Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mental Skills Series: Self-Talk

Part four of the mental skills series covers Self-Talk. Self-talk is the internal dialogue you engage in with yourself. It can be giving yourself instructions and reinforcement or how you interpret what you feel and perceive (Hackfort & Schwenmezger as cited in Williams, 2006). I've mentioned one of my own experiences with self-talk before in a previous blog here, as I was working my way back from my stress fracture.

The dialogue can happen out loud (e.g. mumbling) or inside your head. Self-talk is an asset to performance when it is enhancing your self-worth, it can help change your thoughts, regulate your energy levels and anxiety, stay focused and cope with difficult situations. On the flip side, self-talk can be detrimental when it's negative or distracting to the task you are working on or if it is so loud and frequent it is disrupting the automatic performance of your skills (Williams, 2006).

Self-talk can affect self-esteem. If a person consistently ascribes positive labels to themselves, they may begin to act in a positive way--and likewise if they ascribe negative labels.

Self-talk is really common! It can be an interesting exercise to become more aware of the type of self-talk we are engaging in, just how much--and then how it really is making us feel and act.

There are several ways to identify self-talk including retrospection and self-talk logs.

Retrospection: Retrospection is basically reflection on situations in which performance went particularly well or poorly. You then re-create those thoughts and feelings that happened prior to and during the performances, and then identifying the common themes in both types of performance (Williams, 2006). Focusing on the thoughts during these performances is the goal, including expectations and feelings of self-esteem.

Using a Self-Talk Log is another way to become more aware of both positive and negative self-talk. Writing down what you say at practice, competitions, work etc but also reflecting on what was said before, during and after good and poor performances and how frequently you said those things. When things were frustrating did you depreciate yourself and what did you say? When things went well--what did you say?

As identification of self-talk happens, what's next?

There are several techniques that sport and performance psychology consultants may use to help with self-talk that is also self-defeating including thought stoppage, and changing negative thoughts to positive.

Thought Stoppage: Thought Stoppage is very much like it sounds, it can involve telling yourself "Stop that thought!" or a physical action--snapping your fingers when a negative thought comes.

Changing Negative Thoughts to Positive: While it would be nice to stop negative thoughts all together, that may not be the most realistic of solutions--changing negative thoughts to positive thoughts offers a nice alternative. Working to throw out the negative thought as it happens, and then replacing it with a positive thought takes pressure off the idea of controlling all the thoughts that pop into your mind. While you might not be able to control that very first thought--it may be easier to control your next move, and to set a goal to gradually reduce negative thoughts over time (Williams, 2006).

It's important to remember that negative thoughts and anxiety aren't unusual. Tom Courtney, who won the 800 meter run at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne was quoted as saying, (photo courtesy of

"As I stepped onto the track I felt my legs go rubbery. I saw over a 100,000 people in the stands, and before I knew it, I had collapsed onto the infield grass. "Can it be," I remembered thinking, as I lay there gazing up at the sky, "that I'm so nervous I'm not going to be able to run?" Then I realized how ridiculous I'd look, flat on my back on the grass as they started the race. I guess the humor of that image made me lose my nervousness. I was able to recover, get up and jog to the starting line" ( It's important to see that even though athletes may get nervous and have negative thoughts, they don't hold the thoughts in a place where it creates a mental block--that impedes their physical performance.

Here is another example, a clip from one of my favorite running movies--"Run Fat Boy Run."

Dennis hits the wall, he hears the negative talk that has been holding him back up until this time, he acknowledges that he hears it but he doesn't let it stop him. Instead you can see Dennis physically "Stop" the thoughts, and push through--breaking the image of his wall.

Here we are, at the end of part four of the mental skills series, remember, self-talk is the internal or even external dialogue we engage in that reflects how you interpret what you feel and perceive. It's a normal process! It can be an asset to performance when it builds self-worth, regulate energy, help keep you focused or cope. It can also be detrimental to performance if it takes away from your self-esteem, or is distracting. Using retrospection and or a self-talk log are two ways to become more aware of when and what types of self-talk you engage in.

Thought stoppage and turning negative thoughts to positive thoughts may help control negative thoughts.

Even the best athletes and performers have some negative thoughts, but it's their reaction to those thoughts that ultimately may affect their performance, it may be helpful to make the final thought in a string of thoughts positive!

Remember that this is an introduction to these skills, and working with a trained sport and performance psychology professional and working with a trained sport and performance psychology professional provides many more resources and an individualized plan that is suited for the sport and the person.

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