Self-Talk Can Improve Sports Performance

In a recent meta-analysis of 32 sports psychology studies, researchers confirmed that how an athlete uses their self-talk can make significant changes in their sports performance. The analysis will be published in an upcoming edition of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

The researchers also looked at some of the specifics of self-talk that can improve performance. Some of these findings included:

  • For tasks requiring fine skills or improved technique, “instructional self-talk” was found to be more effective than “motivational talk.” In other words, when about to drive a golf ball onto the fairway, it would be better for the golfer to use self-talk such as “keep your knees bent” or “swing with your hips” rather than motivational speech like “you can do it!”
  • On the other hand, motivational self-talk was found to be effective during tasks “requiring strength or endurance, boosting confidence and psyching-up for competition.” So those motivational speeches your football coach gives you before a big game can definitely have an effect, especially if those motivational messages stay inside your head throughout the game. In this case, “Let’s get ’em!” can be an empowering thought.
  • Some studies found self-talk is better for novel tasks rather than well-learned tasks. This is probably because during early stages of our sports development we are learning so many new things, and self-talk can help us become better learners by repeating important concepts to ourselves as we play. On the other hand, if someone is already a well-learned baseball player (where everything is already second-nature), forced self-talk may disrupt the natural flow of their game.
  • Athletes often practice self-talk by preparing scripts that they read to themselves before every game. They may also incorporate visualization exercises where they mentally rehearse different aspects of their game. Sports psychologist believe this helps condition athletes to be more effective on the field.

Sports psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis who conducted the meta-analysis with his colleagues at the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Thessaly says, “The mind guides action. If we succeed in regulating our thoughts, then this will help our behavior.”

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Hedonism In Moderation

So I’ve been blogging a lot about Martin Seligman’s new PERMA theory on happiness. PERMA identifies 5 elements to living a happy life: Positive Emotion, Engagement (Flow), Relationships, Meaning and Achievement.

In Seligman’s earlier theories he identified 3 similar elements (you’ll notice overlap between both theories): The Pleasant Life (the “life of enjoyment”), The Good Life (the “life of engagement”), and The Meaningful Life (the “life of affiliation”).

In this post I want to really focus on something that I don’t usually write about, but is certainly beneficial to happiness: the pleasant life. The pleasant life is probably best depicted in the philosophy of hedonism, which holds the belief that pleasure is the only intrinsic good in this world. From a purely hedonistic standpoint: our happiness can be measured based on our amount of pleasurable experiences minus our amount of painful experiences.

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Creativity and Divergent Thinking

divergent thinking

Divergent thinking is a creative process that involves trying to think of as many possible solutions as you can. It is the opposite of convergent thinking, which usually involves a thought process that follows some set of rules or logic (in which case there may only be 1 or few correct answers).

In contrast to convergent thinking, divergent thinking is usually more spontaneous and free-flow. Individuals try to keep their mind open to any possibilities that present themselves. The more possibilities they come up with, the better their divergent thinking.

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The Invisible Counselors Technique

invisible counselors technique

Napoleon Hill’s “Invisible Counselors Technique” is a great imaginative exercise used to aid creativity and problem-solving. It’s a very simple 3 step process:

    1. Close your eyes and vividly imagine yourself in a counselor’s room. Choose a definitive purpose for your meeting and what situation in your life you want help or guidance in.

    2. Choose between 5-9 individuals (alive, dead, fictional, non-fictional – it doesn’t matter) who you would like to receive advice from regarding this particular situation.

    3. Ask whatever questions you want to any of the individuals at your meeting. For each question, keep your mind open, and be ready to hear any response that comes back to you.

The stronger your imagination, the better. But don’t worry if you’re not naturally a creative or imaginary person; like most things, this skill can be developed with practice. You may not receive any insights the first time you meet with your counsel, but with practice you will get better at listening to your subconscious.

For a great explanation on the history and application of the Invisible Counselors Technique, this video does a bang up job (although there are some things I disagree with which I will address below, watch it first):

While I find this video really helpful in explaining how to do the Invisible Counselors Technique (and also how it relates to other people’s creative strategies), I don’t quite understand why it feels the need to bring up multiverses or quantum mechanics. The video originally quotes Hill as saying this is purely a fictional exercise, but then later tells how he changed his mind because the characters began to take a personality of their own.

