Stressors and Self-Talk

Something is always on the mind. Stress, anxious thoughts, you name it, it impacts the ability to perform, both physically and mentally. With the stress of this pandemic having us on high alert, other stressors like the distraction from stress friendships, relationships, financials, and health complications are causing individuals to not mentally or physically perform at best. We think of stress being only external things like people, jobs, or school, but what about the mental displacement when an athlete is wearing uncomfortable clothes or shoes? Scenario- Maybe you are in the gym trying to perform box jumps, and everytime you land on the box, your shoes rub the sides of your toes. Or, maybe you are training for a marathon and your shorts keep riding up, or your shirt is too thin and the wind keeps catching it. All of these are added stressors that can easily navigate your attention away from a successful performance. And, typically when these stressors take your mindset away from what it should be focused on, you begin to ponder your thought process onto other things outside of your performance. Often, this process can inspire the production of negative thoughts.

Because the process of stress can navigate our performance, I'd like to focus some attention on self-talk (ST). This topic I am very familiar with and have been researching throughout my many years in education. ST is the ability to adjust or alter feelings, behaviors, and thoughts. This process can be both positive or negative and if practiced properly, research shows favoring results on the influence of one's ability to physically perform in sports, fitness, and throughout life. Throughout this article, please not that positive self-talk (PST) is used as ST.

Present day studies, focus on the variables that ST can have among athletes and fitness goers, and in my opinion, it can be focused among everyone in general. Research sports scientist like myself study ST among coaches and athletes in areas like self-efficacy, competitive anxiety, and volitional skills. These areas are targeted to see if ST can be improved or strengthened with the use of ST. But, in general, Negative ST (NST) can cause serious damage to one's ability to perform at best. If NST is not controlled, it can cause rapid mental decline in the ability to perform. Overall, when trained consistently and properly, ST can lead to a decrease in mental distraction, anxiety, reduced competitive anxiety, increased volitional skills and self-efficacy, less somatic state anxiety, and much higher confidence and self-optimization. And, a little fun-fact about ST. Children from birth to the age of about 3 develop ST. It is not something that we adults teach, yet it is a natural occurrence in humans. This is the process in which they toddlers begin to talk. Forming ideas and learning their surroundings, ST builds inner speech. Listen to a young child, perhaps mine, and they have an entire scenario played out. Spider man is flying over Peppa Pig's castle and in comes Mario to save the day. As children grow, they use several gestures to communicate with their external factors. This process comes natural to us all. ST is something that is so natural, often many of us do not recognize when we are doing it.

Back on Track

The connection between mental obstruction and ST are extremely high, in that individuals' stressors can lead one to NST, which can result in failure in performance.

Just think about it.

1. You are competing in a road race, and as your eyes become fixated on the athletes riding ahead of you, you fall into a hypnotized state and become fixated on your thoughts and stressors. You begin to ponder on your next week's to-do-list and work, your family, etc. Before you realize it, you have fallen behind in your race, meanwhile mental fatigue has set in.

Or, another scenario.

2. You are running a 5k race, and you thought you had broken in those new Asics you purchased a month ago. Now, you are beginning to feel a blister form on the side of your right pinky toe, and it has caused you to shift your weight and how you roll your foot, to reduce the amount of rubbage occuring on your foot.

So, in both of these scenarios, what is your mindset focused on? It is likely not on your breathing techniques, or what you've worked so hard on during practice, yet your mindset has likely shifted onto your stressors. Your to-do-list and your blister that is growing larger by the minute.

During the process of focusing on your stressors, you are exhausting your energy on the wrong things. Afterall, the purpose to perform in the gym, at sport practice, or even at work and in life, is to do just, that. To be successful. To accomplish something. And, it gives you a sense of power in your life. Being productive allows you to feel successful. And the cycle repeats.

