The Truth About Positive Self-Talk

The Truth About Positive Self-Talk
By Lindsey Wilson
There’s a lot out there about positivity and the importance of having a positive mindset: talking to yourself positively, talking to your kids positively, even talking to your pets positively. (Groan… Yes, it’s a thing!)
All this positivity can be a bit much.
And that’s saying a lot, especially coming from someone like me who’s a BIG believer in the power of the glass-is-half-full mentality. The complication with positivity is that it can be hard to distinguish what is actually helpful and what is just, well, fluff.
That’s why I want to talk specifically about self-talk today because, in my opinion, self-talk serves as the basis for so many things in our lives: our beliefs, our outlook, our confidence, how we interact with others, and much, much more. But, I don’t just want to talk about self-talk alone; I also want to dive into the research behind it to make sure this isn’t just another ‘positive self-talk is great’ article. Yay!
Seeing as our focus is athletics, I want to specifically analyze the research looking into the relationship between self-talk and performance. Basically, my big question is:
Is teaching athletes positive self-talk worth it?
So, here we go! This is what I found:
·         Positive self-talk can improve confidence.
·         Positive self-talk does positively affect performance.
·         Self-talk effects motor skill performance more than cognitive performance.
·         Self-talk is best scripted ahead of time and practiced.
·         Research shows there are differences in what type of statements you should say at different times, but…
·         What works for each person is fundamentally a matter of personal preference.
·         Addressing yourself by name or ‘you’ is found to be more powerful than ‘I’ statements.
·         Self-talk should focus on what you should do rather than what you should not do.
First, before we can talk about self-talk in depth, we need to establish a solid definition. More specifically, we need to be able to answer the following questions:
1.    What IS self-talk?
2.    What different types of self-talk are there?
3.    Are there types that are more helpful in certain situations than others?
These questions get really specific, really fast, so let’s start with a basic overview of self-talk and go from there.
Defining Self-Talk
The Mayo Clinic defines self-talk as “the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head… [that] can be positive or negative.” Furthermore, “[i]f your thoughts are mostly positive, you’re likely an optimist — someone who practices positive thinking.”
Positive thinking, therefore, is the result of positive self-talk, and those can offer multiple health benefits, such as increased life span and increased immunity.
The Mayo Clinic then gives us examples of both positive and negative self-talk:
Putting Positive Thinking Into Practice
Negative self-talk

Positive Self Talk

I’ve never done it before.
It’s an opportunity to learn something new.
It’s too complicated.
I’ll tackle it from a different angle.
I don’t have the resources.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
I’m too lazy to get this done.
I wasn’t able to fit it into my schedule, but I can re-examine some priorities.
There’s no way it will work.
I can try to make it work.
It’s too radical a change.
Let’s take a chance.
No one bothers to communicate with me.
I’ll see if I can open the channels of communication.
I’m not going to get any
better at this.
I’ll give it another try.
The Mayo’s cover-all rule: “Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else.”
Simple enough right? Not so fast. Let’s dive into this a little deeper…
Research shows there are 4 specific categories of performance-based self-talk:
·         Calming/relaxing (“Take a deep breath.”)
·         Instructional (“Bend your knees.”)
·         Motivational (“Yes! Come on, let’s go!”)
·         Focus (“Don’t think about anything. Just concentrate.”)
This list got me paying attention. Why? Because these categories are all so different. Even for myself, I can see one type of statement working in a certain situation and not working in another. (Leaving the research aside for a moment, this is where I encourage athletes to build up self-awareness and to practice what works with some trial and error.)
But, back to the research…
In Perspectives on Psychological Science[i], a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Thessaly did a meta-analysis on 62 research studies on self-talk. Their analysis revealed that, not only did self-talk improve sports performance, but different self-talk cues work differently in certain situations.
Here is what they found:
·         Instructional self-talk (i.e. “Elbow-up”) is most helpful for tasks requiring fine skills or for improving technique.
Motivational self-talk (i.e. “Give it your all”) seems to be more effective in tasks requiring strength or endurance, boosting confidence and psyching-up athletes for competition.
It is a matter of personal preference or what works for each person; but generally, it is advised that self-talk is positively rather than negatively phrased and focuses on what you should do rather than on what you should avoid…”
Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, researcher at the University of Thessaly
According to an article in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology[ii], a researcher by the name of Kross and his associates at the University of Michigan did an experiment with one small caveat: participants would either use the word ‘I’ or ‘You/[their name]’ when addressing themselves with their self-talk.
This is what the experiment looked like:
Kross asked volunteers to give a speech. Catch: they were only given five minutes of mental preparation. During the five minutes, he told some to talk to themselves and to address themselves as ‘I’. For the rest of them, their five minutes was spent using ‘you’ or by addressing themselves in the third person (using their own names).
At the close of the study, this is what Kross found:
·         People who used ‘I’ said things like ‘Oh, my god, how am I going do this? I can’t prepare a speech in five minutes without notes. It takes days for me to prepare a speech!’
·         People who used ‘you’ or their own names said things like, “Ethan, you can do this. You’ve given a ton of speeches before.”
Positive self-talk effects your everyday life. Clearly, the people who used ‘you’ or their names sounded more rational and less emotional—perhaps because they were able to get some distance from themselves.
Truly, it sounds like they are coaching themselves.
Research done out of Waseda University in Japan[iii] shows again that motor skills especially are greatly affected by self-talk. The results of their research show that positive self-talk improved physical performance by 11%.
Their research was based around a simple balancing exercise. Students completed the exercise then were given 30 seconds to rest before completing it a second time. In between the sets, students were told to pay attention to their self-talk. Some students reported having negative self talk; others reported positive self-talk; still another group reported using a combination of positive and negative self-talk.
The results were shocking.
Students that reported using positive self-talk exclusively during those 30 seconds were able to hold their balance a full second longer than those who used exclusively negative or had a mix of both negative and positive self-talk.
The positive self-talk resulted in an average balance time of 9.29 seconds, while the other two groups averaged out at 8.29 seconds. This is more than an 11% increase in performance, really close to the proven 15% increase in athletic performance we see with Positive Performance’s mental training.
Based on the above findings it’s obvious that teaching athletes how and when to use positive self-talk—that is, using positive self-talk appropriately—is not only a good time investment, but a worthwhile one.
While talking about positive self-talk can seem merely warm and fuzzy, research shows that it is a powerful, actionable tool in achieving one’s peak performance. And, based on our own work with athletes, here are some simple best practices for self-talk education:
·         Self-talk should be practiced ahead of time (outside of competition).
·         While there are best practices, the focus should be less about negative/positive, or good/bad self-talk, and more about what is PRODUCTIVE for athletes in certain situations.
·         Individual preferences are okay.
·         Self-talk should be focused on what should be done, rather than what should be avoided.
·         Different situations might call for different types of self-talk.
·         It is difficult to turn off self-talk. For most people, self-talk is going to happen, for the good or the bad, regardless of whether you work on it. Knowing that, you may as well make the monologue in your head helpful… and positive!
Here’s to athletes everywhere, using self-talk as a tool to find their peak performance every time they step onto the playing field.

[i] Girodo & Wood, 1979; Goodhart, 1986; Mahoney & Avener, 1977; Van Raalte et al., 1994; Weinberg, 1985
[ii] Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremner, R., Moser, J., & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
[iii] Belief in Self-Talk and Dynamic Balance Performance.Kaori Araki (Waseda University, Japan), Joseph K. Mintah (Azusa Pacific University), Mick G. Mack, Sharon Huddleston, Laura Larson, and Kelly Jacobs (University of Northern Iowa).

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