Psyched Online

Cognitive Style And Athletic Performance Part II: Self Talk

by Paul Schienberg, Ph.D.

Self talk can be defined as a conversation we have with ourselves whether it is audible or not. There are various kinds of self-talks that can be identified: One type gets athletes to direct attention (“focus”); a second type labels self and others (“what a loser”); a third judges performance (“you call that a fastball?” They all contribute or undermine athletic performance. In Part I, we talked about irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions. Inevitably, they are manifested in self-talks – the vehicles for making perceptions and beliefs conscious – therein providing the keys to altering how we think and what we do.

Competitive Sports and Self-Talk

Qualifying divers for competitions used more positive self-instruction self-talk and less praising self-talk during competition than non-qualifiers. Successful Olympic athletes often used positive self-statements as part of a well-developed pre-competition plan. On the other hand, athletes with an ineffective focus of attention were characterized by self-doubts. Also, Olympic wrestlers indicated that self-talk was a common technique for fostering positive expectancies and appropriately focusing attention on the task. Another study showed that junior tennis players found that negative self-talk was associated with losing and no relationship between positive self-talk and better performance. Three types of positive self-talk (task relevant statements, mood words, and positive self-statements) had a positive relationship to performance with cross-country skiers. Golfers and bowlers demonstrated a positive association between performance and positive self-monitoring. In conclusion, both positive self-talk and self-confidence are associated with better or at least “no worse” performances. A positive self-concept, high self-confidence, a task-relevant focus of attention and less self-doubt relate to better performance.

Using Self-Talk

There are a variety of uses of self-talk in exercise and sport: habits can be corrected, attention focused, behaviors modified, improvements in self-confidence occur and participation in sport and exercise encouraged and maintained.

Sometimes an athlete will get into bad habits. Because they have been active for a long time, they are automatic. Self-talk can help consciously override these “knee jerk” behaviors. The content of the self-talk can range from a description of an entire motion (e.g., “bend the knees slightly, take a deep breath, shift the weight slowly to the back leg, lift the club slowly, let the club do the work as I come back and through the ball”). When you use self-talk for changing bad habits, the athlete must focus on desirable movements, and not on unwanted movements. An example is “Shift weight to the front leg!”- not – “Don’t hold back!” This type of self-talk is helpful during the learning stage, but not necessarily during actual competitive performance if the correct actions occur automatically, without prompting.

During practices and competitions athletes can use self-talk to more effectively focus attention. Cue words and self-statements (“right now” or “be here”) can bring us into the here and now. Task-specific cues can aid in the same endeavor (“Track the ball.” Or “Pick the target.”).

Sometimes athletes need to adjust their activation level. Self-statements can help with increasing or decreasing levels of activity. Relaxation (“easy,” “quiet,” “relax”) or energizing (“go,” “get up,” “pumped”) cues will shift energy levels throughout the body. For greater effectiveness, athletes should pick cues that have the best emotional content for them. Optimal activation can be achieved by using these cues throughout practice and competition.

Self-confidence can be affected by self-statements. Self-talk that reflects negative expectancies and excessive self-doubt will decrease self-confidence (e.g., “Once again I am a loser.” or “I have no chance.”). Even if situations warrant negative self-criticism, it should be restricted to performance and behavior, and not directed to the self. There are many sources of self-confidence that are outside of an athlete’s control (e.g., performance outcome, expectations and talent of others). On the other hand, the athlete can control self-talk – which can be a powerful source of self-confidence and motivation. Positive impact self-talk can be taught just as negative self-talk was taught. Even though negative self-talk can be initially motivating, it often leads to a lower level of self-confidence.

Self-efficacy cognitions are a significant factor in predicting adoption and adherence to exercise programs. In addition, these thoughts can serve as mediators in the relationship between social support and exercise adherence. Modifying self-efficacy cognitions toward exercise does contribute to adoption or adherence to exercise routines.

Athletes must be aware of the content of self-statements before they can change them and effect performance. This is as true with negative/self-defeating self-talk as well as positive/ facilitating self-talk. A technique for keeping track of the frequency of self-talk statement is to have the athlete carry a number of paper clips in a pocket. Each time a negative self-talk statement occurs instruct the athlete to move a paper clip from one pocket into another. Motivation to change can occur when an athlete realizes just how many clips have been moved into the new pocket.

