Self-Talk: All Athletes Are Doing It


I played professional soccer in Ireland, albeit very brief, following my career at Millersville University. My time playing soccer Millersville was when I, without a doubt, played my best soccer and had the most fun on the field. What happened? How did I go from having a lot of fun and scoring 18 goals my senior year at Millersville to being miserable on the field and struggling to score any goals? I was still in great physical shape and there is no way my my athletic ability could have deteriorated significantly. Negative self-talk happened

These are some of the thoughts and self-statements I experienced when I was playing in Ireland:

-I don’t belong here

-These other guys are way better than me

-I’m going to confirm to my teammates that Americans suck at soccer

-I don’t want to mess up

-I hope my missed shot doesn’t cost us the game

-I just wish the game was over

-I want to go home

All athletes are constantly experiencing a steady stream of self-talk and oftentimes it is out of one’s awareness. Most athletes and people in general blindly accept that thoughts are what they are and there is nothing that can be done about them. However, I strongly believe a huge advantage goes to athletes who learn to manage their negative thoughts and increase their positive thoughts regarding their performance. At the root of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Mindfulness is the management of troublesome thoughts. For example, people with high levels of anxiety tend to experience frequent thoughts of a negative or worrisome future. This occurs with athletes when they begin to project too far in the future how a past mistake will negatively impact the outcome. One common example is when a soccer player misses an easy goal in the first few minutes of the game. This player is likely to experience negative self-talk such as “I suck, my coach is going to bench me, my teammates are going to be pissed off at me, just don’t pass me the ball because I’m going to mess up again…” As a result the player progresses through the negative cycle of:

1) A mistake is made

2) Anxiety slightly increases

3) Negative self-talk increases

4) Anxiety significantly increases

5) The player begins to flee from the game in fear of making another mistake.

6) The uninvolved players’ confidence drops.

7) Anxiety spins out of control

8) Performance drops

9) Return to step 1 and repeat

A good metaphor for this process is a snowball being pushed down a hill and on its way down it gathers speed and size to the point where it is out of control and destructive. I imagine the original mistake on the field as the beginning of a snow fall. Mistakes are inevitable; it is part of being an athlete who chooses to play a sport: snow fall is inevitable. The negative self talk is comparable to when a person chooses to make a snowball and push it down the hill.  In the snowball metaphor it is obvious that the person has control over whether they make the snowball and push it down the hill. However in sports, most athletes struggle with realizing they can control those performance hindering thoughts.

The first step in thought control, decreasing negative self-talk, and increasing positive self-talk is awareness. Most of the time athletes are unaware of self-talk. In cognitive behavioral terms these are called automatic thoughts. They are so ingrained and habitual that they take place outside of our awareness.  The second step is to develop an increased awareness of the purpose of these thoughts and negative self-statements. Some athletes believe the negative thoughts motivate them, whereas others think “If I say bad things about myself, when someone else actually says the same thing it won’t hurt as much.” The third step is to challenge these thoughts when you determine that they are hurting your performance. This is often done through replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones. Once an athlete is able to decrease negative thoughts while increasing positive ones, the final step is to maintain this pattern. Another helpful metaphor with the process of challenging/changing thoughts by comparing it to a person attempting to break a habit. Athletes who first begin the process of managing their thoughts is like to a life-long smoker trying to quit. An athlete is trying to change a life-long habit of the mind when changing negative thoughts to positive thoughts.

Research from the following article shows:

The Effects of Motivational Versus Instructional Self-Talk on Improving Motor Performance. (2000), Theodorakis, Y.,  Weinberg, R., Natsis, P, Douma, I., & Patagiotis, K. The Sport Psychologist (14), 253-272.

•Athletes use self-talk to:

-Enhance motivation

-Build confidence

-Improve cues for physical performance.

•Positive self-talk helps a player stay present, while not spending much needed energy and focus dwelling on mistakes of the past or projecting too far into the future.

•Motivational vs. Instructional positive self-talk

•Motivational Talk

-Enhances confidence

-Inspires greater effort/energy expenditure

-Creates a positive mood

-Can reduce anxiety

-Can enhance performance

•Instructional Talk

-Triggers desired actions and techniques through narrowly focusing attention

The results of this particular study:

-Instructional self-talk helps with tasks of accuracy, precision, and fine motor coordination such as an accurate pass in soccer or a serve in badminton.

-Both motivational and instructional self-talk help with strength tasks

-Participants of the study consistently reported their assigned motivational and instructional self statements to be helpful

One comment on “Self-Talk: All Athletes Are Doing It

  1. This is the third time I’ve been to your website. Thanks for providing more information.

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