Influences of Self-Talk on Athletic Performance

Athletes Self-Talk: The Direct Relationship between Positive and Negative Self-Talk and Athletic Performance.

A Review of the Current Research Literature

By Erykah Flynn

August 20th, 2010

Self-talk. We all use it.  We use it as a means to help us define who we are.  We use it to help us accomplish daily tasks.  It is important in reaching goals and it is necessary to regulate information in our minds.  It is also used negatively.  We use it to sabotage ourselves by saying statements like, I cannot do that, it’s impossible, I’m not good enough or it’s ok if I quit.  Based on the current research it is for these same reasons that the use of self-talk has become such a topic of interest in the sport psychology world.  As one would assume, all of the instances listed above hold true for athletes as well, meaning that athletes use the same self-talk and in-turn can use it to either help them or hurt themselves in regards to performance.  Here I have researched and evaluated all of the current research available on how the use of positive and negative self-talk correlates with athletic performance; in a sense, I wanted to know how strong the relationship is between what athletes say to themselves and their overall performance results. 

While exploring this topic I found that the majority of all the current research is centered on a small group of researchers: J. Hardy, C. Hall, L. Hardy, A. Hatzigeorgiadis and K. Gammage, all of whom seemed to be the current leaders in this research field.  I was able to find a stream of studies that were built upon each other over the last several years, each study using information from the previous ones and yet answering questions that the previous work left unanswered.  I found all of the work presented in the research to be very reliable due to the fact that each researchers work correlated with the others.

First we must understand exactly what self-talk is.  As defined by one group of researchers, self-talk is said to be, “dialogue in which the individual interprets feelings and perceptions, regulates and changes evaluations and convictions, and gives him/herself instructions and reinforcement” (Gammage, Hall & Hardy, 2001).  It is important to understand the difference between self-talk and general thought and chatter.  Self talk can occur in many ways but most commonly  using the “I” or “you” voice as if communicating with yourself or your subconscious and  it can also be overt (spoken out loud), or sub vocal (spoken in head) (Foster & Gibson, 2007).  Basically, self-talk allows for an individual to take the perspective of another in their own mind and converse with themselves.

In evaluating a combination of the research, a study conducted by Hardy, Gammage and Hall (2001) was able to create the foundation of where, when, what and why athletes use self-talk.  This report helped to paint a picture of how self-talk works and what is the most common way of using it by breaking it down into several categories.  It was found that most commonly self-talk is used for two reasons, to improve confidence and for added motivation.  More often, self-talk was used before and during practices or competitions and was positive.  Using both first person and second person equally, specific task instructions in the form of phrases to help give the athlete structure were shown to be common.  As for why athletes use self-talk, motivational reasons including mastery, arousal and drive where found to be by far the most common, followed by cognitive reasons such as skill and strategy improvement.   From a more quantitative approach, research shows that most athletes use self-talk internally or in a muttered fashion and in single word phrases.  In a comparison of team sport athletes and individual sport athletes, research shows that team sport athletes use far more self-talk than those participating in individual sports (Hall, Hardy & Hardy, 2005).

Based on the research, we know that athletes naturally tend to use more positive self-talk then negative and that athletes generally believe that using positive self-talk will help improve their performance.  One group of researchers found that athletes believed that the use of self talk would, “enhance confidence” and “give direction”, and that it serves many beneficial purposes including increased focus and confidence, helps to regulate effort, cognitive control, and emotional responses, and it can trigger automatic reactions (Goltsois, Hatzigeorgiadis,Theodorakis & Zourbanos, 2008).  It is clear that the athletes themselves believe that there are beneficial results from using positive self-talk, but what does the research say?

One group of researchers said that, “Studies using various research designs and tasks have thoroughly supported that self-talk can be an effective cognitive strategy for skill acquisition and performance enhancement,” (Goltsois, Hatzigeorgiadis, Theodorakis & Zourbanos, 2008).   Another study that investigated the effects of instructional and motivational self-talk on performance and on cognitive interferences in athletes revealed that the athletes using self-talk had an improvement in precision tasks and power tasks in regards to performance, and that with the use of self-talk the occurrences of cognitive interferences were minimized (Goltsois, Hatzigeorgiadis, Theodorakis & Zourbanos, 2008). Basically these studies show that there is a positive relationship between the use of athletes self-talk and overall performance.

