Can You Talk Yourself into Performing Poorly?

Is negative self-talk getting in the way of performing your best? Learn how to raise your level of play by changing the way you speak to yourself.

Where’s the first place you look after a bad performance? One of the most common responses I’ve heard and given myself is to immediately blame our mechanics.

After a bad game, I would spend the following days analyzing what I did wrong, and looking for which part of my mechanics could be “fixed.” But for the most part, tweaking things will only make matters worse.

Plus, the true cause is usually not physical in nature at all but has to do with what’s going on between your ears.

The way you speak to yourself before, during, and after a performance has the power to significantly reduce your level of play. So yes, you can indeed talk yourself into performing poorly.

Self-Talk: Friend or Worst Enemy

Self-talk refers to the internal dialogue that goes on within your mind. Influenced by your subconscious mind, self-talk can be either positive or negative. It is a reflection of your inner beliefs and ideas regarding yourself and the world around you.

Your level of self-worth and confidence are major contributors to which form of self-talk you adopt. Also, your personality and the people you associate with largely impact the way you think.

Let’s say you are on a team run by a very negative coach. The majority of what he or she says is targeted towards negativity. What type of self-talk do you think you’ll adopt? Unless you are consciously aware of how you are thinking, you will likely turn to negative thoughts yourself.

On the other hand, there is a coach who always looks at the positive side of your performances. Now, this is not to say they aren’t negative from time to time, but the majority of their communication focuses on optimism. In this situation, such positive thinking will easily be formed in your own mind.

Self-talk is so powerful because not only is it a reflection of your current beliefs and feelings, but it is the driving force for future emotions. If right now the way you think is negative, as a response to your past experiences, then that thinking will contribute to further feelings of negativity.

However, if your internal dialogue were to change, all of your beliefs and feelings would be altered as well. That is the power within all of us, though it does require work to change a deep-rooted way of thinking.

You may be wondering why such work is even necessary. Well, the answer lies in the detrimental effect negative self-talk has on your performances.

Your Inner Critic

A concept that is often lost on us is the freedom we have to choose the way we think. Our minds are our own, therefore, we have the unique responsibility to decide on what type of dialogue takes place.

However, this is an easily forgotten idea. Just because we have the power to choose does not mean we are immune to outside influence. Armoring up your mind to be impenetrable to negativity requires constant monitoring and determination.

Such a task is almost impossible, which is why we tend to fall into patterned thinking. This pattern of thought is influenced by our past experiences and currently held beliefs. As we become more susceptible to outside noise, the thoughts we have form less and less out of our own choosing.

That is how negative self-talk begins to develop. I don’t think anyone would willfully choose to self-deprecate. As an athlete, you are continually in search of more confidence and ways to perform your best. Neither of which will happen as long as negative thoughts fill your head.

Having lived through years of negative self-talk, I am speaking from experience. I was desperately seeking confidence and ways to eliminate many of the things that were getting in my way of performing well.

Yet, I failed to realize the power living within my mind. The more I associated my thinking with something outside myself, the more I forgot who was truly responsible for my self-talk. But no matter whether you understand where the negative dialogue is coming from or not, the effect it has on your performance is the same.

The impact of speaking down to yourself can be seen in the feelings and behaviors it generates.

Increased Anxiety

Nerves are a natural part of life, especially in sports. Competition opens the door for many nervous thoughts to flood your mind. But, being nervous alone does not damage your performance. In fact, nerves have been shown to increase your level of play.

However, when coupled with negative self-talk, harmless nerves are transformed into anxiety. Now, you no longer experience nervousness just before a game. An intense state of worry and fear consumes you each and every day.

You worry leading up to competition, during a game, and then feel anxiety afterward. When you are in this state, performing your best will be difficult. Anxiety reduces your focus, lowers your motivation, and keeps you out of the flow state.

Negative internal dialogue fuels anxiety and leads to subpar performances.

“Now, you no longer experience nervousness just before a game. An intense state of worry and fear consumes you each and every day.”

Low Self-Confidence

High self-confidence means you trust in your skills and abilities. You believe the attributes you possess are good enough to get the job done. That is the kind of self-belief you must have in order to perform optimally.

This level of confidence requires positive self-talk. If you are constantly beating yourself up, telling yourself you can’t do it, confidence will evade you. The lower your confidence, the less trust you will have in your skills.

If you do not believe you are capable of succeeding, then you have no chance of reaching peak performance.

Unable to Handle Failure

Within any sport, there are large and small failures. Large failures can be games not going how you’d like and seasons not turning out as you’d hoped. Small failures occur within a given game or practice. While these do not necessarily mean the whole game will be a failure, they have the capability of turning into that if you are not careful.

If you have positive self-talk, it will be much easier to rebound from both large and small failures. However, when that negative voice takes over, you begin to magnify even the smallest of mistakes.

I used to allow this to happen in baseball games. If my first at-bat went poorly, my whole day was shot. Negative self-talk set in and my confidence plummeted. One mistake turned into another, then another, then another, until my whole day was a failure.


There is a fine line between wanting to do your best and seeking an impossible ideal of perfection. As athletes, chasing perfection can only cause you harm. There is no way to be perfect, and if you think you’ve attained perfection, you’re bound to see the bar raised to yet another level.

When you have negative self-talk, it’s easy to become a perfectionist. The more you speak down to yourself, the more you seek a reprieve. Relief seems possible if only you perform perfectly.

Now you are searching for perfection, which increases the pressure you put on yourself and opens you up to more negative dialogue. With each time you fall short, self-deprecation will take place.

