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Improve your performance with self-talk

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You know that moment when confidence levels drop – when self-doubt creeps in and you question yourself. It’s common before a big event, such as an interview, presentation, or even a date.

But it’s also something you can experience while training. Maybe you’re trying to run at a faster pace, set a new PB, or up the weights in your lifts. Whatever it is, if you don’t see results, you might start to doubt yourself.

Doubt—those negative things you tell yourself—can build up over time so that when it’s time to perform, your confidence is at rock bottom. Add negative self-talk to the mix, and chances are you won’t perform at your best. This could lead to a vicious cycle of feeling discouraged and frustrated, which is the opposite of what you need when striving for your goals.

That’s why self-talk is crucial when it comes to performance. Let’s explore how to make it work in your favor.

What is self-talk?

We hear it all the time, but what, exactly, is self-talk? To put it simply, it’s all the thoughts that run through your head at any given moment. It’s what we actively tell ourselves, like “I’m not strong enough to lift that weight!”

But self-talk doesn’t have to be negative. Things like “Great job!” or just a simple “Yes!” when we complete a 5K in record time – are also forms of self-talk.

Everyone uses self-talk and when it’s positive, it’s been proven to be incredibly helpful. There’s lots of research on the effects of self-talk in sports psychology specifically.

That’s because athletes know all too well how powerful positive self-talk can be, and how destructive negative self-talk can be. The key is to learn how to harness that positivity so that you can excel on the training ground.

Motivational self-talk

Now that we’ve covered self-talk, let’s explore motivational self-talk. Motivational self-talk involves some preparation, but the idea is to plan out a series of “cues” to tell yourself that will encourage you to take a certain action.

And it doesn’t need to be complicated. It could be a simple “You got this!” The best cues are short, to-the-point mental “pushes” that’ll help you face your upcoming challenges with a positive attitude.

It sounds simple, but it really works! That’s because motivational cues prepare you. They bring your mind and body to a state of readiness and offer you gentle guidance about what to think about and feel next. It’s like paving a road for your mind.

And the benefits go beyond helping you to take action. Identifying key “cues” also potentially boosts your commitment and, in some cases, even your confidence – and sometimes both at the same time. Developing a series of positive cues that push you to do something: that’s motivational self-talk.

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Applying motivational self-talk to training

Motivational self-talk isn't just for everyday life; it directly impacts your training. The inner dialogue you have before and during a session shapes how you approach it, and ultimately how well you perform.

Self-talk influences your energy levels as you start, how much effort you put in, and even how you react when your body becomes too tired. Imagine you’re in the middle of doing a long set of Burpees. You’re tempted to stop, but if there’s a voice telling you, "Keep it up! You got this! Breathe!” These words can give you that renewed boost of energy you need to power through.

Self-talk can be used in lots of different situations when it comes to training. If you’re testing out a new workout and want to give yourself the best chance of performing well: use self-talk. Or if you want to hit a new PB: use self-talk.

The best part? The benefits can be immediate. Sure, it'll become more natural the more you practice, but improvements to your performance can happen the very first time you try it.

How to make positive self-talk work for you

Now that you know the benefits of positive self-talk, let's see how to use it for your goals.

Here are some tips to help you succeed:

  • Plan ahead: Identify a situation where you want to boost your performance. Maybe it’s a workout you’re nervous about, where you’re experiencing some self-doubt. Or, a performance where an extra dose of energy and confidence could help you perform at your best.
  • Make a list: Put together a list of simple cues—single words or short phrases—that fit the context of your situation. If you’ve been doubting whether you can complete a set of deadlifts in your training, for example, you might write down a list of cues that go, “You got this,” or, “You can do hard things.”
  • Swap negative thoughts for positive prompts: Identify negative thoughts that arise during stressful moments and transform them into positive affirmations. For example, instead of thinking “Ugh, this feels heavy” when you’re lifting weights, make it positive with “I can lift that weight. I’ve done it before. l’ve got this!”
  • Test and practice your cues: as with everything in life, practice makes perfect. Test and practice your cues regularly. Notice how they make you feel. If you’re not feeling comfortable with a cue, swap it out for another one.
  • Stick it out: if it feels strange at first, give it a chance and experiment. Try saying the cues in your head, and aloud. What feels better? Research shows that the more we’re in tune with our cues, and the more we practice them, the more effective they become. After some time, you won’t even have to think about it. Positive self-talk will become a part of your training that’s “hardwired” when you struggle.

Let’s recap

Self-talk has been proven to help athletes improve attention and increase belief in themselves—all the more reason to give it a try. Our inner voices tell us things all day long, so why not channel that internal dialect to our benefit? You can use positive self-talk to your advantage and challenge that inner critic. Now that you know what self-talk is, identify your cues and make it work for you.

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