A new analysis of more than 30 published studies finds the sports psychology technique called “self-talk,” a mental strategy purported to improve performance, is indeed effective, and more varied and sophisticated than some might imagine.
Researchers believe self-talk can help everyone improve performance in a variety of settings.
Self-talk reflects the link between one’s thoughts and performance. The strategy uses self-addressed cues (words or small phrases) to trigger appropriate responses and action to improve performance. Self-talk is helpful in focusing attention and psyching-up.
“We know this strategy works, and it works in sports,” said sports psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, Ph.D.
But what makes it work better, and in what situations? To find out, Hatzigeorgiadis and his colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 32 sport psychological studies with a total of 62 measured effects.
Their findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Researchers learned there are different types of self-talk. For example, self-talk cues work differently in different situations.
For tasks requiring fine skills or for improving technique, “instructional self-talk” like technical instruction (such as beginner freestyle swimmers repeating “elbow-up”) is more effective than “motivational self-talk” (e.g., “give it all”), which seems to be more effective in tasks requiring strength or endurance, boosting confidence and psyching-up for competition. This suggests personal or individual self-tak used by an individual must be tailored to meet their needs.
The investgators also discovered that self-talk has a greater effect on tasks involving fine skills (such as sinking a golf ball) rather than gross skills (e.g., cycling); probably because self-talk is a technique which mostly improves concentration.
Self-talk is more effective for novel tasks rather than well-learned tasks, because it is easier to improve at the early steps of learning. Nevertheless, both beginners and experienced athletes can benefit, especially when they consistently practice the technique.
Most important, Hatzigeorgiadis said, is that athletes train to self-talk—they prepare their scripts and use them consistently in training under varying conditions to better prepare themselves for competition.
According to Hatzigeorgiadis, self-talk is analogous to techniques such as visualization that aim to improve focus and relaxation by mentally rehearsing a performance. Self-talk should be used “to enhance your potential; and to perform during competition in terms of your ability and not less.”
The strategy has implications beyond the playing field, he said. “The mind guides action. If we succeed in regulating our thoughts, then this will help our behavior.”
“The goal of being prepared is to do the best you can do.”