What is Self-Talk? - IResearchNet (2023)

Self-talk refers to statements that athletes and exercisers address to themselves; these might represent automatic verbalizations or more deliberate forms of speech. Although such statements can be said aloud, most self-talk is said covertly as a silent voice in one’s mind. The nature of self-talk can also reflect positive (e.g., I can do this) or negative (e.g., don’t screw it up) verbalizations. However, there is also an interpretative element associated with self-talk, which is idiosyncratic and potentially more important than the content of self-statements per se. For instance, while two exercisers might say the same phrase to themselves when fatigued (e.g., this is tough going), one may view the statement as an indication to give up, whereas the other might interpret it as a sign that the intensity she is working at is the appropriate level and to keep going. Self-talk is sometimes referred to in the research literature as private speech, verbal rehearsal, or inner dialogue.

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Although encouraging athletes to use particular types of self-talk is commonplace within the sports setting, when compared with most other mental skills, self-talk remains relatively underresearched despite researchers’ having adopted a more systematic approach to the study of self-talk over the past decade. Some early research examined the effects of training athletes in the use of self-talk as part of larger mental skills training that involved training in skills such as mental imagery, relaxation, and goal setting. Such studies provided evidence supporting the use of mental skills packages but did not allow researchers to identify the effect of each individual mental skill. However, more recent research has been focused on self-talk alone. Systematic reviews of the research on self-talk have confirmed that the skill can be effective at enhancing performance and that these benefits hold across various sports or tasks and skill levels. That said, there is a relative dearth of research on the effectiveness of training skilled performers in the use of self-talk; most studies have involved unskilled university students as participants. There is also little research on the effects of self-talk on performance in real competitive settings, as opposed to on laboratory-based tasks or in practice settings.

Structures and Forms of Self-Talk

The structure of self-talk can range from single “cue” words (e.g., head), to specific phrases (e.g., get there), to full intact sentences; regardless, most self-talk is abbreviated in form. Also, abbreviated cue words or short phrases are usually taught in studies of self-talk training. It is suggested within the research literature that the content of self-talk interventions (i.e., programs of self-talk training) should be limited to a few, phonetically simple terms, logically associated with movement phases integral to successful task execution. When employing these recommendations, research has generated data to support these claims; for example, saying instructional self-talk words such as split and turn, representing the parting of the feet to create a firm base and turning of the shoulders to control the racquet head, enhances the accuracy of a tennis net volley. There is also a research base supporting the use of motivationally oriented self-talk with tasks more reliant upon strength and power (e.g., a defensive clearance in soccer) than precision. Even though most of this research has used the rather bland motivational phrase I can, there is consistent evidence that the use of this benefits performance. This suggests that the uses of self-talk extend beyond the use of movement-based cue words to organize and prompt the execution of technical movement patterns.

Recognizing that more instructional as opposed to motivational forms of self-talk might influence task execution differently depending on the characteristics of the task at hand, a matching hypothesis has been presented within the research literature on self-talk. It states that, because instructional self-talk helps athletes focus on task relevant cues, it should be more effective than motivational self-talk for tasks dependent on technique and precision. Conversely, motivational self-talk ought to be more effective than instructional self-talk for the execution of gross, strength-based tasks because it helps the performer achieve a more appropriate mind-set reflecting confidence and a positive mood state. While there is some evidence supporting this hypothesis, at present the available literature suggests that the consistency or robustness of the different beneficial effects is questionable. For example, most studies find benefits for both types of self-talk but with no clear difference between the “matched” and “unmatched” self-talk for the task type. For instance, instructional self-talk (e.g., straight and clean, referring to the backswing and contact of a golf putt) is not significantly more beneficial than motivational self-talk (e.g., you can do this) for aiding execution of an accuracy-based task (e.g., 6-foot golf putt).

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The categorization of self-talk as either instructional or motivational in terms of the function of self-talk is a relatively new within the research on self-talk concerned with sport. A traditionally held view among sport psychologists, still currently prevalent, is that positive self-talk is to be encouraged over negative self-talk. To this end, a number of mental techniques (e.g., thought stopping, cognitive restructuring) have been espoused within the applied literature. Given the apparent interest in this aspect of self-talk, the accompanying lack of experimental examination is notable. Nevertheless, the available research does support the belief that positive self-talk can lead to enhanced performance although the opposite is not necessarily true for negative self-talk.

