Carefully designed self talk can make a big positive difference in sport, new research says. But our internal dialogue can be corrosive when it’s negative, too. How do you go from one to the other? That’s the question that has been challenging Greek sports psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis since he was a school boy.
Even then, he could see that his mind had a big effect on his body. From his early unhappy experiences evolved Hatzigeorgiadis’ interest in the psychology of sport – the link between one’s thoughts and performance, and specifically in “self-talk”— the mental strategy that aims to improve performance through the use of self-addressed cues (words or small phrases), which trigger appropriate responses and action, mostly by focusing attention and psyching-up.
“We know this strategy works, and it works in sports,” says Hatzigeorgiadis. But what makes it work better, and in what situations? To find out, Hatzigeorgiadi conducted a meta-analysis of 32 sport psychological studies on the subject with a total of 62 measured effects.
As expected, the analysis revealed that self-talk improves sport performance. But the researchers teased out more – different self-talk cues work differently in different situations. For tasks requiring fine skills or for improving technique “instructional self-talk”, such as a technical instruction (“elbow-up” which Hatzigeorgiadis coaches beginner freestyle swimmers to say) is more effective than ‘motivational self-talk’ (e.g., “give it all”), which seems to be more effective in tasks requiring strength or endurance, boosting confidence and psyching-up for competition.