Talk Your Way to the Top: Developing the Mental Skill of Performance Enhancing Self-Talk [ARTICLE]

Talk Your Way to the Top: Developing the Mental Skill of Performance Enhancing Self-Talk
By: Derek R. Marr, Ph.D.

Originally Published in: Techniques Magazine

Provided by: USTFCCCA

Student-athletes continually engage in conversation throughout the course of their days. These conversations include telling jokes with their friends around lunch tables, discussions about their upcoming papers and exams in their academic courses, and talking about the upcoming practices with their teammates. Some of these conversations will increase their enjoyment, others are influential in a student-athlete's life and may have an impact on their performance once the gun goes off on race day. However, there is one conversation that is the most impactful conversation that a student-athlete will ever have. This conversation is not with the coach, a parent, or a teammate. This conversation is with themselves. No, these athletes are not crazy. The internal dialog a student-athlete engages in during their performances is the most important conversation they will ever have related to their performance.

"Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you are right." - Henry Ford

This simple yet powerful quote summarizes the impact and potential an athlete's internal dialog can have on their performance. Henry Ford is not a track and field coach or athlete, instead he is one of the most successful individuals in history. This quote illuminates that our internal conversation, our thoughts, can support, motivate, and instruct ourselves toward success or be the limiting factor in this pursuit.

When specifically applying the meaning of this quote to distance running there are countless examples that coaches and athletes share to provide a narrative to illustrate this concept. These stories highlight successful performances of "mind over matter" or cautionary tales of the "weak-minded" that underperformed. Walk around any high school cross-country meet and there will be sayings and quotes that summarize these tales printed on the back of team sweatshirts to remind the athletes on race day of these important lessons.

Likely the most recognizable of these inspirational figures is Steve Prefontaine. Of his many memorable quotes there is one that you likely have not read on the back of a high school sweatshirt which provides insight into his internal dialog during competition. In 1974 Prefontaine competed against Frank Shorter in an epic dual over 3-miles in the Heyward Restoration Meet. Shorter opened a lead in the final quarter mile on Prefontaine at the legendary Oregon track while running under American Record pace. Prefontaine rallied late, catching and eventually passing shorter with 80m to go, finishing in a new American Record. A friend on the infield after the race asked Pre, "what happened out there? I thought you slowed down." Pre's candid response offers a rare glimpse of the internal dialog of an elite athlete during the most stressful parts of a record setting distance race (Jordan, 1997):

"Yeah, I almost let him win. I was just thinking it wasn't that big a deal. Then, I don't know, something inside of me just said, 'Hey, wait a minute, I want to beat him,' and I just took off!"

These post race statements may sound familiar to coaches and athletes that have

found themselves or their athletes in similar race situations. The situation (environment) can be suggestive to athletes and affect their thoughts and influence their behaviors, but ultimately it is the athlete who controls their own behavior (performance). This concept is described by the Sport Specific Self-Talk Model (Van Raalte, Vincent & Brewer, 2015) which explains that contextual factors such as environment affect athletes performance. In distance running the environment that can influence our thoughts can be external or internal to an athletes. The external environment can be the weather (hot, cold, rain, snow), the course (hilly, flat), the footing (solid, loose), the crowd as was the case for Prefontaine in his final lap in the previous example (in support or against), the competitors (being caught, pulling away or being passed), or the time on the clock (on pace or off pace). The internal environment is related to the athlete's sensations and perceptions within ones body. This includes muscle fatigue, burning sensation in the legs from acidosis, increased respiration, and sweating. Ideally our athletes will find themselves in an environment that facilitates the formation of thoughts that aid in performance. However, we know that many times athletes are required to perform on days in which the external environment is less than desirable. On top of that many times our athletes internal environment may suggest that their goal or objective for the race is unlikely to occur. In these cases do our athletes give up? Do we as coaches tell them to give in to the suggestions of their internal and external environment?

No, as Prefontaine said to start the quote, "I almost let him win." By phrasing the statement as "let" he implies that he would have been consciously giving into his environment which found him down by 10 meters to Frank Shorter with a lap to go in a 3-mile race. His entire environment was not stacked against him. He did have the roar of the home track crowd supporting him as he regained his control over his thoughts and had the internal conversation with himself of, "I want to beat him."


Current endurance sport research is providing evidence in support of this narrative. Over the last two decades many in the endurance community have been aware of Dr. Tim Nokes and his Central Governor Model. In this model Noakes proposes that the central nervous system uses feedback from different physiological systems and regulates performance in order to ensure that biological harm does not occur during endurance exercise. Further, fatigue is proposed to be a result of the conscious perception and interpretation of subconscious regulatory process in the brain that effects pacing of endurance exercise (Noakes, 2007; Noakes, Gibson, Lambert, 2005).