One key area to consider, therefore, is that performers’ interpretation of their self-talk may be of greater importance than its content. Early research exploring athletes’ self-talk identified that some athletes reported negative self-talk to be motivating. While the motivating effects of negative thinking may be only realized by certain athletes under certain circumstances, these findings emphasize the importance of discussing how an athlete views and responds to self-talk as an integral part of working with him or her. For example, if an extremely resilient athlete uses negative and self-critical self-talk to increase his or her own effort or refocus attention following a lapse in performance, this may be an entirely functional use of self-talk and not something a sport psychologist would necessarily want to change.

Recent theory-based studies of self-talk have examined its interpretation in greater depth. Research drawing from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory (SDT) has suggested that whether self-talk is interpreted as self-pressurizing or self-supportive may be an important determinant of subsequent motivation, emotion, and behavior. Specifically, self-talk that emphasizes the perspective of the athlete, provides the athlete with information and feedback about his or her competence, and fosters a sense of empowerment is likely to result in more positive forms of motivation, positive emotions, and ongoing task engagement and application of effort. Conversely, self-talk that is pressurizing, critical, and undermines personal empowerment is likely to result in a lack of task engagement and more negative emotional effects. Thus, a positively phrased self-instruction (e.g., keep your head still) perceived by the individual as controlling and pressurizing may in fact have negative consequences. Equally, a stern self-administered “talking to” may emphasize that the athlete has the ability to alter his or her situation, with adaptive consequences.

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This aforementioned work goes some way toward helping address the general limitation associated with research on self-talk—namely, a lack of theory-based research and the absence of an actual theory of self-talk to date. In an effort to systematically make sense of the existing data, frameworks summarizing the effects of self-talk are currently being developed and refined. A sport-specific model, suggested by James Hardy and his colleagues, centers around the relationship of self-talk to performance, with theoretically grounded causes of self-talk and potential mechanisms helping to explain the performance effect identified. Specifically, the model emphasizes that both individual difference factors and situational variables can influence athletes’ use of self-talk. Individual difference factors may include the athletes’ preferences for processing information, their belief in the efficacy of self-talk, and also more global personality characteristics such as optimism, trait anxiety (TA), and neuroticism, for example. Situational variables include task difficulty, game circumstances (e.g., having lost an important point in a tennis game), and the influence of significant others (e.g., coaches). There is some evidence to suggest that athletes model their self-talk from coaches’ comments and feedback, consistent with social learning-based models of behavior.

Pathways to Influencing Performance

In terms of the mechanisms explaining how self-talk might influence performance, four main pathways are highlighted: cognitive, motivational, behavioral, and affective. Although conceptualized as separate pathways, it is likely that the underpinning explanations actually work in combination. First, the category of cognitive mechanisms refers to processes such as information processing, concentration, attention control, and attentional foci. Athletes report using self-talk to aid concentration and to direct and redirect attention to selective and important aspects of the skills being executed. Specific cue words have been implicated in the deliberate changing from one attentional focus to another (e.g., prior to the start of a race a sprinter pulling her attention away from the cheering crowd and on to the immediate task at hand— driving as quickly as possible out the blocks after the gun blasts). There is also some evidence that self-talk can reduce the occurrence of more internally oriented distractions such as interfering thoughts (e.g., task-irrelevant thoughts, such as What am I going to have for dinner?) while performing sport skills.

In terms of motivational mechanisms, self-talk may improve performance by triggering enhanced effort and/or greater long-term persistence. For example, self-talk may act as a form of verbal persuasion, improving an athlete’s self-confidence, which in turn causes them to invest greater effort, for longer. However, to date, controlled experiments have found equivocal support for the role of confidence in the self-talk to performance relationship. Nonetheless, the use of specific motivational self-talk phrases (e.g., I can) has resulted in increases in athletes’ confidence levels. Alternatively, motivation and, in turn, performance might be influenced by the interpretation of self-talk such that self-talk viewed as reinforcing ability and choice ought to be beneficial and phrases which are self-critical, increasing pressure will likely have detrimental effects.

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Behavioral or biomechanical mechanisms underlying the effect of self-talk on performance have perhaps greater evidential support. Changes in athletes’ form and movement patterns have been shown to result from the use of either cue words (e.g., “knee” referring to keeping one’s knee over the ball when executing a low driven shot in soccer) or longer instructional phrases. Typically, these types of self-talk focus on segmented parts of a movement or action (e.g., phases of a tennis forehand or golf swing); however, some movement changes have been noted following the use of more generic instructional commands—for example, the use of the phrase drive up as an attempt is made at a vertical jump.

