Self-talk is a major psychological skill used by professional and amateur cricketers. It is a method which a player can develop without the help of a psychologist or coach, due to the simplicity of its nature.

Weinberg & Gould (2011) defined a psychological skill as the systematic and consistent practice of mental skills for the purpose of enhancing performance, increasing enjoyment, or achieving greater sport or physical satisfaction.

Even though it is a team sport, cricketers find they are often alone throughout the game, either with the ball in hand or batting against eleven members of the other team. The ease and convenience of this favourable tool makes it a very popular strategy to achieve a number of goals.

The variety of thoughts and feelings which self-talk elicits stems from eight factors proposed by Zourbanos et. al. (2009); four positive, three negative and one neutral:

  • Psych-up
  • Confidence
  • Instruction
  • Anxiety Control
  • Worry
  • Disengagement
  • Somatic fatigue
  • Irrelevant thoughts

Short, sharp, intense phrases such as, “come on,” and, “he is not getting me out,” are examples of psych-up talk that someone like Rahul Dravid would have used at the start of his innings to aid his concentration and determination.

On the other hand, Kevin Pietersen instilled confidence within himself by saying, “be positive with your footwork,” in order to improve his motor skills, co-ordination and movement towards the ball, making him one of the game’s most entertaining players.

Instructional self-talk is a very broad category as players are always telling themselves to do something: “Keep your head still,” “wait for the ball,” “watch the ball”. These particular phrases allow players to keep it simple and play their natural game by trusting reactions and not focusing too much on technique. In a recent documentary on Ricky Ponting, he said that at the start of his innings all he would repeat to himself was, “watch the ball.” Therefore, he could play on instinct and keep all other thoughts out of his head. This gave him the ability to be a master at picking up length quickly and play his instinctive attacking game, marked by signature pull and hook strokes.

However, someone like Owais Shah who was renowned for looking nervous and twitchy when he came to the crease needed a method to manage his anxiety. In conjunction with anxiety regulation techniques, phrases such as “relax, take your time,” would have been used.

Self-talk can be divided into three types (Weinberg & Gould, 2011): positive (motivational), instructional and negative.

Every individual will have a different relationship with self talk; some may find the motivational benefits of positive or negative self talk enhances performance levels, whereas instruction can trigger certain performance stimuli in others.

Miles & Neil (2013) conducted a study of five elite cricketers who were shown recorded videos of each of their innings. The participants were asked to recall significant incidents in order to describe the self-talk employed. It was found that motivational self-talk improved self-efficacy when performance levels were dropping. On the other hand, continual instructional self-talk associated with an enhancement in skill execution. Together, both types of self-talk redirected attention to performance-related cues. Additionally, self-talk during batting was correlated with decreases in performance anxiety and focus was narrowed with self-determined talk.

Research by Holt (2003) found that a mixture of positive and negative self-talk can assist a bowler during their spell. The elite county cricketer, who was assessed, explained that if he bowled a bad ball which was hit for a boundary, he would use negative self-talk and be very critical of himself. However as he prepared to bowl the next ball, he explained, “I never try to bowl a ball without having a positive idea of what I’m going to do.” This method of mixed motivational and instructional self-talk obviously worked for ‘Guy’ as he enjoyed a successful twelve year professional playing career.

It is often thought that negative self-talk will correlate to negative performances on the field. However, sportsmen and women like ‘Guy,’ have recognised the positive drive that comes with it (Tod et. al., 2011). This type of self-talk comes in the form of a “telling off” or pep-talk to oneself. But surely these performance enhancing benefits counteract the application of stress management techniques such as, changing-thoughts, thought-stopping and the power of non-negative thinking? This emphasises the unique relationship every person has with self-talk and the results are dependent on personality type.

So, when a cricketer wants to integrate self-talk into performance, what steps should they take?

The Four Ws of Self Talk provide a foundation and guidance:

  • Where:

Do they need to use self-talk during training in addition to competition (Crust & Azadi, 2010), to aid performance levels? It was commonly known that Mike Hussey, “Mr. Cricket,” trained as hard as he played both physically and psychologically. Undoubtedly, the use of self-talk from Hussey during practice and competition, contributed to his 6235 test match runs @ 51.52.

  • When 

At what time is it most beneficial for the cricketer to use self-talk? Do they require a psychological skill at a certain point, when performance starts to decline – pre-competition (Thomas et. al., 2007); during competition (Gourzi et. al., 2007); or during training (Papaioannou et. al., 2004)?

  • Why

Is there a certain aspect of performance which the cricketer wants to improve? There may be a motor or mental skill which is detrimental to performance. This can be divided into cognitive development – skill execution (Johnson et. al., 2004), or motivational development – focus (Hatzigeorgiadis et. al., 2004); self-confidence (Mamassis & Doganis, 2004); arousal (Conroy & Metzler, 2004); drive (Hardy et. al., 2001).

  • What

Is there a specific reason self-talk is required by a cricketer? Structure (Johnson et. al., 2004) within their personal game, when building an innings or applying pressure to the opposition with the ball, may be required. Task instruction (Tod et. al., 2009) or a retrieval of instinct and nature (Van Raatle et. al., 2006) may be needed so the cricketer “plays their own game.”

It should be noted that self-talk alone does not improve performance, enjoyment and satisfaction. A study by Thelwell & Maynard (2003) found that a psychological skills package improved the consistency of high performance levels both objectively and subjectively over two seasons. The experimental group consisted of semi-professional cricketers using a mental skills package of: goal setting, activation regulation, self-talk, imagery and concentration.

A collection of psychological skills are required and everyone has a unique relationship with these skills.