The concept that the limiting factor in endurance performance is not physiological failure has continued in recent research by Samuele Marcora and colleagues (Marcora, Bosio & Morree, 2008; Marcora, Staiano & Manning, 2009; Marcora, Saiano, 2010; Marcora, 2010; Blanchfield, Hardy, Morree, Staniano & Marcora, 2013). This model differs from the Central Governor Model in its explanation of the control of performance limitation. The Psychobiological Model of endurance performance puts forward the idea that the limiting factor in endurance performance is ultimately when an athlete consciously decides to terminate the exercise (Marcora, 2013). In common terms this is the moment when an athlete "gives up" on their goal or objective. When this "giving up" occurs is the difference between who wins and who looses, who makes the time standard and who does not, or who achieves a personal record and who falls short. If the limitation to endurance performance is psychological then what mental skills can coaches teach and athletes develop to delay "giving up," and to "push through" to "perform their best."

The answer to this is in another theoretical model. The Sport Specific Self-Talk Model (Van Raatle et al., 2015) explains that personal factors (personality, genetic factors, emotional intelligence, ect.), contextual factors (environment, competition, etc.) and self-talk are mediated through conscious (system 2) and subconscious thoughts (system 1) and affect the athlete's behavior (performance). An athlete that I once worked with stated that when she performs her best she doesn't think when an athlete comes on her shoulder late in a race she just reacts and takes off. This model explains this behavior as being initiated through our sub-conscious thoughts (system 1) which is automatic, fast and desired to improve athletes performance in this situation. Unfortunately sub-conscious thoughts are difficult to modify because they take place below our level of awareness (Van Raalte et al., 2015). However, practicing self-talk has been found to improve performance (Hatzigeorgiadis et al., 2011) and it is suggested that practicing conscious self-talk (system 2) could shift the self-talk to our athlete's sub-conscious (system 1) (Van Raalte et al., 2015).

Knowing that the limitation to our performance lies in when we eventually psychologically "give up" we can apply what we have learned from the Sport Specific Self-Talk Model by training what we have the most control over. We have little or no control over our athletes' personal char-acteristic or contextual factors but we can influence self-talk through the practice of mental skills training. When working with distance runners mental performance coaches or distance coaches can prepare their athletes by developing performance enhancing affirmations - or strong state-ments that aid in the athletes performance. The following is a system that I developed while working with distance runners as a mental performance consultant at the University of Missouri and Southern Methodist University. Although there are additional components to the entire mental training program the following mental skill development program can be utilized by mental performance consultants and coaches to improve self-talk and performance for their endurance athletes.


There are two objectives to this part of the self-talk development process. 1) Initiate development of self-awareness of the athlete's internal dialog. 2) Facilitate the athlete's development of affirmations that will aid in the athlete's performance.

Before addressing the two objectives of this part it is imperative that the athlete understands and accepts two foundational concepts that will allow the development of performance enhancing self-talk and many other mental skills. First, an athlete has the ability to think one discrete conscious thought at a time. An athlete may disagree with this concept. Many people believe that they are exceptional at multitasking or even suffer from attention deficit disorder that makes it impossible for them to think only one thought. A person may be able to think many thoughts in rapid succession or even think in depth about a small number of thoughts over a short period of time. However, all athletes have the ability to think one discrete conscious thought at a time.

The second foundational understanding builds on the fact that we can think one thought at a time and allows for us to build mental skills. This concept is that we choose our thoughts. As discussed earlier the environment, our situation, may suggest or influence our thoughts however ultimately we choose our one discrete conscious thought. Through understanding this concept it empowers the athlete with the ability to choose thoughts that are productive toward their goal or objective. Once an athlete understands and accepts these foundational concepts they can begin developing the mental skill of performance enhancing self-talk.


Part 1: Developing Self-Awareness of Self-Talk

The development of performance enhancing self-talk begins with an analysis of the athlete's current internal dialog. Semi-structured interview questions assist the coach or mental performance consultant in facilitating the athlete's self-awareness of their internal dialog. I differentiate my interview schedule based upon the athlete that I am working with in terms of recent performances; an example script is provided for two types of athletes, recently successful athletes and the athlete that is struggling:

Recently Successful Athlete:

Describe to me what you have been thinking about during your last race?

• What are you thinking about the 24-48 hours before the competition?

• During Warm-up what are you thinking about?

• When standing at the line what are you doing and what are you thinking about?

• Once the gun goes off and during the beginning of the race what is your internal conversation?

• When it is the point of the race when your body begins to hurt what are your thoughts?

• In the later stages of the race, when you know that you will make it to the finish line and the only question is how fast will you get there what is your internal dialog?

During your hard workouts what are you thinking about?

• What is the environment like at practice that is allowing you to be successful? (Who and how many people are you running with, how excited are you for your workouts, what is the objective of your practices)

Recently Struggling Athlete:

What is the best race you have ever ran? Tell me in detail everything about that race?

• What were you thinking about during that race?

• When the race was difficult, when you were hurting, when you had competition what went through your mind and how did you physically respond?

• What were you thinking about leading up to that race?

Describe to me what you have been thinking about during your last race?

• What are you thinking about the 24-48 hours before the competition?

• During Warm-up what are you thinking about?

• When standing at the line what are you doing and what are you thinking about?

• Once the gun goes off and during the beginning of the race what is your internal conversation?

• When it is the point of the race when your body begins to hurt what are your thoughts?