Last, self-talk may influence performance through a variety of mechanisms concerning the regulation of affective states (e.g., positive and negative moods) and arousal (e.g., being “psyched up”). Different patterns of self-talk are associated with a number of different mood states including depression, anger, anxiety, and so on, and counseling techniques often emphasize changing the nature of self-directed statements as a way of enhancing mood state. Although athletes frequently report using self-talk as a psyching-up strategy to increase levels of arousal, the effectiveness of self-talk for this function has not been experimentally determined. There is, however, some evidence linking the use of self-talk (e.g., cue word calmly) to the effective control of anxiety levels.


Although the development of the literature regarding self-talk has greatly advanced in the past decade, there remain many unanswered problems regarding how best to use self-talk, the way in which self-talk enables athletes to maximize performance, and, crucially, exactly why this might be. Contemporary models associated with self-talk have begun to provide some guidance regarding these questions; however, the role of key moderators, such as the athlete’s skill level and the type of task being completed, has yet to be fully examined.

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  1. Hardy, J. (2006). Speaking clearly: A critical review of the self-talk literature. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 7, 81–97.
  2. Hardy, J., Oliver, E., & Tod, D. (2009). A framework for the study of self-talk in sport. In S. D. Mellalieu & S. Hanton (Eds.), Advances in applied sport psychology. London: Routledge.
  3. Oliver, E. J., Markland, D., & Hardy, J. (2010).Interpreting self-talk: Associations between informational and controlling self-talk, and post-lecture anxiety and affect in higher education students. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 307–323.
  4. Theodorakis, Y., Weinberg, R., Natsis, P., Douma, I., & Kazakas, P. (2000). The effects of motivational versus instructional self-talk on improving motor performance. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 253–272.
  5. Tod, D., Hardy, J., & Oliver, E. (2011). Effects of self-talk: A systematic review. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33, 666–687.

See also:

  • SportsPsychology
  • Psychological Skills


What is self-talk in simple terms? ›

What is self-talk? Self-talk is the way you talk to yourself, or your inner voice. You might not be aware that you're doing it, but you almost certainly are. This inner voice combines conscious thoughts with inbuilt beliefs and biases to create an internal monologue throughout the day.

What is self-talk with example? ›

Positive self-talk makes a person feel good about themselves. It can encourage and motivate a person to keep going, look on the “bright side,” and put things into perspective. Examples of positive self-talk are, “I am really happy for myself,” “I am doing well,” or “That is not great, but it could be worse”.

What are the 4 types of self-talk? ›

This type of thinking and self-talk generally falls into four categories:
  • Personalizing. You blame yourself for everything.
  • Magnifying. You focus on the negative aspects of a situation, ignoring any and all of the positive.
  • Catastrophizing. ...
  • Polarizing.
Oct 17, 2018

What are three examples of self-talk? ›

Some examples of positive self-talk: 'I can do it. ' 'I'm good enough. ' 'If I want to, I can. ' 'It doesn't matter if I make a mistake.

What talking to yourself means? ›

Self-talk refers to the way that you talk to yourself, whether positively or negatively. Positive self-talk can help you hype yourself up and feel confident before a situation. When you talk to yourself this way you're able to motivate yourself and pay more attention to your thoughts.

How do you self-talk yourself? ›

5 Tips to Improve Your Self-Talk
  1. Listen Critically to Your Inner Critic. ...
  2. Create Psychological Distance from Yourself. ...
  3. Fit Your Conversation to Your Goal. ...
  4. Treat Yourself as a Friend. ...
  5. Say, “I Don't,” instead of “I Can't”

What are the 3 C's of self-talk? ›

Use the 3 C's to Shift Negative Thoughts. Using the 3 C's (Change, Commitment and Consistency) can help shift negative thoughts. To change your lifestyle in any way, shape or form you need to commit and be consistent.

What are the 5 levels of self-talk examples? ›

Helmstetter breaks down what he refers to as the Five Levels of Self-Talk (Negative Acceptance, Recognition and Need to Change, Decision to Change, The Better You and Universal Affirmation) and guides you through how to work through them for profound changes in your life.

What is another word for self-talk? ›

Soliloquy comes from the Late Latin word sōliloquium, which has the same meaning (“a talking to oneself”).

What are the two basic functions of self-talk? ›

Among the functions served by self-talk are self-criticism, self-reinforcement, self-management, and social assessment (Brinthaupt et al., 2009).

