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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