Talking to yourself? Why it matters and how you can do it better

Have you ever wondered who a tennis player is talking to? During my time at lifetime, I noticed that during tennis matches players would often verbally express themselves. This included statements like “come on”, “that’s terrible “and “of course I would choke”.  But who are these players talking to? With no one else on the court but themselves and their opponent it becomes obvious that these players are directing their statements at themselves. So why are they talking to themselves?

In the context of sport psychology, the concept of talking to yourself during a performance is often referred to as self-talk. This concept of self-talk includes inner dialogue, internal monologue, intrapersonal communication, inner voice or speech, covert speech, private or silent speech, self-statements, self-communication, self-directed verbalizations, verbal thinking, verbal mediation, auditory imagery, articulatory imagery and stream of consciousness. Self-talk in a sense is an external verbalisation of a player’s internal mindset during a match. Self-talk is a key component of sport psychology as research has indicated using self-talk correctly can increase effort and concentration, subsequently leading to increases in performance. However, it has also been shown that negative use of self-talk may also decrease effort and concentration, consequently negatively affecting performance. So that leaves us with the question what is the right way to talk to yourself?

Self-talk is usually categorised as positive and negative. Positive self-talk consists of statements that people say to themselves that are encouraging or positive in tone. In a sport setting, positive self-talk might include statements such as “I can do it,” or “Yes!” Negative self-talk involves statements that are negative and/or reflect anger, frustration, or discouragement, such as “you are slow!” or “that’s horrible.”

It has been suggested that different self-talk originates from two different mental processes that use two separate systems in the brain. The first system is fast, effortless, and emotionally charged the second system, is slower, effortful, and consciously monitored. Self-talk that originates from the first system is often described as intuition, and comes to mind spontaneously as gut feelings or impressions. An example of this in the context of youth tennis is when a player misses a shot on an important point an yells at themselves in frustration “how did I miss that”.

The second system self-talk results from consideration and planning, and may lead to logical, instructional, task-focused, and motivational self-talk, as well as self-talk used for distraction purposes. The second system also monitors the information generated by the first system (e.g., swearing in frustration), which may lead to self-talk (e.g., calming self-talk to manage frustration). For example, in contrast the second system includes explicit and intentional ideas, logic, conscious calculations, attributions, and interpretations. Self-talk from the second system plays an important role in regulating psychological functions. In the context of tennis this could include a player saying telling themselves “next point” or “refocus” after losing a point.

Having an understanding of these two different systems can be very important when watching young tennis players because you will notice the first system working overtime with a lot of fast emotion reaction both positive and negative in responds to the match that they are in. However, the second system does not see the same amount of work. Very rarely do you see young tennis players engaging in self-talk that is effortful, and consciously monitored. This is not unusual in the context of teenagers, as a teenager develops the ability to experience emotions before they develop their ability to regulate it. As a result teenagers will engage in self-talk that is emotionally charged until they become overloaded or emotionally drained throughout the course of a tennis match. So the question becomes how do we encourage more self-talk from the second system to create a healthy balance of emotion and emotional regulation in a tennis match?

The good news is that because system two involves conscious effort the ability to engage in this system can be developed through practice. While many young players may laugh at the idea of practicing how to talk to yourself, efficient emotional regulation is a skill and like any physical skill will develop with practice.

The steps to training more effective self-talk:

Firstly drawing player’s attention to moments in which they are engaging in self-talk. (Often player aren’t aware of the process)

“Did you notice when you said this”

Secondly, getting players to be able to identify different types of self-talk (positive, negative, emotional, motivational or logical etc.)

“Why did you say that?”

Thirdly getting players to identify whether the self-talk is helpful or unhelpful to their performance.

“Do you think saying that helped you?”

Fourthly getting players to identify alternative self –talk that may be more helpful. This stage involves the player putting a conscious effort into what that could say, and therefore gets them to engage in system two of their mental processing.

“What else could you have said or could you have added to make it more helpful’.

A players attention to the process of self-talk not only gives a player a greater awareness of what is happening in their own mental processes but as draws attention to how these mental processes are effecting their performance. Practicing this process allows player to develop patterns of self-talk that are a healthy balance of emotion and emotional regulation in a tennis match.

Written by

Michael Pastorello

Masters of Psychology (Sport & Exercise) (Candidate)

University of Queensland.