You will then be performing out of fear. Fear of not being perfect and fear of the negative emotions that accompany negative self-talk.

“There is a fine line between wanting to do your best and seeking an impossible ideal of perfection. As athletes, chasing perfection can only cause you harm.”

Poor Focus

In the midst of a competition, attention is one of the most crucial pieces to either your success or failure. It all depends on where you decide to center your focus. Ideally, you will be giving all your attention to the process, focusing on the present moment and your responsibilities.

However, as negative self-talk sets in, your focus begins to drift. This plays into perfectionism, because the more you speak down to yourself, the more your mind becomes fixed on the outcome.

As an athlete, allowing your attention to be placed on the outcome of your performance is detrimental. How well you perform is a result of focusing on the process. It cannot be controlled by focusing mid-competition on what may happen.

How to Harness Your Thoughts

After coming to understand the power your thoughts have in affecting your performances, the concern now turns to how to use them in a positive manner. If negative self-talk is harmful to your play, conversely, positive self-talk should be beneficial.

Just as it’s possible to talk yourself into a bad performance, you can talk yourself into peak performance. While there are plenty of other factors that play into you performing at your peak, the foundation needs to be built on a positive internal dialogue.

But how can you make the switch? I know from experience altering the way we speak to ourselves is difficult, especially when many years have gone into solidifying a negative way of thinking.

Here we come to the hard work I alluded to earlier. If you feel that the way you speak to yourself is harming your play, steps must be taken. There is a process you can use to make this happen. But first, you need to be sure you are approaching the change with the correct frame of mind.

It’s not that you are aiming to stop negative self-talk. Rather, you need to focus on building positive self-talk. I know these may sound like the same thing, but they are drastically different in the way you approach change.

If you are trying to force negative thoughts out of your head, the attention you give them will actually be inviting them to stay. However, if you focus on building positive dialogue, that’s where your attention will be centered.

Okay, now that you are in the right state of mind, let’s get into how you can begin harnessing your thoughts for better performances.

The Power of Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a technique derived from the common therapeutic technique known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s, CBT aims to help individuals identify and change their negative thoughts and behaviors.

It’s based on the premise that people have automatic negative forms of thinking regarding themselves, the world, and the future. The first step is to locate and change those negative patterns; enter cognitive restructuring.

While the process of cognitive restructuring is not very complex, it can be difficult to perform. Confronting negative thoughts about yourself and the world can be scary, but not as terrifying as the possibility of allowing these ideas to thrive in your mind.

Step #1: Identify Negative Thoughts

We are patterned thinkers, meaning, it’s likely the thoughts you present during a competition are cyclical. Rarely will you be coming up with new ways to speak down to yourself with each performance. There will be a group of core thoughts you have which may alter slightly depending on the situation.

Your first job is to identify what those thoughts are. To make this process easier, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I say to myself before a competition?
  • What do I say to myself during a competition?
  • What do I say to myself after I fail?
  • What do I say to myself after I succeed?
  • What do I say to myself after a competition?

Write your answers down, as this will help as you move onto step two.

Step #2: Come Up With Alternatives

You should now have a list of the most common negative phrases you say to yourself. At this point, you need to come up with some positive alternatives. How would you like to be speaking to yourself?

Don’t worry about feeling embarrassed or silly when deciding on what to use. These are your thoughts, and yours alone. No one else needs to know what positive alternatives you are creating.

When thinking about what to use, I want you to think in terms of two different ways: situational alternatives and general affirmations.

The situational alternatives will help you more immediately. Think about the specific times you speak down to yourself the most. Is it before a game, or maybe during a certain situation within the game? Once you have identified that, create positive statements you can use to counteract any negative thoughts that may arise.

General affirmations are going to be a long-term solution to reframe your natural thought pattern. Create general phrases about how you wish to think. These should be targeted towards the negative thoughts you identified in step one, but do not need to be as situationally specific.

Step #3: Implement Your Alternatives

The first two steps are planning, here is where the real change happens. If you only identify your negative thoughts, come up with alternatives, and then stop there you will not succeed in restructuring your thought patterns.

You have to think in terms of consistent repetition. For how long have you been thinking negatively? Once you realize how long your mind has been stuck in such a pattern of thought you’ll understand why repetition is necessary.

Step three is an ongoing process of training your brain to think in this new way. In order to solidify your new thought patterns, try to repeat the positive alternatives you came up with on a daily basis, I recommend twice a day.

Over time, this will restructure your mind, and negative thoughts will be replaced with positive internal dialogue. Your performances will be all the better for it.

“For how long have you been thinking negatively? Once you realize how long your mind has been stuck in such a pattern of thought you’ll understand why repetition is necessary.”

Final Thoughts

When you’re seeking peak performance, the last thing you want to do is get in your own way. Yet, that is exactly what’s happening. Your mind is patterned in negative self-talk. The way you speak to yourself greatly influences your confidence, self-worth, ability to focus, and resilience.

Talking yourself into performing badly, though not a conscious aim, is an all too real possibility. However, it can stop today. By implementing a cognitive restructuring practice, you can turn that inner critic into your biggest fan.

With continual efforts, the thought patterns that used to derail your performances will turn into positive dialogue that raises your level of play.

How do you speak to yourself? Are you talking yourself into performing poorly? Let me know in the comments below.

If you have any questions about cognitive restructuring or any other performance psychology topic, please feel free to reach out to me.

Are you interested in one-on-one mental coaching? With a tailored approach, we will work to help you overcome any mental blocks you have and teach you tools to build mental toughness. If you would like to learn more about how to get started, click here.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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