Positive self-talk isn’t just an athlete’s secret weapon. Decades of research shows it boosts performance, builds mental toughness, and regulates emotions whenever you take on a challenging task. Can we use our thoughts in a high-stakes moment to better our performance? For this, we can turn to the sports psychology field for some coaching.
What does science say about positive self-talk?
I’m not an athlete, but I’ve always admired athletes for their total focus and ability to perform under pressure. When Stephen Curry makes his game-deciding free throw, I imagine time slows down and everything extraneous is filtered out. But I also wonder—is there anything else going through his head in that moment? Does he say anything to himself to make the magic happen?
Maybe he does! It turns out that positive self-talk is an athlete’s secret weapon. A 2020 study of three 800-meter runners found that using self-talk consistently made them run faster and feel mentally tougher. They didn’t necessarily think their speed was any different, but their performances spoke for themselves.
There are already decades of research showing that cheering yourself on has real effects for scoring more points and winning more competitions.
How to make positive self-talk work for you
Positive self-talk is exactly what it sounds like—you literally talk to yourself in a motivating, encouraging, and confidence-boosting way. You might even add some coaching instructions. (Think Mohammed Ali and “Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee!”)
Now, whether you’re an athlete or not, you can try this method for yourself next time you’re about to make a tie-breaking serve or give a career-changing presentation. Here’s how to put positive self-talk to work for you.
1. Start early. Positive effects are especially strong when you’re a novice.
Gigi Fernandez is a retired and celebrated tennis player with 17 Grand Slam doubles titles and two Olympic Gold Medals. Earlier in her career, she and her coach came up with computerized self-talk exercises to help her redirect her negative self-talk. This helped her to stay focused and relaxed on the court.
But you don’t need to be a Tennis Hall of Famer to use this performance booster. In fact, a big review of a few dozen self-talk sports studies found that this method was more consistently effective for novice and youth athletes than for competition-level athletes. It’s not that positive self-talk harmed elite athletes, it just didn’t show benefit as often.
2. When the task is simple, keep the self-talk simple: just tell yourself you can do it.
Don’t worry, your motivational self-talk doesn’t have to be as eloquent as the speech Coach Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell) gives to the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team in the 2004 film Miracle.
Just keep it simple. Especially if what you’re about to do is a straightforward action with lots of muscle memory behind it, like running a 100-meter dash or throwing a dart. You just have to hype yourself up a bit. In fact, one of the original self-talk experiments simply told people to tell themselves either “you can do it” or “you can’t do it” before throwing darts. You can guess which type of self-talk put the darts closer to the bullseye!
Why does this work? These simple, motivational self-talk phrases slightly increase your heart-rate, but otherwise reduce sudden changes in your heart rate. This is basically keying up your body for performance while keeping you steady, exactly what you need for a boost.
3. When the task is complex or new, talk yourself through what to do.
But sometimes, it’s helpful to get more specific than “you can do it.” If you’re doing a complex task or something you’ve never done before, talk yourself through the steps as if you’re your own instructional video.
Novice golfers who gave themselves instructional self-talk ended up with superior putting technique compared to when they tried to hype themselves up with motivation.
In one study, novice golfers who gave themselves instructional self-talk ended up with superior putting technique compared to when they tried to hype themselves up with motivation. This could be due to their instructional self-talk cueing up a brain activity pattern associated with top-down control, which you need when learning something new or doing something complicated.
4. Don’t just wait for your inner voice to start talking—do it actively.
NFL players have been caught using self-talk on the field. One thing you’ll notice about the way they do it is how deliberate they are. They don’t just react when something goes well or gets messed up. Instead, they’re giving themselves pep talks while warming up, on the bench, or when they’re about to start a down.
There’s a good reason for this. In stressful situations, like when something makes them anxious or angry, athletes’ spontaneous self-talk tends to be negative. On the other hand, if they’re not waiting for their own automatic reactions, but rather, proactively using self-talk, the message tends to be more positive and motivating.
So don’t wait for your inner voice to come up with encouragement. Feed it to yourself before your big moment on stage, on the field, or in the conference room.
5. Talk to yourself in the third person for better emotion regulation.
This one is my favorite. Although I’m not an athlete, I’m definitely someone who talks out loud to herself in the third person. This can sound silly, but psychological science supports this practice!
Third person self-talk creates a slight illusion that you’re talking to someone else, which may provide enough psychological distance to make emotion regulation easier.
A brain imaging study showed that when you think about a bad memory or see something aversive, talking to yourself in the third person activates your self-control brain areas less than if you talk in the first person. This means that you need to use less self-control to regulate emotions when you say, “Hey Jade, it’s okay. You’ve got this,” compared to, “I’ve got this.”
This effect might happen because third person self-talk creates a slight illusion that you’re talking to someone else, which provides enough psychological distance to make emotion regulation easier. And when it comes to emotion regulation in high-stakes situations, any help we can get is a good thing.
A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips.