How do you speak to yourself?

Self-talk, although simple to define, is quite powerful. Anytime a person thinks about something they are essentially talking to themselves, hence self-talk. Self-talk impacts a person’s concentration, the ability to break bad habits, maintain effort, initiate an action, and obtain skills. In addition, it also serves as the go-between for an event and response. Self-talk can be either positive, instructional, or negative. Self-talk can enhance performance routines when a performer utilizes positive or instructional self-talk. Balague (2008) stated that performers need to “think right.” Oftentimes coaches or instructors will say phrases like don’t think about it. However, rather than trying to stop thinking about something, the athlete will do what they were trying not to do, which is considered ironic errors (Lodatoa, 2021).

Performers need to think the right thoughts. According to Weinberg & Gould (2015), some ways to improve self-talk are to keep the phrases brief and specific, use first person, create positive phrases, say the phrases with meaning and focus, speak kindly to oneself, utilize repetition, and be proactive rather than reactive. When athletes build self-talk routines into their preparation they come in ready to think right rather than waiting to react with negative self-talk in response to an error or distraction. 

When an athlete tries to think about what they do not want to do that is where their focus goes. When they reframe their thinking to what they want to do, their concentration is directed to performing how they want rather than avoiding what they do not want to happen. Self-talk and pre-competition routines relate because they are both used in preparation for a performance (game or practice). Not only are both used, but they are woven together. Implementing self-talk within pre-competition routines can enhance the likelihood that an athlete will have the correct focus. According to Mack and Casstevens (2001), overthinking leads to trying too hard. When we replace the overthinking with short, concise, and positive statements, a performer can lead themselves to stay more in the present. 

Athletes use self-talk in a variety of ways when preparing to perform. An athlete might say something like through the hoop before shooting a free throw to remind herself of where to look. A track athlete might use a phrase similar to get out quick  to remind them of the initial attack of a race. These two examples show how an athlete directs their focus to the present moment and stays positive rather than providing room for ironic errors. 

Instructional self-talk aids the individual to focus on the task-related or technical factors of performance in order to enhance execution (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Many basketball players use the instructional self-talk phrase follow through to remind them of how to execute proper form when shooting. If an athlete misses a free throw, then this phrase may be beneficial to say before shooting a second free throw. 

Motivational self-talk focuses on enhancing effort, energy, and attitude, but it does not relate to a specific skill (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). For example, the word ready does not necessarily remind an athlete of how to perform a task, but it may help them stay energized and motivated as they begin to start a race, take a put, or shoot a free throw. By saying a motivational phrase similar to this one, the athlete has made it clear where their focus is. Motivational self-talk may also be beneficial to athletes while in competition. Athletes push their bodies quite far and when doing this may want to succumb to the physical pain. Motivational self-talk can enhance the likelihood that an athlete will continue pushing through the pain in an effort to achieve a goal. 

Although implementing motivational or instructional self-talk is ideal, negative self-talk will take place from time to time. Athletes may benefit from implementing thought stoppage when negative self-talk does occur. There are multiple techniques to develop an awareness of negative self-talk, stop it, and reframe one’s thinking. One example is to think of a stop sign when a negative thought occurs (Williams & Krane, 2015). Another is to utilize a rubber band and snap it anytime one has a negative thought in order to snap it away. In addition, athletes may use intentional breathing by inhaling and then exhaling the negative thoughts. These techniques might be beneficial during performance, but there are also ways to enhance awareness of self-talk prior to performance. One way is to use negative thought counts (Burton & Raedeke, 2008). To do this, an athlete might keep a pocketful of pennies, sunflower seeds, or other small objects. Whenever the athlete has a negative thought, they will move one object to the other pocket. Before change can take place, awareness must be present. This is one way to enhance awareness in order to adjust self-talk. 

As with any other mental skill, it is important that self-talk be practiced and utilized strategically. Building self-talk into a routine would lead to a greater likelihood of enhanced performance. Developing awareness, using thought stoppage to prevent ironic errors, and implementing motivational or instructional self-talk will help an athlete maintain focus and the ability to think right.

If you’d like to learn more about self-talk and other mental skills, contact Brooke today!


Balague, G. (2008). Dr. Gloria Balague: University of Illinois at Chicago. In M. W. Aoyagi, A. Poczwardowski (eds.). Expert approaches to sport psychology: Applied theories of performance excellence. 

Burton, D., & Raedeke, T. D. (2008). Sport psychology for coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Mack, G. & Casstevens, D. (2001). Mind gym: An athlete’s guide to inner excellence. New York, NY: McGraw Hill. 

Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2015). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (6th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.Williams, J. M., & Krane, V. (2015). Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Don’t let your worst enemy live between your own two ears.”

-Laird Hamilton