Internal dialogue or self-talk, as it is most commonly referred to in sport psychology, is an occurrence nearly every athlete experiences. Although positive self-talk is possible, typically, our thoughts and self-statements are negative and consciously appear at the most inconvenient of times. However, it is when we fuse with these thoughts that they become influential on our performance. Increasing our self-awareness of our internal voice is critical, if we want to use it to our advantage and increase our ‘workability’ (I’ll come back to that word later).
Traditional psychological approaches suggest that we can control our thoughts and therefore positively influence our performances. Considering such approaches, our thoughts can be controlled through an activation of more appropriate responses. Generally, this means replacing our negative thoughts with positive statements. This is clearly indicated in the following definition of self-talk, “a way to override our past negative programming by erasing or replacing it with conscious positive new directions” (Helmstetter, 1991). Sport Psychology research suggests that positive self-talk is associated with better performances by increasing confidence, concentration, motivation, emotional control and decreasing anxiety and stress levels. A meta-analysis in 2011(Hatzigeorgiadis et al.,) stressed the effectiveness of self-talk strategies in sport for improved task performance, with Weinberg (2012) supporting this when finding self-talk to be positively influential from pre to post intervention over a period of a week. One of the few studies published actually considers competitive sport performance in real competition (Schuler & Langens, 2007). However, they agreed with previous research as they found that marathon runners who experienced a large psychological crisis and used self-talk coped better than those in the comparative control group.
However, other research has argued that when we replace a negative thought with a positive alternative, this in effect actually produces more negative thoughts. This belief is one of a positive psychology approach known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is gathering strong momentum in Sport Psychology. Unlike traditional psychology approaches, ACT is not concerned with whether or not our thoughts are good, bad, positive, negative, right, wrong, optimistic, pessimistic, true, false, pleasant or unpleasant. Additionally, it is not concerned, as to whether our self-talk is instructional, neutral or motivational. Rather it is concerned with whether our thoughts and internal dialogue is helpful and workable.
‘Workability’ is a term used to help individuals assess whether or not their thoughts, behaviours, feelings are going to help them. So with self-talk, if the thought does not help you work efficiently toward a mindful values-guided action in the long run, then it is not for you. Acceptance is a key component of this theory, and considered one of their six core principles (defusion, expansion, acceptance, the observing self, values and committed action). Here, it is widely believed that we cannot control our thoughts as much as traditional theories suggest, and at least not for a pro-longed period of time whereby we no longer retreat back to our old habits. Instead, self-talk is about acceptance. So when those thoughts in your head are telling you “I can’t do it”, “I’m not good enough”, “I haven’t practiced hard enough, I always struggle with this skill” instead of using cognitive restructuring and saying positive alternatives like, “I can do it”, “I have practiced hard and efficiently”, “I am able to complete this skill” – you accept your thoughts for what they are – nothing more than a string of words. True acceptance is not about tolerance, putting up with, avoiding or admitting defeat. Rather acceptance is an attitude of openness, interest and receptiveness whereby you allow your thoughts to come and go as they please without fighting them, running away from them or giving them undue attention. It is strongly believed that acceptance is the first step toward taking effective action. It is important to remember however, that if our thoughts are helpful, great! Use them! If they are not helpful or workable, accept them, and defuse from them if you find yourself entangled amongst them (defusion means relating to your thoughts in a new way so that they have a significantly lower impact on your performance – there are countless defusion skills available and ready to practice and use in ACT).
So where traditional psychological intervention strategies may encourage control and cognitive restructuring, ACT encourages acceptance to allow you to heighten your workability and psychological flexibility. However, in order for us to decide whether our thoughts are helpful or not, we first must acknowledge the importance of self-awareness and develop skills to heighten our self-awareness, for how can we accept our thoughts if we first do not realise their presence?
Heightening our self-awareness allows us to make much greater choices as to how we want to act and behave, and therefore gives us a much greater opportunity to perform to our strengths. But how exactly can we begin to increase our self-awareness? There are a number of ways in which this can be achieved, but it is important for you to experiment with such interventions and continue with one that works for you. Here are just a few examples…
– Diary entries: notice the little things you do each day, notice the consequences. Note down your thoughts, feelings, behaviours, when they occurred, the language used, the sensations and urges that were apparent too. Consider conversations you had, listen closely to people. Open up your senses!
– Paperclip task: in your right pocket place a handful of paperclips. Each time you notice a particular thought, feelings or behaviour that you feel is unhelpful, move a paperclip to your left pocket. At the end of the day count how may paper clips in your left pocket, thus highlighting the frequency of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours and ultimately heightening your self-awareness.
– Post performance reflections: reflect on your performance, on where improvements could have been made, how you could have prepared and performed differently, reflect on your strengths and what worked well as well as your areas of development. Note down the little things you may not always recognise from thoughts, feelings, behaviours to urges, sensations, images, language, body language etc.
– Using the observing self: the observing self doesn’t think, it is an internal part of you that is responsible for focus, attention and awareness. Your observing self pays attention to your thoughts rather than produces them, and registers your experiences directly. To tune into your observing self, choose anything you are aware of (sight, sound, smell, taste, sensation, thought, feeling, movement, body part, material object) like the log fire roaring in front of you. Explore it, focus on it, observe it, like you’ve never seen it before and notice who’s doing the observing.
Increasing our self-awareness will not only help us in accepting your self-talk but ultimately in our confidence, concentration, emotional control on a much broader performance level. But as I am sure you have heard countless times before, positive change and performance enhancement comes through deliberate practice and committed action!