Self-talk is the process of which an individual may guide him/herself to accomplish a goal. Whether or not the goals are specific or broad, all goals are important to keep in realistic, attainable, measurable and specific. So why are goals important?

In recent years, goal setting has shown to been one of the key components in athletic performance. This has been backed by both athletes themselves and more recently, sport scientific research. While knowing goals are important and setting them is a good first step, it is the more complex foundation of how that goal was developed which determines the outcome. Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of goal setting is the attitude of which one approaches a goal. This is where the concept of ‘self-talk’ becomes progressively more relevant. For the purpose of this article, self-talk will be broken down into two pillars: 1) positive, and 2) negative. While extensive research has been conducted on both of these pillars, only three studies for each component have been examined. This assists in simplifying the information for a more comprehensive review and assists in preventing redundant information to be presented with unfamiliar terminology. Lastly, this article will look at a real-time application of self-talk for sport. This may assist in personal development for future performance.

Positive Self-talk

As previously noted, self-talk is meant to serve of a guide for individuals to achieve goals and the initial approach of the goal helps set the foundation for future success.  Unlike negative self-talk, positive self-talk applies positive encouragement (e.g., I can, I will) followed by positive reinforcement (success vs. non-success). Positive encouragement helps assist in motivating an individual by creating a sense of purpose. Take golf for example….”Could I make this putt?” or “I can make this putt.” By stating the word ‘can’ instead of ‘could’, one is creating a sense of purpose, to make the putt. Whereas using the word ‘could’ is the first step in casting doubt which, in turn, may produce lower performance. Others may argue that positive self-talk only creates reinforcement through positive results. If one were to use positive self-talk and see negative results (e.g., failing to make the putt), self-talk doesn’t work. While this argument makes some sense at face value, statistically speaking, it is false.

Research surrounding self-talk revealed that not only can motivation and performance be increased, but physical feelings of strength and self-efficacy as well (Slimani & Cheour, 2016). Among the 44 combat sports practitioners participating in Slimani & Cheour (2016), results revealed that pre-motivational talk enhanced performance though strength training and physical counter movements. This relationship debunks the notion that self-talk only works post activity during the first trial applications.

Additional research conducted by Malouff & Murphy (2006) revealed a positive relationship between instructional self-talk and performance. The use of pre-performance positive self-talk in golf revealed enhanced putting performance and personal satisfaction both during and after the play.

Overall, positive self-talk can prove to be a valuable asset for anyone interested in performance. Paired with goal setting and visualization, self-talk may be even more effective in promoting positive outcomes.

Negative Self-talk

Unlike positive self-talk, negative self-talk is the use of negative words such as ‘cannot’, ‘will not’, ‘could have’, and ‘should have’. All of these phrases cast doubt and have shown to create increased somantic (physical) and cognitive anxiety (Hatzigeorgiadis & Biddle, 2008). Anxiety such as this creates debilitative performance systems such as increased heart rate, irregular breathing, self-doubt, and lack of focus. Results from Hatzigeorgiadis & Biddle (2008) have shown that positive self-talk help to mitigate pre-performance anxiety and can be used a predictor of negative self-talk.

The Self-talk Grid

The self-talk grid is a personalized grid that has been created from the collection of academic information and put into a compact system. One who is new to self-talk may find this grid helpful when performing and seeking additional performance outcomes. The grid incorporates: 1) the activity, 2) the type of talk you apply (positive vs. negative), 3) the goal of which the activity is associated with, and 4) the outcome as a measureable entity. The purpose of this grid is to provide a visual measure of success to draw from in future performance.


Activity Type of Talk Goal Outcome (measurable)
Running Negative: It is too hot. My body hurts. N/A Incompletion of 1 mile run.
Running Positive: I can do this. I can complete each lap in 90 seconds. Run 1 mile in less than 7min. Completion of run in 6:15.


While there has been an extensive amount of research conducted surrounding positive vs. negative self-talk, this review is meant to assist in familiarizing oneself with the importance of performance related talk. Positive self-talk has shown to improve performance not only during and after activity, but also has shown to be a positive predictor of future performance satisfaction. On the other hand, negative self-talk has shown to increase anxiety and serves as a detriment to overall performance.

ReferencesShow all

Hatzigeorgiadis, A., & Biddle, S. (2008). Negative self-talk during sport performance: Relationships with per-competition anxiety and goal-performance discrepancies. Journal of Sport Behavior, 31(3), 237-253.

Malouff, J., & Murphy, C. (2006). Effects of self-instructions on sport performance. Journal of Sport Behavior, 29(2), 159-168.

Slimani, M., & Cheour, F. (2016). Effects of cognitive training strategies on muscular force and psychological skills in healthy striking combat sports practitioners. Sport Science Health, 12, 141-149.