• In the later stages of the race, when you know that you will make it to the finish line and the only question is how fast will you get there what is your internal dialog?

How successful have you been during hard workouts?

• If you have been successful what do you think is the difference between work-outs and races? What are thinking about during these workouts?

This activity facilitates the athlete's development of self-awareness related to their thoughts during workouts and races. It also assists the coach or mental performance consultant in continuing the conversation and activity for achieving the second objective of the session.

Part 2: Developing Performance Enhancing Affirmations

The second activity is facilitating the athlete's development of affirmations that aid in their performance. This activity engages the athlete by having them write with a pencil on a blank sheet of paper affirmations that will aid their performance. It is important that the coach or mental performance consultant does not lead the athlete in this process as the affirmations will be more impactful if they emerge from the athlete in their own words. Again, a semi-structured interview schedule is helpful to facilitate this activity. Regardless of the athletes recent success the following three prompts will facilitate the formation of performance enhancing affirmations. Instruct the athlete to write down a minimum of five affirmations for each of the prompts.

Affirmation Development Activity Prompts:

• Write down five strong positive statements about yourself. (They do not have to be running specific)

• Write down five statements related to your strengths as a person in general and as a runner.

• Write down five statements related to challenges that when you overcome will lead to your success.

This is a slow process as conversation related to each affirmation is necessary for the athlete in many cases to understand its importance and the impact it will have on their future performances. Many times athlete that have had success recently will move rather quickly through this activity. It is important to remind them that developing an understanding of what is working for them will aid in their future performances and continued success. For these athletes this may be a list of "what is working" to gently remind them to continue this internal conversation. For athletes that are struggling they may have difficulty coming up with positive statements about themselves. At times they may need additional probing questions to get their pencil moving about themselves in a positive context.

This tangible list that is created can continue the self-talk development outside of this session. Athletes should be instructed to take the list with them and place it somewhere that they will see it multiple times everyday. This may be a planner, on a desk, taped to a bathroom mirror or they can reproduce it digitally to be set as a back screen on a cell phone. Having one meeting about this topic can help an athlete, however if it is read over multiple times a day it can begin the process of reprogramming the athletes self-talk. Additionally, strongly encourage the athlete to read the list before the next hard workout and begin to consciously integrate the statements into the stressful moments in practice. Following that workout instruct the athlete to revisit the list, star or highlight the statements that the athlete finds helpful to their performance, erase any statements that do not help, and add any statements that work that are not present on the list. This process creates a "living document" that continually evolves and aids the athlete in achieving their best performance.

Continuing the Development of Performance Enhancing Self-Talk:

The mental skill development activity described can be used as a stand-alone method to facilitate performance enhancing self-talk that will benefit successful and struggling athletes. For optimum benefit this mental skill can be integrated into a comprehensive mental training program consisting of race planning, concentration routines, arousal control routines, visualization and other mental skills to prepare the athlete to perform their best in competition.


Blanchfield, A. W, Hardy, J., de Morree, H. M, Staiano, W, & Marcora, S. M (2014). Talking yourself out of exhaustion: the effects of self-talk on endurance performance. Journal of Medicine Science, Sports, and Exercise, 46, 998-1007.

Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Galanis, E., & Theodorakis, Y. (2011). Self-talk and sport performance: a meta-analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 354- 362.

Jordan, T. (1997). Pre: The story if America's greatest running legend, Steve Prefontaine (2nd ed., pp. 107-108). Emmaus, PA: Royale Press, Inc.

Marcora, S. M, Bosio, A., & de Morree, H. M (2008). Locomotor muscle fatigue increases cardiorespiratoty responses and reduces performance during intense cycling exercise independently from metabolic stress. American Journal of Regulatory Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 294, 874-883.

Marcora, S. M, Staiano, W, & Manning, V. (2009). Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology, 106, 857-864.

Marcora, S. M, & Staiano, W. (2010). The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: mind over muscle?. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 109(4), 763-770.

Marcora, S. (2010). Perception of Effort. In E. B. Goldstein (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Perception (pp. 380-383). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.

Noakes, T., Gibson, A., & Lambert, E. (2004). From catastrophe to complexity: A novel model of integrative central neural regulation of effort and fatigue during exercise in humans. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 38(4), 511-514. doi:10.11361bjsm.2003.009860

Noakes, T. D. (2007). The central governor model of exercise regulation applied to the marathon. Sports Medicine, 37(4-5), 374-377. doi:10.2165100007256- 200737040-00026

Van Raalte, J. L., Vincent, A., & Brewer, B. W. (2016). Self-Talk: Review and sport-specific model. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 22, 139-148.

Derek Marr is a lecturer at Southern Methodist University in the Sport Performance Leadership concentration and a mental performance consultant with the SMU Track & Field / Cross Country programs. He is a former volunteer assistant coach Baylor University and Head Cross Country Coach at Northwood University.


1 Review
Eric Pritchard
Hazlet, NJ
Mental aspect huge!

The mental part of the sport is a huge key to building success with our athletes. Thanks for the research.

February 2017

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22 Feb 2017

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