Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Jan 1, 1997 – Dr. John F. Murray – Language may be the most powerful tool ever invented to influence behavior. Language directed inward, or “self-talk,” is especially important in performance situations. Sport psychologists describe self-talk as thinking, or making internal or external statements. This dialogue with oneself provides a means of identifying and solving problems by making perceptions and beliefs conscious. On the tennis court, the quality of self-talk needs to be carefully scrutinized to ensure a mental state where optimal performance can flourish and negativity is extinguished.

The influence of self-talk on performance has been demonstrated across a variety of sports. Available research indicates that self-talk can improve attentional control (See November, 1995 article) and create positive expectencies (See January, 1996 article). Positive self-talk has also been associated with more successful competitive outcomes whereas negative self-talk is associated with losing and poorer attentional control. More research is needed, but I am convinced that self-talk can be used to enhance many of the psychological techniques previously discussed including arousal management (September, 1995 article), competitive pressure management (December, 1995 article), anger management (August, 1996 article), elimination of fear and choking (November, 1996 article), and development of the killer instinct (December, 1996 article).

The ensuing tips introduce you to ways of identifying and modifying self-talk where appropriate. It should be emphasized, however, that every athlete is a unique individual with internalized beliefs and assumptions reflected in self-talk. As such, improving self-talk often takes great insight, effort and persistance. Keep in mind that the best results are achieved through professional consultation with a qualified sport psychologist.

Identifying Self-Talk

The content and context of self-talk must be first understood. As soon as possible following a match, make a list of your thoughts and self-statements, situations in which they occurred, and performance consequences.

Engage in imagery to assess your typical thinking and verbal reactions to a variety of performance situations.

Have someone videotape a tough match with close-ups of your facial expressions and verbalizations. This will further help you identify self-talk in various situations.

Place forty paperclips in your right pocket prior to a match. Each time you make a negative self-statement, transfer one paperclip to the left pocket. At the end of the match, you may be motivated by the shock of realizing how many clips have gone to the left side!

Modifying Self-Talk

First determine whether you are really committed to eliminating negative self-talk. Without a full committment, change for the better is unlikely.

Interrupt negative self-talk as soon as it occurs with a positive visual image (e.g., holding up a trophy), phrase (e.g., “I’m getting better”), or action (e.g., a positively clenched fist). Negative self-talk often accumulates in a match and it is important to interupt it before it interrupts you.

Whenever a negative self-statement is made, replace it with a more constructive version. For example, change “I’m terrible” to “I love this challenge.”

Examine the beliefs underlying the content of your self-talk. You may discover that many of the assumptions that drive your self-talk are invalid. For example, the belief that you have to win every match or you are a bad player or poor competitor is simply wrong. Work on challenging and refuting negative and erroneous beliefs so that more constructive and postive self-talk emerges.

Your arsenal of mental equipment would be seriously deficient without the powerful tool of positive self-talk. Identify this dialogue and make changes where necessary. If people see you talking to yourself, just tell them you’re enjoying the conversation.