Tune into your self-talk

I’ve been riveted by the Olympics, and will now be by the Paralympics. Whatever the sport, I’m always curious about what’s going through each competitor’s mind. Before they start, when they’re under pressure and when they’ve had a setback. Yes, there’s a lot we can deduce from their body language – posture and facial expression – but what we can’t know for sure is what their self-talk is saying. We all have self-talk: the commentary playing in our head through good times and bad. Our self-talk can be our inner cheerleader – or harshest critic.

There’s some evidence, reported in the BPS Research Digest, that how we refer to ourselves in our self-talk, whether in the first person (“I can win this!”) or second person (“you can beat them!”) can affect performance – but this evidence is slight, based on samples of psychology students completing anagrams and stating intentions to go to the gym. The research suggests that, when our self-talk is in the second person – “you can” – we are more likely to succeed. It may be that the second person voice invokes fond memories of receiving positive encouragement from others, and possibly a sense that we’re not alone in facing the challenge. Interesting, but not Olympian.

When interviewed after the event, Olympians may say they told themselves this and that, and others seem to say they’re recalling the encouragement of their coach(es), which is interesting, but hardly a robust study.

So what can we take from this? I think we can all benefit from paying attention to our self-talk. For example:

  • Notice your self-talk and whether it’s in the first or second person. I’m willing to bet there will be times when it’s “I” and others when it’s “you”. The latter may indeed be what your self-talk says when you’re really up against a challenge – or it may not. The point is to notice which it is.
  • Notice the situations when your inner cheerleader really helps you overcome the obstacles – what does it say? Does it encourage – or does it threaten? It’s possible that a perceived threat is less effective than a challenge.
  • Notice if your self-talk is your own voice, or that of another person, from your past or present. Who shows up when? Is there a past critic who always seems to sound off when things don’t go well? Or a proud supporter who cheers you on?
  • Notice what works well for you – and what doesn’t.
  • Practise helpful self-talk in everyday situations – not just at the moment you really need it. By all means replay the encouragement of others. At the same time find, practise and install words of encouragement in your own voice to boost your inner cheerleader so they can silence old critics.

There’s more about psychology in sport in the recent BPS PsychCrunch Podcast.

You may also find these blog posts useful:

What difference could marginal gains make for you?
5 ways to boost your confidence


Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’, available now on Amazon and ‘The Feedback Book’, due out in September.

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