Visual imagery can help recall past experiences and related self-talk statements. Some athletes are better at this skill than others. They can connect the impact of these cognitions on emotions and performance.

Another suggestion is to employ a retrospective approach. This involves reflecting upon performances in which the athletes did well or poorly. What thoughts and feelings prior to and during these events can be recalled? This technique is most effective if it occurs immediately after the competition or practice. Cognitions are easily forgotten. Watching a videotape of the activity can trigger memories of thoughts. If an athlete has little or no awareness of self-talk, this technique may not be effective.

Athletes who are not aware of content and frequency of verbalizations during practices and performances could use daily record keeping in a self-talk log. This log should include the situation in which the self-talk occurred, the content of the self-statements, and the consequences of the self-talk written in terms of performance and emotional consequences. The advantages of this log include accuracy and thorough identification of self-talk, best identification of the situations initiating self-talk and consequences of the self-talk. If the athlete can carry around a tape recorder during practice to provide immediate documentation, it would provide more reliable information.

Techniques for Altering Self-Talk

Once the identification of self-talk has been raised to a level of noticeable significance and sufficient motivation is achieved, changing negative thoughts to positive ones can be accomplished. There must be commitment to change by an athlete for all this to take place. And even then, there might not be success in self-talk change. Why? The athlete might be lacking in self-esteem and self-confidence caused by negative self-concepts that are deep routed. Fundamentally, the athlete may not believe he/she deserves to have good things happen. In this case, a referral to a professional might be helpful.

For maximum effectiveness, it is important to not only stop negative self-statements, but it must be followed by the introduction of positive statements that encourage and direct attention. There are several advantages to this addition step. Some athletes doubt their ability to stop negative thoughts, but may accept that they can at least make constructive ones. If they can experience success with positive thoughts, it might cause retroactive encouragement about faulty thinking. Positive cognitions can reduce the impact of negative thoughts.

Here’s a suggestion! Take a piece of paper and list typically used negative self-statements on one side of a sheet of a paper. On the other side write a countering positive statement that can be immediately substituted. Negative thoughts often occur when an athlete in under stress and over-activated physiologically. So, take a deep breath and say the positive self-statement.

Countering is a useful technique for challenging the athlete’s belief in the negative statement, thereby facilitating the acceptance of constructive self-statements. Countering is a process of internal debate – using facts, reason, and rational thinking to counter self-defeating thoughts. It’s like having a jury and you are the defense attorney who needs to build a case against the negative charges. Let’s say the charge is “My heart is pounding and I’m going to choke.” The defense might sound like “My heart is pounding hard, but that’s natural. It happens to everyone. It is a sign that something important and exciting is about to occur. Also, I have been in these situations before and come through it just fine.”

Athletes and people tend to view the world in very narrow, rigid and restricted manner. “If we change our thoughts, we can change the world.” Reframing is a method of changing our ways of viewing the world. It is easier to change our self-statements from negative to positive ones once we change our perspectives. If a team loses a number of games in succession, the coach may emphasize the value of the learning experience. If an important game is won, the coach can point out that “The game is behind us and we have to focus on the next one.”

Optimal cognitions for enhancement of endurance performance have been investigated. Associative cognitions direct attention toward task-related cues and physical sensations that result from exercise. Dissociative cognitions refer to thoughts that have nothing to do with exercise. Experienced endurance athletes use associative strategies as their dominant attentional focus and most effective strategy for improving performance. The opposite result occurred with inexperienced athletes.


Thinking is intrinsically linked to emotions and performance. This is as true in sport and exercise as it is in any other area of life. Thought patterns frequently resist change, especially negative ones. Prior to implementation of any cognitive changes, awareness of ineffective thoughts needs to be created, their consequences pointed out, and underlying beliefs that motivate, support and contribute to the thoughts recognized. Cognitive techniques such as those described in this article require skill, practice and patience by coaches and players. Remember that if we learned something we can unlearn it. Of course, the earlier we address cognitive problems, the easier they can be rectified.