Psychology: Talk to yourself

Steve Mann investigates self-talk for enhancing self belief, handling pressure and motivation

Posted on November 5, 2013 by
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Usain Bolt London (Mark Shearman)

Negative thoughts can make us more anxious as athletes and studies have shown that they can have a negative impact on performance. But how do these negative thoughts arise?

Undue pressure in many circumstances can give rise to negative thoughts such as, “She’s faster than me” or “I can’t throw that far.” These are the thoughts we need to be aware of when we’re feeling anxious about performing. We need to mentally register these thoughts and perhaps even write them in a diary.

Now that we’ve managed to acknowledge these thoughts, how do we overcome them to enhance self-belief and relieve this pressure? We do something called ‘cognitive restructuring’. This is much simpler than it sounds. Self-talk is all about using basic techniques to look at the world from different perspectives and this in turn changes the way that you think. It’s basically taking a more positive perspective on things. But it can be difficult to do this if we’re really anxious about a situation.

There are four basic techniques used in self-talk: thought stopping; changing negative thoughts into positive thoughts; countering and reframing. These techniques can be used to overcome negative thoughts and use positive thoughts to energise and motivate you into action. So let’s see how this is done!

Thought stopping

“Usain Bolt’s signature pose is important to him and must help him to focus his mind on the start line and throw away any negative thoughts”

You need to stop a negative thought before it has a chance to have an effect. You first need to be aware of the negative thought by using either the techniques mentioned above or by naturally becoming aware of it with experience. In order for this to happen, the athlete needs to have a strong word or phrase in their mind or an action that they have associated with clearing their mind back to a fresh and competitive state.

This process (word or phrase) needs to be something important and relevant to the athlete. For example, a runner may wish to face the opposite direction to which they will run on a track for a second when preparing for a race. A long jumper may start clapping to a beat with the crowd just before they start running down the runway to galvanise a thought out of their head, or it could be something as simple as using the word ‘stop’ in your mind.

Think of Usain Bolt before he competes. His signature pose is important to him and this must help him in some way to focus his mind on the start-line and throw away any negative thoughts (even the very best can have negative thoughts).

The process or word used needs to be something that the athlete finds powerful to themselves. What works for one person, doesn’t necessarily work for another. Take a few minutes to think about this and list positive words or phrases that mean something important to you. Think also about the processes on the track or competition area that may also help.

Changing negative thoughts into positive ones

This technique is a little more advanced than the previous. Although thought stopping can be difficult at times, especially if there’s a strong negative thought, the way to defeat this thought would be to change it into a positive one. The positive thought needs to be related to the negative thought within the competitive situation for it to succeed.

For example, if you say “This event is too difficult for me,” then this can be turned into a positive thought by saying “This is simply a challenge to aim higher” and “I don’t want to fail” can be changed into “Nothing has been gained from not taking risks, as long as I try my best, then I won’t be a failure.” Take the negative thought and hold a mirror up to it. See what issue or situation the negative thought is surrounding, burn away the negative thought and switch it into a positive one.

Now take five minutes and write about five different negative thoughts that you’ve had when competing or training and then change these into positive thoughts using this process. These could be things such as thoughts, moods and physical feelings. Remember, it’s all about the perspective you take on this. It may also help to ask your coach, friend or team-mate about their fresh perspective on things.


In case you’re having trouble changing negative thoughts into positive ones, there is also a more radical technique called countering.

You use evidence from past performances and training to overcome the negative thought. This is a process that gets us as athletes to believe the positive thought.

A negative thought such as “I’m scared I won’t jump that height” can be countered with “My jumps have been improving in training.” This past accomplishment helps the athlete think rationally about the thought using evidence and then dismisses the negative thought. This evidence can be used in line with goal-setting to support the self-talk.

Think of it as a court room setting where you use evidence (past experiences) to overcome a belief and replace it with a more rational, positive belief. It’s all about not just changing your perspective, but also making the new perspective concrete in your mind by believing that new perspective. Believing the new perspective is key and is accomplished by using past experiences (evidence in the court room). Think of the times you’ve had negative thoughts and then use your experiences that contradict them.


Reframing is a little different from all the above and uses emotions and moods rather than specific thoughts. This process is also much more basic than the above techniques.

It’s all about changing your perspective on a feeling you had in training or a competition from a negative one into a positive one. Instead of thinking “I feel anxious” you could say “I feel excited.” Instead of thinking “This is going to be difficult” you could say “This is going to be a challenge” and instead of “These people are better than me” you can say “It’ll be a good challenge to beat these people!” Think of some of the feelings you’ve had when performing and think of a different perspective you could take on these feelings.

You could also try self-affirmation statements. These are simply terms used to motivate you and stimulate you to push your performance further and perform at a higher level. These statements would be relevant to you as an individual and they need to be able to make you feel energised. Some examples are:

“I’m going to train through fire to be the best!”
“I’m as strong as a bull!”
“See it, think it, believe it, do it!”
“Say yes to success!”
“Who dares wins!”

Now list some statements that work for you and remember these for when you’re training or performing.

These are some basic techniques which are part of a wider world of self-talk. To help tailor self-talk to your specific situation so that you can reach a peak performance you may wish to consult a qualified and registered sport psychologist.

» Steven Roy Mann, BSc (Hons), MSc, PGCert, MBPsS, is a performance psychologist and also a martial arts coach

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