Identify and Change

Identify what self-talk (ST) can do for anyone. Accordingly, it increases improved motor learning, it can enhance execution and automatic behavior. The cognitive process is influenced by attention control and attention focus and aids in decision making (thus, successfully placing in a road race or marathon) which can help athletes react in stressful situations (also known as stimuli). And, as mentioned ST has improved the quality of mood (anger or sadness), anxiety, and often, depression.

Studies have pulled age groups from 13-23, both male and females from various sports, all athletes engaged in academic studies, and practiced ST for about 1-3 sessions per week ranging in 20 min-60 min each practice, for a total of 1-8 weeks (depending on short-long-term). Results indicated a strengthening in the areas listed above, with a reduced percentage of negative impacts. Although studies vary, it is important to identify that ST can increase one's ability to change negative impacts on performance, and minimize NST from hindering the process. Identify is the key word here.

The process of change results from intervention. This process can start with a series of questions like: What is ST, how do I use ST, how do I improve my attention or focus back to what I am doing, how do I regulate my emotions and mood, and how do I adjust my motivation back to my discipline?

In the process of asking questions, you must then be able to answer them. This is practiced by regulating patterns. Breathing techniques and simple relaxation methods can be implemented into the process of identifying.

Steps to follow and record: Recognize ST and NST

-Learn ST

-Identify words and phrases that you are using in NST (used several times in the past)

-Form and idea of what ST should be for you

-Identify NST during physical performance

-Identify movement deficits during stress or NST


-ST during performance- Keep in mind this is (PST)

-Strengthen ST by practicing several times a day

-Interfere NST by implementing ST phrases and words

-Record how long NST occurs in 1 period before you interfere

-Recognize the influence of ST on attention and cognition (the process of recognizing and applying skills)

-Regulate breathing control and stress free patterns

-Self appraisal during negative and positive physical performance.

-Limit the amount of time you allow yourself to sit and think after a non-successful performance, and while resting, allow yourself to implement ST immediately by detouring thought processes like:

"I did horrible" to "I worked my butt off"

"I shouldn't have..." to "I am proud that I did..."

"I'm concerned that I won't perform better next time" to "I am confident (ST word: positive affirmation) when under pressure"

Altogether, humans talk. We talk to ourselves in a way that can be positive and encouraging, meanwhile we can be our harshest critics! The ST that we engage in can be either overt or covert, but nevertheless, finding a way to omit NST immediately will help encourage a growth mindset and alter successful production to occur. Sure, therapist recognize that NST can be a good thing, like I mentioned, the word "identify" is a great tool to have, yet, NST can be destructive if one does not understand how to alter its course of action.

The process of ST must come from understanding. When the human brain has already formed an opinion, the process in which someone interferes with NST can be redundant. Scientist continue their studies to understand the mental process that identifies opinions and decision making.

Think of it like this:

When I say to my athlete, "You did a great job in that race!" They hear that I am proud of them, regardless of the outcome, and if they received this information before forming their opinion, they will likely process it and know they did good.

When you apply ST and tell yourself "Good job in that race" you are thereby telling yourself that you did good regardless of the outcome, and if you receive the message, you will be proud of yourself.


what if you tell yourself when crossing the finish line, "I did a horrible job" and you receive that message and continue to ponder on it. Meanwhile, your coach approaches you and says, "I am proud of you for your hard work and you did a great job, regardless of the outcome!" The communication is likely to be redundant. You have already signaled your brain to think, negative.

Although ST is a form of communication, the idea that you are aware of your feelings, emotions, and responses, can help you identify how to grow and change occurrences and how you perform from the changed process. ST is something that researchers have begun to focus attention among in sports and fitness, and as research expands on the positivity that ST can bring to all individuals. As we continue to work in this area, remember that you can implement ST even out of sports and fitness. This process can be easily applied the same way while at work, at your child's sport game, at home, in school, and much more. If you desire to know more about ST and how to practice it, send us an email request further information and we will be glad to further assist you in the process.

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