The words we use matter

If you’re a big athletics fan, and you have a good memory of semi-obscure sprinters, you may well have seen me race a couple of times. In bigger races, such as those at the Diamond League and major Championships, the camera pans across the competitors as they are introduced. Whilst it is the fashion these days to appear relaxed and jovial, earlier on in my career—in the immediate post-Maurice Greene era—athletes tended to be a bit more serious during this pre-race segment. If you go back and watch races from that period, you will often see athletes talking to themselves, and this is a technique I liked to utilize pre-race.

It might seem strange (and it certainly can look it), but the goal is either provide some form of motivation, or a final rehearsal of a race plan. Indeed, this approach is well-researched in the sports psychology sphere, and is referred to as self-talk. It is effective across a range of tasks, including fine motor skills, such as golf putting, and gross tasks, such as the leg press.

Types of self talk

Now, when it comes to talking to yourself, there are a couple of ways this can be done. One method is that of first-person speech like “I can do this.” The second is that of second person speech: “You can do this.” During my career, I always used the latter, which made it seem like someone else was talking to me. The key question is whether the grammar of self-talk makes a difference to performance; this is something that has recently been explored by a group of researchers from Bangor University, which is available ahead-of-print in the Journal of Sports Sciences.

The research on self-talk

In their study, the researchers recruited 16 recreationally active males, who competed at university and/or club level across a variety of sports. The participants underwent a familiarization trial to get them used to the experimental setting and procedures, and they were then randomly assigned to undertake a 10km cycle ergometer time trial utilizing either first-person or second-person self-talk. On a subsequent visit, the participants switched groups, so all participants eventually took part in the first- and second-person self-talk trials. During the exercise trials, the authors collected data on the subjects’ RPE, power outputs, mood, motivation, and performance. In the familiarization trial, the subjects were asked to speak out loud the self-talk they were using, which was recorded and then manipulated for use within the future two trials.

The results make for interesting reading; when the participants utilized second-person self-talk, they completed the 10km time trial task significantly faster than when they utilized first-person self-talk; indeed, they were just over 2% quicker on average. This trend also held true when examining the individual data, with 13 out of the 16 subjects recording their fastest time in the second-person trial. Interestingly, there was no difference between the trials in terms of RPE, mood, or motivation, suggesting that the participants did not perceive any difference between the two self-talk methods. This latter point is important; it means that second-person self-talk doesn’t serve to increase cognitive or physical load, and so is not, in and of itself, fatiguing.

Why self-talk works

A secondary aspect here is to understand why this might happen. In the paper, the authors speculate that the use of second-person language allows the performer to self-distance, modifying how they perceive certain processes may affect them; a secondary theory suggests that second-person self-talk may allow for active self-regulation, allowing the athlete to focus on what they are doing, as opposed to how they are feeling.

Coaching take-aways

So what does all this mean? The first—and most obvious—take-home is that if our athletes are going to use self-talk around both training and competition (and research suggests they should), then doing so using second-person grammar (“you can do this”; “come on, you’ve got this”, etc.) is likely the best approach.

More broadly, it’s a great example of how language can influence performance. This has wider implications for the coach; how can they best deliver messages to enhance performance, for example? Small differences in words matter. As research like this expands in the future, we will get a clearer picture of how communication around training and competition may affect performance, allowing us to better understand what language to use, and what to avoid. Whilst we likely shouldn’t spend as much time on it as we do our training programs, it’s clear that we should at least consider how we communicate with our athletes. If we get this right, there is clear potential to enhance performance.