We Need To Talk…Self-Talk
“Be careful how you are talking to yourself, because you are listening.”
– Lisa M. Hayes
Think back to the last conversation you had with yourself. You know, that inner voice that plays in the background of our minds as we navigate through our days. Was your last exchange positive, encouraging, supportive? Or was it filled with negativity…maybe even a critical review? Now think back to the last few self-talk conversations you’ve had most recently, especially when faced with a challenging task. What types of words do you find yourself using most often? Positive, compassionate, encouraging words provide more therapeutic effects than many of us even realize. This is especially true when practicing movement patterns and overcoming injuries.
Psychologists define movement and sport-specific self-talk cues into two distinct categories: instructional or motivational (1-3). Motivational self-talk includes cues designed to build confidence (“I can do it”), maximize effort (“Give it your all”), create positive moods (“I feel good”), and increase emotional energy (“let’s go”) while instructional self-talk cues relater to focus or directing attention (“keep your eye on the target”), technique (“high elbows”), and strategy (“move smoothly”) (1-3). Research has found that motivational cues are more effective for tasks requiring strength and endurance, while instructional cues are more effective when wanting to improve things such as precision and timing (1-3). For example, a group of basketball players were divided up into three groups: a control, and two self talk groups. They all shot baskets 4.5m from the hoop with the instructions “execute as many successful shots as possible within 3 minutes.” After a 20min break, they repeated the task, one self talk group being told to repeat the word “relax” before every shot, the other self talk group to repeat “fast”, and the control group’s instructions remained unchanged. The second trial revealed a significant increase in shots made for the “relax” group, where as the “fast” and control groups remained unchanged, thus demonstrating the impact of such cues (4).
So which one’s better, instructional or motivational cues? That depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Numerous studies have found that athletes significantly improve their accuracy and efficiency of movement tasks when using instructional cues vs. motivational (1-5). However, motivational cues have been proven most effective for reducing interfering thoughts, decreasing performance stressors, and increasing self-confidence (1-5). Yet, it’s not simply an either or choice. Studies have found that in order to optimize the highest rewards of self-talk, a combination of the two yields the most powerful results. Motivational cues allow for us to quiet our minds, decrease anxiety, and improve self-confidence, which then allows for larger gains to be achieved when implementing instructional cues (1-5). So yes, you can improve using either technique, but in order to reach your greatest potential, both need to be part of your practice.
So how does this fit into physical therapy and movement education? When we are recovering from injuries or trying to learn new tasks, we can often become frustrated during the process. When we tell ourselves, “I can’t do this” or “I’m not strong enough” our brain is listening. It’s hearing those not so helpful cues that then influence our body to feel anxious, fearful, and thus unable to move in ways that truly represent what we’re capable of. This isn’t to say that we should ignore those feelings of frustration or disappointment when we aren’t yet able to reach our goals in practice, games, or in rehab. It’s important to allow ourselves to feel what true, while also being thoughtful to follow that up with positive self-talk. Practicing our mental strength is just as important, if not the most important piece, in order to achieve our fullest physical potential.