In comparison, another study that was comparing the relationship between negative self-talk with pre-competition anxiety and goal-performance discrepancies said that “generally, the beneficial effects of positive and the detrimental effects of negative self-talk on performances have been supported in the sport literature” (Biddle & Hatzigeorgiadis).  The study found that when athletes had discrepancies between goals and performance it would result in a cognitive interference in the form of self-defeating thoughts and evaluations.  As it turns out, negative self-talk during athletic performances is directly related to pre-performance anxiety and thus, performance results.  Also revealed was that negative self-talk followed lost points or bad plays in competition.  In summary of this study, there appears to be a negative self-talk cycle that begins with pre-task anxiety which leads to negative self-talk which leads to goal-performance discrepancies in the form of poor performances, and thus lead to more negative self-talk and even worse performances (Biddle & Hatzigeorgiadis). 

Overall, the previous study by Biddle & Hatzigeorgiadis confirmed their hypothesis that there is a direct relationship between pre-competition anxiety and negative self-talk during performances and that negative self-talk is directly related to impaired performances.  Based on the results, when athletes use negative self-talk there are discrepancies between their performances expectations and there actual performances; the use of negative self-talk appears to increase poor performance.   In comparison,  the work conducted by Foster & Gibbons (2008) found there to be  improvements in fatigue tests when subjects were instructed to use positive self-talk and also during a motor performances trial it was found that the highest improvements were associated with positive overt self-talk and the most errors were associated with the use of negative self-talk. 

Based on a different set of research conducted by Hall, Hardy & Hardy (2004), titled “A Note on Athletes’ Use of Self-Talk,” they found that in general, the more skilled the athlete, the better use of positive self-talk they had.  The skilled athletes self-talk appeared to be more planned out and consistent and the skilled athletes had a greater belief in the use of positive self-talk.  As it turns out, perhaps through trial and error, self-talk is a learned skill that naturally improves as athletic performance improves.  Having said this, the use of positive self talk is now viewed as a skill opposed to a trait and with practice, just like physical skills it can be learned and improved. 

In conclusion, it appears to me that the relationship between athletes self-talk and performance outcome is very strong.  I think because so much of sport is considered psychological, what you say to yourself has a great impact on what you think will happen and what you think will happen will most likely happen.  It appears to be important for athletes to not only use positive self-talk regularly, but also they should believe in the benefits of using positive self-talk.  Because self-talk is a learned skill, it should be incorporated into every athletes training plan and used for both motivation and skill improvement.  The use of positive self-talk should create a cycle of one thing leading to another: positive self-talk -better performance – higher belief – more self-talk – etc.  Once athletes get into this cycle, I believe they will see how strong the relationship is between their performances and their use of positive self-talk.






Biddle, A., & Hatzigeorgiadis, A. Negative self-talk during sport performance: Relationships with pre-competition anxiety and goal-performance discrepancies. Journal of Sport Behavior, 31(3), 237-253.

Gibson, S. A., & Foster, C. (2007). The role of self-talk in the awareness of physiological state and physical performance. Sports Med, 37(12), 1029-1044.

Goltsois, C., Hatzigeorgiadis, A.,Theodorakis, Y., & Zourbanos, N. (2008). Investigating the functions of self-talk: The effects of motivational self-talk on self-efficacy and performance in young tennis players. The Sport Psychologist, 22, 458-471.

Hardy, J., Gammage, K., & Hall, C. (2001). A descriptive study of athlete self-talk. The Sport Psychologist, 15. 306-318.

Hall, C., Hardy, J. & Hardy, L. (2005). Quantifying athletes self-talk. Journal of Sports Sciences, 23(9), 905-917.

Hall, C., Hardy, j., & Hardy, L. (2004). A note on athletes’ use of self-talk. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 16, 251-257.