- Positive self-talk involves talking to yourself (internally or out loud) in an encouraging way.
- Research suggests that positive self-talk can aid athletes' performance.
- Non-athletes can benefit from encouraging self-talk, too.
When you’re on the spot, be it during a job interview, a big presentation at work, or a midterm exam, how do you respond? Do you start to sweat and shake? Do you have trouble forming sentences? Or are you cool as a cucumber, poised and ready to take action?
Our thoughts have a lot to do with how we respond to high-stakes moments. To up your performance game, we can turn to the sports psychology field for some much-needed coaching.
What Does Science Say About Positive Self-Talk?
I’ve always admired athletes for their total focus and ability to perform under pressure. When Joel Embiid makes his game-deciding free throw, I imagine time slows down and everything extraneous is filtered out. But I also wonder—is there anything else going through his head in that moment? Does he say anything to himself to make the golden shot happen?
There’s a good chance something is going through his head and that it’s positive self-talk—an athlete’s secret weapon. A 2020 study of three 800-meter runners found evidence that using self-talk made them run faster and feel mentally tougher. Their performances spoke for themselves, even if the athletes didn’t think their speed had changed in the moment.
How to Make Positive Self-Talk Work for You
Positive self-talk is exactly what it sounds like—you literally talk to yourself in a motivating, encouraging, and confidence-boosting way. You might even add some coaching instructions. (Think Muhammad Ali and “Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee!”)
This isn’t to say that only athletes can participate in and benefit from positive self-talk. You can try this method for yourself next time you’re about to give a performance. Here’s how to put positive self-talk to work for you.
1. Start early. Positive effects may be especially strong when you’re a novice.
Gigi Fernandez is a retired and celebrated tennis player with 17 Grand Slam doubles titles and two Olympic Gold Medals. Earlier in her career, she and her coach came up with computerized self-talk exercises to help her redirect her negative self-talk. This helped her to stay focused and relaxed on the court.
But you don’t need to be a Tennis Hall of Famer to use this performance booster. In fact, a review of a few dozen self-talk sports studies found that this method was more consistently effective for novice and youth athletes than for competition-level athletes.
2. When the task is simple, keep the self-talk simple: Just tell yourself you can do it.
Don’t worry, your motivational self-talk doesn’t have to be as inspiring as the speech Coach Gary Gaines (played by Billy Bob Thorton) gives to the Permian Panthers in the 2004 movie Friday Night Lights.
Just keep it to the point, especially if you’re psyching yourself up for a straightforward action with lots of muscle memory behind it, like striking a soccer ball or sprinting the 100-meter dash. You just have to hype yourself up a bit. In fact, one of the original self-talk experiments simply told people to tell themselves either “you can do it” or “you can’t do it” before throwing darts. You can guess which type of self-talk helped them put the darts closer to the bullseye!
Why do these actions work? One potential explanation is that simple, motivational self-talk phrases can slightly increase your heart rate, but otherwise reduce sudden changes in your heart rate. This may help prepare your body for performance while keeping you steady.
3. When the task is complex or new, talk yourself through what to do.
If the task at hand is a bit more complicated or involves something you’ve never done before, a simple “you can do it” might not cut it. Talking yourself through the steps as if you were filming an instructional video can help prime you for what’s to come.
In one study, novice golfers who gave themselves step-by-step self-talk ended up doing better on a measure of putting technique compared to those who used motivational self‐talk (though there were no statistically significant differences in putting performance). This could be due to their instructional self-talk cueing up a brain activity pattern associated with top-down control, which you need when learning something outside of your wheelhouse or doing something complicated.
4. Don’t just wait for your inner voice to start talking—do it actively.
NFL players have been caught using self-talk on the field—and you’ll notice that they do it deliberately. They don’t just react when something goes according to plan or gets messed up. Instead, they seem to be giving themselves pep talks while warming up, on the bench, or when they’re about to start a new half.
There’s a good reason for this. In stressful situations, like when something makes them nervous or aggravated, athletes’ spontaneous self-talk is often negative. On the other hand, if they’re not waiting for their own automatic reactions, but rather proactively using self-talk, the message tends to be more positive and motivating.
Adapt this thinking to your own situation. Don’t wait for your inner voice to come up with encouragement. Feed it to yourself before your big moment.
5. Talk to yourself in the third person for better emotion regulation.
At first, you might feel silly doing it, but psychological science supports this practice!
A brain imaging study suggests that when you think about a bad memory or see something aversive, talking to yourself in the third person activates brain areas involved in self-control less than if you talk in the first person. You may need to use less self-control to regulate emotions when you say, “Hey [insert your name here], it’s okay. You’ve got this,” compared to, “I’ve got this.”
Third-person self-talk creates a slight illusion that you’re talking to someone else, which provides enough psychological distance to make emotion regulation easier. And when it comes to emotion regulation in high-stakes situations, any help we can get is a good thing.
Medical Disclaimer: All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.
A version of this post also appears on Quick and Dirty Tips.
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