The Key to Cognitive Control is Self-Talk

Negative Self-Talk disrupts the automatic performance of skills.

Negative self-talk becomes especially destructive when an athlete evaluates his or her performance and then engages in derogatory self-labeling or self-rating, by using labels such as choker, loser, etc. When athletes hold these negative thought patterns they will often behave in ways that will confirm these perceptions and thus prove to themselves just exactly what they are thinking.

The use of negative self-talk not only affects an athletes immediate performance but also their overall self-esteem, and in some cases can lead to simply giving up. Self-esteem and confidence begins and ends in the mind of the individual, with self-talk playing the primary and most powerful role in feeding the mind.

Best performances can occur when there is little or no thought going on during competition. The athletes are so immersed in the action (focused) that things seem to happen without conscious thought. Peak performance may be challenged when athletes are actively thinking about their performance. In essence they are distracted from their performance by the mere fact that they are focused on thinking about their performance rather than executing in the moment.

Planned self talk can enhance skill acquisition and execution.

During the early learning process skill mastery is aided with instructional self-talk to remind the player of certain key aspects of the movements they are attempting to execute.

Cue words can be used to describe a specific movement or help to learn an appropriate sequence of actions. Simple cues such as “step, swing” in tennis, is designed to foster cognitive associations that will aid the athlete in learning proper physical execution.

As skills are mastered self-talk becomes shorter, less frequent, and shifts from a focus on mechanics or technique to a focus on strategies and optimal feelings for performance success.

The goal is to reduce conscious control and promote automatic execution of the skill. This means less on mechanics and more on the desired feeling.

For more information on self-talk and how to build self-talk strategies designed for optimal performance please contact John Ellsworth via

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