I think the false assumption here is that our mind is a single, unitary personality. But in truth I think our personalities are much more multi-dimensional, partly because they are heavily influenced by other figures in our life: family members, friends, teachers, coworkers, celebrities, politicians, musicians, artists, actors, as well as fictional characters in movies, TV shows, books, plays, etc.

Thus, when we imagine our best friend or Mom or Abraham Lincoln in our mind’s eye, it isn’t as though we are actually channeling them into consciousness. What we are doing is projecting a vision or “archetype” of them that we have learned through prior experience with that person. Thus, I believe it is still technically a “fiction” – a projection of our imagination – although, it happens to be a useful fiction when it comes to creativity and problem-solving.

In truth, the effectiveness of the technique has little to do with whether or not these projections are “real” in some other dimension or simply “imaginary.” I think Occam’s Razor (choosing the theory that makes the fewest new assumptions) tells us that The Invisible Counselors Technique is a working of our imagination.

Given, I’m not an expert in Quantum Mechanics, but I do know that the popular consensus from most quantum physicists (and psychologists, for that matter) doesn’t support the notion that we can literally connect with the consciousness of dead minds. I won’t say it’s flat out wrong (because I don’t know), but I am certainly skeptical.

Skepticism aside, the technique is valid in its own right, and I highly recommend trying it. In all honesty, I find that our imaginations are an incredibly undervalued resource in today’s society. In addition, I think in many ways ideas remain dormant in our subconscious, and an exercise such as The Invisible Counselors Technique helps us bring these subconscious ideas into awareness. When we draw upon these different archetypes that exist in our minds, we become introduced to different perspectives that we may not have previously considered. I consider it a very useful technique in cognitive empathy.

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The Changing Self

In Buddhist philosophy there are two central teachings to the origin of suffering. One is impermanence, the idea that everything is in a constant state of flux. The second is clinging; when we cling to conditions in a changing world, we bind ourselves to suffering.

Clinging to both “bad experiences” and “good experiences” can be a source of suffering. Because when we cling to negative feelings, we prolong their power over our thoughts and actions. Instead of letting them take their course and then letting go, we hold onto these feelings and even begin to identify with them. And when we cling to positive feelings, we also attach to them as our only source of happiness, but we simultaneously set ourselves up for suffering once those positive feelings inevitably go away.

If everything is constantly changing, then the key to living a healthy life must be embracing this change as it unfolds, rather than attaching our happiness to a certain set of conditions. When we learn how to ride out these ebbs and flow of life, we paradoxically find contentment in the present moment (because we learn to embrace whatever is as it is).

Full acceptance of the present moment also includes an acceptance of its transient nature. And full acceptance of yourself also includes an acceptance that you too are always changing. From moment-to-moment, it often feels as though we are a static entity. But when you view yourself 10-20 years in the past, or what you will be 10-20 years in the future, you’ll often find that you can change drastically from one phase of your life to the next.

I find these ideas very conducive to personal development and mental health. Actually, the whole notion that “thing’s change” has helped me overcome countless internal battles over the past few years.

But it takes practice. Mainly, daily mindfulness, and actual eye-witness of this change as it takes place in the present moment. Conceptions of our “static self” can only be de-mystified by daily meditation into the nature of our changing selves. Change is not just an esoteric concept, but an observable, empirical truth that can be discovered by anyone who watches their daily experiences on a consistent basis. One of the my favorite meditations in de-mystifying this fixed self is objectless meditation. It is a pure mindfulness practice where the observer doesn’t try to concentrate on any one object, but instead allows their awareness to expand to the full range of their experience. During such a meditation your object of focus will shift between different sensations in your body, as well as different thoughts, emotions, memories, and imaginations. A person who has developed a strong sense of mindfulness will learn how to better engage in this process of change without clinging to any singular aspect of their experience.

And the ultimate goal of your meditation is to take this awareness into your daily activities. That means embracing change in all aspects of your life: your health, your relationships, your career, your personal habits, etc. All aspects of your being are in a dynamic state of flux. And keeping this simple truth in the back of your mind at all times can do wonders.

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