Monday, November 17, 2014

Get Inside Your Head: Harnessing Self-Talk for Performance

(cross-posted in Pittsburgh Post Gazette Wellness Blog)

What is self-talk? Let’s start with a definition: self-talk is simply what you say to yourself in your head (covert self-talk) – or out loud (overt self-talk). Through these statements, we interpret feelings and perceptions, motivate ourselves, regulate emotions, and give ourselves instructions and feedback.

               Over the past nearly 40 years, studies in sports psychology have shown that self-talk can improve performance in sports (and the rest of life) (e.g. Mahoney & Avener, 1977; Highlen & Bennett, 1983; Papaioannou et al., 2004; Van Raalte et al, 1994). Most importantly, valence matters – while negative statements may be of benefit for a subset of very specific circumstances, overwhelmingly, psychological science reveals that positive self-talk gives you a bump, particularly during times when cognitive resources are low: races, big games, and tough workouts. Moreover, successful athletes use more self-talk (and presumably, use it better) than unsuccessful athletes. Gymnasts who qualified for the Olympics used more self-talk in practice and competition than those who did not qualify (Mahoney & Avener, 1977).

               Meta-analyses indicate that the best type of self-talk is situation-dependent. “Instructional” self-talk is of greatest benefit for tasks that require motor control or are heavily based on technique; even more so when fine control is required (e.g. golf) versus gross motor control (e.g. cycling). On the other hand, “motivational” self-talk is most helpful for situations requiring endurance and/or strength – psyching yourself up and boosting confidence. For example, in a task requiring precision (throwing to hit a target), water polo players performed better when using instructional self-talk; but in a task requiring power (throwing for distance), players improved their performance most with motivational self-talk (Hatzigeorgiadis et al. 2004).

               So how does self-talk work? Possibly by affecting your attentional focus – positive or instructional self-statements block out the thoughts that would otherwise interfere with performance. Self-talk is also thought to influence perception – of your physical and mental state, of the environmental factors around you – as well as how your brain processes this information; these things together lead to better decision-making and thus better performance. Finally, motivational self-talk likely increases self-efficacy, or your belief in your own ability.

Paying attention to and monitoring your internal monologue may not come naturally to you, but think of it as a free performance-boost. Add these tricks to your mental toolbox:

·        Start by simply increasing your awareness and attention: what kind of self-statements are you using? What’s helpful and not-so-helpful? What kind of situation are you in when you’re using these statements?
·        Reframe negative self-talk: replace statements like “I’m so tired, I’m never going to finish”, with “I may not be feeling my best right now, but I’m still moving towards my goal”

·        Identify external factors that influence your self-talk: are there particular people, situations, weather or terrain conditions that trigger your internal monologue?

·        Write it down and read it out loud: Saying it out loud (overt self-talk) – research suggests that saying it out loud (overt self talk) may increase the efficacy of your self-statements, as it holds your performance up to public standards rather than just self-standards – whether or not anyone actually hears you!

·        Use cue words for specific situations: With repetition, the aim is to automatically trigger the behaviors you want. They can also help you break down more complex tasks into manageable chunks.

·        Practice your self-talk and be consistent!

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