How do you practice self-talk? ›

So, here's how you can practice it daily.
  1. Don't fall into negative self-talk traps. ...
  2. Treat yourself like you would a friend. ...
  3. Make self-care a priority. ...
  4. Limit your exposure to negativity. ...
  5. Practice gratitude. ...
  6. Change your vocabulary. ...
  7. Take a timeout. ...
  8. Post positive affirmations.
Apr 23, 2021

What is the rule of positive self-talk? ›

Practice positive self-talk.

Start by following one simple rule: Don't say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to anyone else. Be gentle and encouraging with yourself. If a negative thought enters your mind, evaluate it rationally and respond with affirmations of what is good about you.

What are 3 positive self-talk quotes? ›

50 Positive Self-Affirmations
  • I am successful.
  • I am confident.
  • I am powerful.
  • I am strong.
  • I am getting better and better every day.
  • All I need is within me right now.
  • I wake up motivated.
  • I am an unstoppable force of nature.
Apr 30, 2020

What kind of communication is self-talk? ›

Intrapersonal communication can be defined as communication with one's self, and that may include self-talk, acts of imagination and visualization, and even recall and memory (McLean, 2005 ).

What causes self-talk? ›

Self-talk is a normal and natural part of being human. People talk to themselves for many reasons, including self-criticism, self-reinforcement, self-management, social assessment, problem-solving, and motivation.

What is a person called who talks to himself? ›

narcissistic Add to list Share.

How do I stop talking in my head? ›

That's much easier said than done, but here are several ways to help halt negative thoughts and self-talk:
  1. Breathe. ...
  2. Acknowledge It. ...
  3. Consider The Cause. ...
  4. Stop Expecting Perfection. ...
  5. Surround Yourself With Positivity. ...
  6. Build A Routine. ...
  7. Make A Conscious Choice To Silence Those Thoughts.
Feb 22, 2019

How do I stop thinking out loud? ›

Distract your mouth

If you really need to keep quiet (say you're in the library or a quiet workspace), you might try chewing gum or sucking on hard candy. Having to talk around something in your mouth can remind you not to say anything out loud, so you might have more success keeping your self-talk in your thoughts.

What are the characteristics of self-talk? ›

Guilt, fear, and letting others down are commonly produced by self-talk. Self-talk sounds like a bossy person telling a person what they should do, could have done, have to do, are supposed to do. This creates pressure to satisfy other people's expectations.

How many types of self-talk are there? ›

Many people don't know this, but there are actually three types of self talk: Positive, Negative, and Instructional.

What are the 4 steps to manage self-talk? ›

You give 4 steps to managing it: Recognize. Record. Rethink. Repeat.

What is the difference between self-talk and thinking? ›

Self-talk is more on the higher or upper reaches of consciousness, involving physical manifestation, lips can move or speech can he heard, while automated thoughts simply-in terms of higher levels of consciousness-done in a whisper.

What is the ABC model of self-talk? ›

ABC's of Self-Talk

The ABC's, a model created by Albert Ellis, is a way to identify, address, and change irrational thoughts or thinking patterns. This model can help you restructure unhealthy beliefs. Maybe these beliefs are caused by one of the thinking traps listed above. A stands for activating event.

What are four forms of negative self-talk? ›

The tricky thing about negative self-talk is that it can come in many forms. According to Mayo Clinic, there are four main ones to be exact: personalizing, filtering, catastrophizing, and polarizing.

What are examples of self-talk for anxiety? ›

6 positive affirmations for anticipatory anxiety
  • “I am here, I am now, and I am well.”
  • “I can handle anything that's to come.”
  • “I am safe in the here and now.”
  • “I will handle whatever happens like I always do.”
  • “I choose to see the beauty in my surroundings.”
  • “I have time to prepare and decide.”
Apr 25, 2022

What is the self talk cycle? ›

The self talk cycle shows how our thoughts are directly linked to our behavior and vice versa. 1. Our self-talk (thoughts) builds a picture of ourselves in our minds (self-esteem or self image). 2. Our self-esteem causes us to live out this image automatically (performance).

What is bad self-talk called? ›

Your negative self-talk, or “inner critic,” may sound a lot like a critical parent or friend from your past. Negative self-talk is any inner dialogue that could be limiting your ability to believe in yourself and your own abilities to reach your potential.

What is positive self? ›

With a positive self-image, we recognize and own our assets and potentials while being realistic about our liabilities and limitations. With a negative self-image, we focus on our faults and weaknesses, distorting failure and imperfections.

