The Power of Self Talk

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Research indicates that people, on average, speak to themselves at a rate of between 300 and 1,000 words per minute. 

Commonly referred to as self-talk, this constant internal dialogue has a powerful affect upon us all, directing how we feel, which subsequently influences our behaviour and actions.

Although it may not always seem the case, we control our self-talk, and this gives us the capability to improve our performance by effectively harnessing these thoughts.

Positive or negative?

Self-talk can either be positive or negative and, depending on the option we choose, will either increase or decrease our chances of yielding a successful outcome. In essence, positive thoughts will produce positive emotional reactions, such as excitement, determination, and relaxation. On the other hand, negative thoughts will harvest negative emotional reactions like anxiety, sadness, and hopelessness. Contrary to popular opinion, it is our thoughts which influence and develop our emotions, not the other way round.   

Physical response

These emotions will consequently produce a physical reaction. For example, athletes who apply positive self-talk (such as “I can do this”) tend to experience positive emotions (such as calmness), which then result in physical reactions (such as muscle relaxation), that enable them to perform at an optimum level.

Conversely, athletes using negative self-talk (eg. “What if I fail?”) will inevitably feel negative emotions (eg. anxiety) that create physical symptoms (eg. muscle tightness) which inhibit their ability to compete at their best.

The Power of Self-Talk


A simple way to remember how self-talk affects performance is the ABC model, developed by the famous psychologist Albert Ellis.​

The ABC Model by Albert Ellis
The ABC Model

The activating event, such as making a mistake, triggers our thinking patterns. Our subsequent belief (self-talk) then determines our consequence (reaction) to the activating event. 

In other words, the activating event itself has no impact on our consequence – it is our belief that decides this. As Epictetus puts it,

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.

Strike the right tone

Finally, it’s not just what we say to ourselves that’s important, it’s also the way that we say it.

For instance, imagine yourself playing in a high profile match and screaming to yourself “Relax!”, “Stay calm!!”, and “Keep focused!!!” – even though these words are positive, the overall effect of your inner dialogue is negative.

The tone of your self-talk is just as important as the actual words, so pay attention not only to what you’re saying, but also to how you’re saying it.

I’ll leave the last word on the subject to Mr. Henry Ford…

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.

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