Nearly three dozen studies have analyzed sports “self-talk,” in which athletes tell themselves variants of “I’ve got this!” or “I can beat this guy!” Sports psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis of the University of Thessaly in Greece and his colleagues found that the strategy doesn’t always work.
In general, self-talk worked better for fine motor movements such as those involving the fingers, as in archery, rather than for gross motor skills using the large muscles of the legs and arms, as in track. And what the scientists call instructional self-talk was more effective than motivational self-talk: “raise the elbow,” “keep the head down,” or “follow through” rather than pep talk like “I can do it!”
The reason, they suggested in a 2011 paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science, is that instructional self-talk can sharpen focus on, say, what that elbow is supposed to be doing in archery. It can increase confidence — “I know what movements are crucial to nail this” — and trigger the automatic brain program that executes the task.
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