intended goal. However, framing goal intentions in the form of an 'if-then' plan was much less effective than simply cutting to the chase by saying, “I can do better.” In a statement, Professor Lane said,

 "Working on, 'Can You Compete?' was inspirational and educational; since we have been developing online interventions to help people manage their emotions and doing this across a range of specific contexts from delivering a speech to fighting in a boxing ring, from taking an exam to going into dangerous places"

Pragmatic Optimism: Finding the Sweet Spot Between Hubris and Humility

As a professional athlete and Guinness World Record holder, I can corroborate the findings of this study. I know from first hand experience, that self-talk is the No. 1 most effective way to motivate yourself. Mastering the art of self-talk allowed me to accomplish athletic feats such as the 'hat trick' of winning the longest non-stop triathlon in the world (the "Triple Ironman" is a 7.2-mile swim, 336-mile bike, 78.6-mile run) three years in a row. 

Through years of practice fine-tuning my inner dialogue, I learned how to find the sweet spot between hubris and humility and fill my head with self-talk that was rooted in pragmatic optimism. Well crafted self-talk allowed me to fortify my conviction that I had the ability and chutzpah to go farther and faster than others, without ever feeling cocky.

My internal coaching voice was never Pollyannish or self-defeating, but also avoided being over confident. It's a tightrope walk... Although, I'd never allow negative self-talk to undermine my performance, I'd also never say to myself, “I’m the GREATEST!” Ultimately, the most important self-talk rule was to never allow myself to think for a millisecond that I was 'less than' or incapable of achieving any realistic athletic goal that I had set for myself.

Also, as a gay person—who grew up in an era of rampant homophobia and intolerance—I learned from a young age how to substitute the hate-speech of others, with positive words of self-worth inside my head.

For example, in response to macho straight guys who assumed I was a sissy just because I was 'out' loud-and-proud and openly gay, I would say to myself, "If you think I'm not that strong. You're wrong . . . If you think being gay makes me weak, I will prove you are wrong by beating you in this race, and winning this competition." Truth be told, there were often a lot of expletives and F-Bombs embedded in my self-talk and inner dialogue as a competitive athlete that I bleeped from that previous paraphrase. As Mark Twain once said, "Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer."

As another example, whenever the weather conditions during an ultra-endurance race (such as running 135 miles nonstop through Death Valley in 130°F temperatures during Badwater) made me feel like I was going to die from heat stroke... my inner voice would start cursing at the elements. I would personify the blistering heat, sun, or wind as my nemesis. Then, I'd say to the heat or sun in the third person: "Don't fuck with me! I'm the fucking boss around here!!" (This is a line I borrowed from Madonna's "Causing a Commotion" performance during her 1990 blond ambition tour.)

Throughout my entire athletic career, I kept my antennae up for quotations and sayings that I could memorize and recite inside the athletic process to maintain a mindset of pragmatic optimism, fierce determination, and a sense of humor—especially when the chips were down.

Whenever I stumbled on a quotation or phrase that struck a chord with me, I'd transcribe it onto a fluorescent note card as a singular nugget of wisdom or inspiration. I kept stacks of these note cards on a nightstand next to my bed. Before going to sleep, I'd often review the quotations and commit the words to memory, with the intention of using them as "self-talk mantras" in future competitions.

Having a tool box filled with an arsenal of sayings and quotations gave me a lot of material to draw from when I was talking to myself during long ultra-endurance events. While competing, I would always adapt my inner dialogue to meet the unique circumstances of the moment and my emotional state-of-mind in that instance. By not using a "one size fits all" vernacular, I was able to tailor my inner dialogue, optimize my performance, and achieve lofty goals.

There is one important caveat about the potential dark side of constantly saying to yourself, "I can do better." At a certain point, I took motivational self-talk too far. Decades of having an incessant voice inside my head screaming: “I can do better....I can do better,” became a form of beating myself up.

Yes, my relentless inner dialogue drove me to break world records, but on a daily basis, I always felt that I was a day away from where I wanted and needed to be. I was never satisfied. The psychological underbelly of too much motivational self-talk inside my head and constantly pushing myself to go ever higher, farther, and faster created a vortex of malcontent.

That said, eventually, I had to retire from sports competitions and change my inner dialogue to saying, “I’m OK, just the way I am.” This allowed me to stop chasing the proverbial 'Holy Grail' and live in the moment with feelings of contentment—which is obviously central to longevity and leading a healthy, happy, and balanced life.

Conclusion: Saying “I Can Do Better” Is the No. 1 Motivational Technique

Yogi Berra famously said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” In order to achieve peak performance, you always need to practice your fine-tuned motor skills religiously in addition to mastering your inner dialogue of self-talk.

Lastly, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi teaches us, the key to creating flow is to constantly nudge your level of challenge higher as your skills improve. This is how you enter the ‘flow’ channel between boredom and over-arousal. The triad of saying, “I can do better,” practicing daily, and creating flow is always going to be a winning formula to seize the day and optimize your performance on and off the court.

To learn more about fine-tuning your inner dialogue, check out a free sample from my section on motivational self-talk in The Athlete’s Way (St. Martin's Press). 

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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