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The Skill of Talking to Yourself: Self-Talk

Belief systems are the main ingredient to confidence. They build and reinforce habits of thinking and how athletes and teams prepare, perform, and reflect. Without knowing it, athletes can sabotage their success with self-defeating self-talk. Developing an honest practice to learning about ones’ inner dialogue, connected to how they act, should be a daily practice of introspection.

The biggest form of self-talk that interferes with an athlete’s performance is Judgmental Self-Talk. This sounds like “what’s wrong with me?” or “why do I always do that?” Sometimes a coach plants these thoughts in athlete’s minds by asking the same rhetorical questions. It is too problem focused, especially during training and games, and interferes with their ability to make the next play. Coaches usually think this is effective because athletes should try to correct their mistakes in an effort to not make them again but it becomes inefficient since now the athlete is just replaying the mistake in their mind.

The reality is every athlete has had moments where, when things went wrong, they practiced negative self-talk. They are self-critical and ruminating on results. It is important to understand that: “wherever our attention goes, energy flows”. In other words, we give power to where we direct our attention. The best part about this is that we are in controlof where we direct our attention. The two types of self-talk that we want our athletes to be focusing on during play are Motivational and Instructional.

Motivational Self-talk:

Should occur during stoppages of play, between quarters, or when they need to come up with a clutch play. It keeps the athlete’s mindset and confidence directed in the right way and focuses on what they are about to achieve rather than what happened before. It helps them find extra energy when tired.

“Come on Brian, you got this”

“I am the best shooter in the pool - no one can stop me”

“Let’s go! Commit!”

Instructional Self-talk

Using cue words, 1-2-3 words or short phrases to focus on the execution of the actual play (shooting, passing, defending, counter attack, etc...). These are action oriented words used during play. They need to center on the process of the play not on the outcome they want to achieve. When practiced consistently, the mind will create mental movies (mental representations/images) that will help reinforce the action into automatic behaviors. This allows athletes to remain mindful and in the moment. However, when slumping or struggling and not using these cues, it is important to bring them to mind intentionally until the right performance is found again.

“Hips up.”

“Slide right.”

“Legs, Legs, Legs.”

If you asked any athlete right after they played at their absolute best, they would probably say they weren’t thinking about anything at all. It was just blank. This is the goal but 99% of the time it isn’t the reality. We have to be intentional with our self-talk to give ourselves the best chance to find excellence in our play.

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