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Why Positive Self-Talk Improves Athletic Performance

At any given moment, chances are we are experiencing some form of mental dialogue. Most of us wish we could shut off the voices in our head, which is why more and more people are beginning to embrace mindfulness practices intended to quiet the mental chatter, such as yoga and meditation. 

That said, not all self-talk is bad. In fact, cultivating a better relationship with that voice inside our heads can improve our mental health, sense of emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and physical performance. This is why positive self-talk has become a pillar of sports psychology, although it remains one of the hardest skills to master.

For athletes, negative internal messages and thoughts can cause debilitating pre-race jitters and performance anxiety. The first step in cultivating positive self-talk is to flip the script with positive messages. For example, if you are running a long-distance race, instead of telling yourself “I’m tired,” you may replace the phrase with “you’ve prepared for this and are strong enough to finish this race.” 

These seemingly inconsequential thoughts you whisper to yourself become self-fulfilling prophecies. It turns out that your brain has the power to alter your physical limitations. 

In a 2013 study, four self-chosen motivational phrases led 24 volunteers to last an average of 18% longer in a cycling test to exhaustion. The self-talk group also felt that the exercise was easier -- based on the fact that the rating of perceived exertion on a 10-point scale increased at a slower pace than the control group. 

A newer study shows that motivational self-talk, particularly when it is in the second person, can improve athletic performance, as outlined by Runner’s World

Researchers at Bangor University measured the time it took 16 cyclists to complete 10-kilometers, as well as their power output and rating of perceived exertion. During the first trial, they talked to themselves in the first person (“I”), and in the second race, they talked to themselves in the second person (“you”). 

When addressing themselves in the second person, the cyclists completed the 10K time trial an average of 2.2% faster (17:48 versus 17:24). Their perceived level of exertion was the same in both trials. 

To explain why the cyclists performed better with the second person mental dialogue, James Hardy, Ph.D., lead researcher, told Runner’s World that the advantage could be attributed to “self-distancing.” This distancing perspective helps one “stand back and observe what is going on, akin to being in the balcony looking down on the dance floor rather than on the dance floor itself. This promotes clearer thinking, better choices, and enhanced performance.” By taking a step back and assuming the perspective of a supporting onlooker, athletes gain a better self of willpower and self-control. 

The researchers added that individuals with bigger egos, or those who score high for narcissism, user more first-person pronouns, and may not benefit from the self-distancing perspective. 

Mitchell Greene, Ph.D., a sport psychologist in Haverford, Pennsylvania, recommends that athletes prepare a list of second person statements, and have a game plan for when to use them. 

“The more prepared you are for the physical and psychological dips you will experience, the more quickly you can go to your self-statements, the less possibility that you will let physical fatigue, the performance of other runners, self-doubt, and negative thoughts slow you down,” he added.


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