Ronan O Gara and Jonny Wilkinson, among many others place the ball, set themselves, say something to themselves and then go about their business and put the ball between the posts.
So what exactly are they saying and why?
Research has shown that the use of psychological techniques can enhance sporting performance (Krane & Williams, 2006). Use of psychological techniques, cognitive strategies or mental training has been commonly used by high performance athletes for many years. Aided by the growth and development of sport psychology research in recent times, systematic cognitive strategies have become even more common-place as athletes seek out ways to improve performance and gain advantages over opponents. One mental strategy frequently used by athletes is self talk (Hardy Oliver & Todd, 2009).
Self talk has been shown to be beneficial for the learning of motor skills (Hardy, 2006). It can be defined as verbalisations or statements athletes repeat to themselves prior to or during skill execution. Hardy Oliver and Todd (2009) offered various mechanisms to explain how self talk might impact on performance, suggesting that there may be motivational, cognitive, behavioural or affective processes involved.
Of those mentioned, cognitive mechanisms have received the most attention from existing self talk literature. Such cognitive mechanisms include attentional control, concentration and information processing.
Landin (1994) suggested that the use of appropriate cue words may aid task focus by increasing focus on task relevant stimuli. Hardy (2006) suggests that the use of cue words may help athletes adjust their focus of attention towards a more appropriate attentional focus for completion of tasks.
Such self talk practices to adjust towards optimal attentional focus may include motivational self talk, internally focused instructional self talk and or externally focused instructional self talk. However, certain strategies and practices that are widely advised may actually hinder performance rather than improve it. Thus, it is most important that advice is sought from appropriately qualified people.
New research (Begley & Hardy; yet unpublished) will distinguish that the most appropriate type of attentional focus will be dependent on the skill level of the performer and the type of task being performed. This new research will debunk many myths. The research is the first self talk research study of its kind to be carried out on elite level skilled performers in any sport (40 inter-county Gaelic Football free takers) and will have ramifications for all sport psychologists working with elite level performers in closed skill tasks such as rugby place kickers, dead ball specialists in soccer, GAA free takers, snooker, darts and golfers.
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About Keith Begley
I am a performance and mental skills coach based in Ireland. I hold an MSc in Applied Sport and Exercise Psychology from the Institute for Psychology of Elite Performance (IPEP) at University of Wales, Bangor (2012).