The Coach in Your Head: How to Get Better at Self-Talk

Self talk is the world’s most mysterious language. We all do it constantly — you know, that whisper that comes into your head at key moments, the one that says, okay, take a deep breath… keep your weight on the balls of your feet… now go!  — but it happens mostly unconsciously, and nobody talks about it.

Which is strange, because when it comes to skills, self talk is a massively useful tool. For example, studies show that skilled athletes tend to self-talk more often, and in a more planned and consistent manner (less-skilled athletes tend merely to react). Sprinters who self-talk run faster. Good self talk functions like an early-warning radar system, helping us to identify key moves and navigate problems. Done well, it’s like having a coach inside your head.

But here’s the question: if self talk is a good thing, how do we get better at it? Is it possible to teach it, the same way you’d learn any language?  With that in mind, here are a few tips — some from experiments, some from my observations.

1) Keep it short and chunky. Good self talk is never chatty or complicated. It divides the skill into its key moves, and uses those as clear cues. For example, with a golf swing:

  • Say this: “Smooth arms, still head.”
  • Not this: “Okay, let’s keep the takeaway smooth, relax your posture, make sure to keep your head still through the backswing.”

2) Make it vivid. The more vivid the image, the easier it is to remember, and to do. For example, with a violin player working on posture:

  • Say this: “Stand like a tree.”
  • Not this: “Make sure you stand up straight.”

3) Keep it positive. Don’t focus on what you want to avoid, but on what you want to accomplish. For example, for a soccer player practicing penalty kicks:

  • Say this: “Keep tempo; hit it clean.”
  • Not this: “Don’t rush the shot, don’t get under the ball.”

Finally, and maybe most usefully, fluent self-talkers don’t just talk to themselves during their performance; they also do it before and after. Self talk is like a game tape: you use it to preview what’s going to happen, and then afterwards you use it again to walk through what happened, and figure out how you might do it better the next time.