How do you speak positively? ›

How to communicate positively
  1. Steer clear of negative words. ...
  2. And avoid forceful words. ...
  3. Always offer an alternative. ...
  4. Look for the good in the bad. ...
  5. Be specific. ...
  6. Be helpful. ...
  7. Set expectations. ...
  8. Keep your body language positive.
Jan 20, 2021

How do I remove negative thoughts from my mind? ›

Simple Steps to Stop Negative Thoughts
  1. Pause a Moment. If you are feeling stressed, anxious, or stuck in negative thinking patterns, PAUSE. ...
  2. Notice the Difference. ...
  3. Label Your Thoughts. ...
  4. Choose Your Intention.
Dec 3, 2022

How to stop thinking negative? ›

What else can you do to feel more positive?
  1. Focus on what you are feeling right now. If you're sad, feel the sadness. ...
  2. Share your feelings with someone close to you. Everyone has negative thoughts from time to time. ...
  3. Do something nice for yourself. ...
  4. Take time to count your blessings. ...
  5. Eat well. ...
  6. Make social connections.

How can I train my mind to think positive? ›

How to think positive thoughts
  1. Focus on the good things. Challenging situations and obstacles are a part of life. ...
  2. Practice gratitude. ...
  3. Keep a gratitude journal.
  4. Open yourself up to humor. ...
  5. Spend time with positive people. ...
  6. Practice positive self-talk. ...
  7. Identify your areas of negativity. ...
  8. Start every day on a positive note.
Feb 21, 2019

What is self-talk explained for kids? ›

Self-talk is speaking to oneself either inside the head (covertly) or out loud (overtly). It involves statements that are made to oneself rather than to others, usually for self-regulation rather than communication.

What is self-talk for kids? ›

Positive self-talk begins with an awareness or recognition of negative thoughts and messages kids are saying to themselves. Many kids are unaware their negative self-talk and the influence it has on their lives. Help them recognize when they are thinking or saying negative things about themselves, says Rinehart.

What is self-talk in early childhood education? ›

Young preschool children frequently talk out loud to themselves as they play and explore the environment. This self-directed talk is known as private speech.

Why do people self-talk? ›

Self-talk is a normal and natural part of being human. People talk to themselves for many reasons, including self-criticism, self-reinforcement, self-management, social assessment, problem-solving, and motivation. Sometimes, however, self-talk can be a cause for concern.

What are the 5 stages of self-talk? ›

Helmstetter breaks down what he refers to as the Five Levels of Self-Talk (Negative Acceptance, Recognition and Need to Change, Decision to Change, The Better You and Universal Affirmation) and guides you through how to work through them for profound changes in your life.

What is self-talk strategy? ›

“Self-talk strategies involve the use of cue words or small phrases aiming at enhancing performance through the activation of appropriate responses,” he says.

How do you control self-talk in children? ›

Here are some ways to free children from negative thinking and steer them away from destructive self-talk:
  1. Listen and validate. ...
  2. Offer a realistic approach. ...
  3. Put it in context. ...
  4. Model realistic and positive self-talk. ...
  5. Correct the record. ...
  6. Touch base with school. ...
  7. Seek professional help.
Oct 28, 2022

What are the benefits of self-talk child development? ›

Self-talk is a normal developmental activity that toddlers are known to engage in either with themselves or with their toys. It is known to reduce stress, enhance confidence, develop a positive self-image, process emotions and provide motivation or encouragement to focus on goals that a child wishes to achieve.

What is an example of self-talk in child development? ›

Self-Talk: Describe the action YOU are doing as your child watches. Examples: Cars: (As you drive a toy car around) “I am driving,” “Fast car,” “Going down ramp,” “my car stopped” to model language for your child and describe what you are doing.

What does self-talk do to your brain? ›

Most people talk to themselves in their head, a phenomenon psychologists call inner speech. This self-talk helps us plan, regulate our emotions and be creative, among other important functions.

What is the power of self-talk? ›

Positive self talk enhances your well-being and helps you effectively manage stress. It's still unclear exactly why positive self talk supports these health benefits. But one theory suggests that having a positive outlook helps you cope better with stress.

Is self-talk normal? ›

For most people, talking to yourself is a normal behavior that is not a symptom of a mental health condition. Self-talk may have some benefits, especially in improving performance in visual search tasks. It can also aid understanding in longer tasks requiring following instructions.


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