What is Self-Talk in sports?

Self-talk for athletes involves the way you think and how you speak to yourself. Learn what self-talk in sports is and why it's important to you as an athlete.

What kind of thoughts do you have during a game? Have you ever paid much attention to them? What about during practice, or before a game, or after a game, or when you’re lying in bed at night?

Here’s another question for you…if you do know what kinds of thoughts you have, are they in your control?

Or does it feel like you’re at the mercy of uncontrolled thoughts? Ones that tear down your confidence, distract you, and make you feel anxious or afraid when you perform.

Your thoughts can either make or break your game as an athlete. Which is why you want to make sure what you’re thinking is helping you, rather than hurting you.

That’s where self-talk comes into play.

Self-Talk Defined

Most of our thinking is automatic. In fact, about 90% of it is. If that’s the case, we’re in trouble if most of our natural thoughts are negative. Which is how it can seem at times.

Most of the athletes I’ve worked with who’ve dealt with performance anxiety, self-doubt, fear of failure, or any other mental block have exhibited largely negative natural thought patterns.

But what about that other 10%? That’s where conscious thoughts become important. Because here’s the thing, over time your 10% thoughts train your 90% thoughts.

This means that if you consciously think certain thoughts, after a while, those kinds of thoughts will become automatic.

Unfortunately, this often occurs on the negative side. We hear other people speak negatively and we speak and think negatively ourselves, leading to a natural thought pattern that’s negative.

To make sure you are instilling a more positive pattern of automatic thinking, you want to focus on applying positive self-talk.

Self-talk involves the way you think and how you speak to yourself. We all exhibit self-talk, because we all have thousands of thoughts throughout the day.

But is your self-talk right now negative or positive? And, if it is positive, is that in the form of your conscious thoughts or your automatic thoughts?

Because both forms of thinking are self-talk. It’s just that right now, if your automatic thoughts are largely negative, you want to be sure your 10% conscious self-talk is focused on positive thoughts to reprogram the automatic ones. But we’ll talk more about this later.

For now, let’s take a deeper look at self-talk, breaking it down further into two different categories: indirect and direct self-talk.

Indirect Self-Talk

Indirect self-talk involves the thoughts you have about others. I still consider it self-talk, because it has an impact on your mental state, such as your confidence, for example.

However, you aren’t having thoughts directly related to yourself. Your thoughts are about other people, or the environment around you.

An example is when you see a really intimidating opponent. Whether it’s an entire team or just a single person, what kinds of thoughts do you have? They’re probably about the other team, but they also involve you.

Another example is if you’re playing at a field or court you like or don’t like. You may start to have thoughts about how you never play well there or how you always have great games at that field.

With indirect self-talk, your thoughts are directed outwards, but they still have an impact on your internal world.

Here are some examples of indirect self-talk:

  • That team looks really good.
  • I hate that ref, he always makes bad calls.
  • This field is awful.
  • This team sucks. It’ll be an easy win today.
  • I can’t believe coach is starting her.

Direct Self-talk

Direct self-talk is involves your internal world. Instead of talking about the environment or those around you, your thoughts are specifically targeted towards yourself.

Direct self-talk has the clearest impact on your mood. Because you are talking to yourself about yourself.

After you make a mistake, what kinds of thoughts do you have? Do you start beating yourself up? If so, that’s a prime example of negative direct self-talk.

What about when you’re talking yourself through a drill or focusing on your mechanics. What kinds of thoughts are you having?

Those will also be direct self-talk. You are speaking to yourself specifically about yourself.

Here are a few examples of direct self-talk:

  • I know I’m a great player.
  • I can’t believe I made that mistake.
  • I suck.
  • I’ll never make it.
  • Arms back, stay inside the ball.
  • Stay low.
  • I’ve got this.

How Self-Talk Impacts You

While self-talk is broken down into indirect and direct, we can also categorize self-talk as a whole into two different categories: negative vs positive self-talk.

I also like to use the work productive instead of positive. Because after you make a mistake, you definitely do not want to be speaking negatively to yourself.

However, you may be too angry to try and think positively. But you want to be sure your thoughts are at least productive.

But for the sake of simplicity, let’s stick with negative vs positive.

Now, the reason it’s important for you to make the distinction between the two types of self-talk is because of the thought-feeling cycle.

The thought-feeling cycle is where you have a thought, which leads to a feeling, which drives another thought, leading to another feeling.

The reason it’s a cycle is because we typically have the same types of thoughts leading to a certain feeling (such as anxiety) which causes further anxious thoughts, only worsening the feelings of anxiety.

But the cycle also holds true on the positive side. Which is why you want to be sure the thought-feeling cycle is being used to your advantage as an athlete.

As an athlete, you want to be confident, focused, and in the best mindset to compete. Self-talk can help you do that. The way self-talk increases your performance as an athlete is through the benefits of adopting more positive/productive self-talk.

Benefits of Positive/Productive Self-Talk

  • Increased Confidence
  • Improved Focus
  • Decreased Anxiety
  • Less Fear of Failure
  • Increased Motivation
  • Stronger Mental Toughness
  • Increased Enjoyment in Sport

Using Self-Talk to Change Automatic Thoughts

There are many ways you can use self-talk as an athlete. It can be used to increase confidence, help with training, and much more.

But one thing, no matter what you’re dealing with, you want to be sure you’re using self-talk for is changing your natural and automatic thoughts – if they’re largely negative, that is.

When we look at what causes automatic thoughts in athletes, one word stands out: repetition.

Automatic thoughts are formed through repetition. No matter where negative self-talk began, the reason it has now become natural is due to repetition.

After every mistake and every bad game, if you’ve been beating yourself up, that’s engrained this type of thinking into your subconscious.

What you can do is use this idea of repetition to your advantage when wanting to change your natural thought pattern.

Now, if you’re interested in a more in depth look at practicing positive self-talk as an athlete, here’s an article that goes into a lot more detail.

But a very simple exercise you can start doing today to alter your natural thought patterns is as follows:

  • Outline all the negative thoughts/beliefs you have about yourself and your game.
  • Create positive/productive alternatives for each statement.
  • Rewrite each statement and reread it at least once a day.

This exercise makes use of repetition, except this time, you’re consciously choosing what thoughts you want to be saying to yourself consistently.

This reprograms your automatic thoughts, making it easier to have more positive self-talk during games.

Final Thoughts

Self-talk for athletes involves the way you think and how you speak to yourself. Your self-talk will likely be largely negative or positive. And we can break down self-talk even further into indirect and direct self-talk.

Indirect self-talk involves the thoughts you have regarding other people or your environment.

Direct self-talk is specifically targeted towards yourself.

Either way, your self-talk will have a huge impact on the way you feel and how you play. Which is why you begin taking control of your self-talk as an athlete.

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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