What Does Positive Self-Talk Really Sound Like?
When it comes to the “core mental skills” taught by most sport psychology consultants – goal setting, relaxation, self-talk and imagery – only one of them is something nearly all athletes already use all the time, even before the intervention of some sport psych professional. Realistically, only a small percentage of athletes will adopt mental imagery, or regular documented goal setting, or relaxation strategies as a regular practice. The one concept we all use is self-talk, or that inner dialogue continuously running in our head, which powerfully impacts performance and general well-being. Hordes of research make the benefit of self-talk obvious: using the “right words” can make a basketball player more accurate on free throws; a tennis player increase first serve percentage, an exerciser lift more weight. The “wrong words” can reduce our accuracy, power, and self-confidence, making playing athletics nearly impossible to succeed in.
Let me dispel the myth of what positive self-talk isn’t: it’s not lying to ourselves and falsely inflating our egos, it’s not ignoring mistakes and only focusing on what’s going well, and it’s not repeating an affirmation in your head until it becomes “believable.” Positive self-talk should really be labeled “helpful self-talk”: it’s the kind of language & tone we must use with ourselves to help us perform great. For some, that’s a soft and gentle voice; for others, it’s stern and strict. It’s never, however, sarcastic (“yea, you’re playing amazing today!” in response to poor play) or degrading (“you suck! you’re terrible!”).
In my decade of consulting, I’ve heard what would constitute as “helpful self-talk” on various playing fields by young athletes maybe 10% of the time. The remaining 90% is typically unhelpful and scaldingly negative, at least what’s uttered aloud.
This video beautifully demonstrates what positive self-talk sounds like in professional football. Although more gladiatorial in nature, the tone and language used by many of these guys may well mimic what any athlete – in even the most gentle activities like golf, bowling or yoga – ought to be saying before and after points / shots.
You’ll hear two types of self-talk: motivational (intended to ramp up energy levels and arousal) and instructional (to remind us how to execute the task). “Let’s go” and “C’mon!” are examples of motivational talk in tennis, while “stay low,” “high over the net and deep,” and “make my opponent move” are examples of instructional talk. Consider your relationship to your own thoughts – that is, during performance, are you speaking motivationally, instructionally, or just plain unhelpfully? And what changes are you willing to make in your own self-talk?
Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP