A few years ago, I gave a talk on the brain’s role in physical limits to a group of star prospects from my hometown baseball club, the Toronto Blue Jays. One of the topics I discussed was self-talk, which in the endurance world is basically the idea that telling yourself “You can do this!” will lead to better outcomes than “I suck and should give up.” Afterwards, a mental skills coach from the team’s vaunted High Performance Department pointed out something obvious: psyching yourself up so that you’re ready to chew nails and spit fire doesn’t necessarily help you connect with a 90-mile-per-hour fastball.
Self-talk, it turns out, is a much broader and more nuanced phenomenon than just telling yourself that you can do it. According to one estimate, we spend about a quarter of our waking hours talking to ourselves, so it’s not surprising that the purposes of that inner monologue can vary. In sports, one of the key distinctions is between motivational (you can do it!) and instructional (keep your eye on the ball!) self-talk.
That distinction is at the heart of a new study led by Johanne Nedergaard of Aarhus University in Denmark, published in Consciousness and Cognition, that compares self-talk in runners and badminton players. There are a bunch of interesting insights, but perhaps the most important is this: if you’re a relentless self-critic, you’re not alone.
The first part of the study was a questionnaire filled out by 165 runners and 105 badminton players, which involved choosing which statements from a long list corresponded to self-talk they experienced or used in their most recent competition or training. Unlike some of the previous self-talk research I’ve written about, there was no intervention here to teach them how to do it better. This was simply an observation of the type of spontaneous inner monologue the athletes used on their own. Consistent with previous studies, about 85 percent of the respondents said they use self-talk.
The researchers wanted to figure out whether a computer could use machine learning to tell the difference between runners and badminton players based only on the content of their self-talk. Sure enough, it was possible. Here’s a list of some of the questions, showing which ones were characteristic of the runners (extending to the right) compared to the badminton players (to the left):
It’s pretty funny that by far the dominant thought among runners is “What will I do later today?” This suggests that most of the runners were responding on the basis of their most recent training run, as opposed to a race where their thoughts would likely wander less.
The next running-specific entries on the list are “I want to quit,” “I can’t keep going,” and “I’m not going to make it”—all sentiments that are certainly familiar to me, and I suspect to many other runners. But “I feel strong” and “I can make it” are almost equal in importance. Running is a never-ending battle between confidence and self-doubt, which is why motivational self-talk has the potential to help.
The thoughts most specific to badminton players were also pretty negative: “I’m going to lose,” “I’m doing it wrong again,” and “What will others think of my poor performance?” Badminton is a zero-sum game, with exactly the same number of winners as losers, so it’s notable that “I’m going to lose” is the top of the list while “I’m going to win” doesn’t even show up. It suggests we tend to be more pessimistic than we should be.
More generally, the badminton players’ self-talk focuses more on controlling worry and anxiety, and on procedural cues like “Concentrate” and “Relax.” Even without specific training, the self-talk patterns of runners and badminton players are consistent with the distinction between motivational and instructional self-talk.
The second part of the study involved another questionnaire, this time with 291 half-marathoners and marathoners, to dig into the nuances of how they used self-talk. One question was how self-talk differed when they were pushing themselves versus going easy. The main finding: the harder you’re pushing, the more likely your self-talk is to be shorter, more positive, more repetitive, and more focused on the task of running.
They also looked for links between self-talk and personal best times for half-marathon and marathon, using the times as a proxy for skill level. (That proxy is flawed, since it’s entirely possible to be experienced and slow or inexperienced and fast, but it’s broadly true at a population level.) There has been a lot of research over the years exploring the differences between novices and experts, with the general view being that novices benefit more from self-talk than experts. The comparison Nedergaard draws is to kids talking themselves through a newly learned skill; the trajectory proposed by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky a century ago is that you progress from external instructions from parents or teachers to overt self-instruction and finally to inner speech.
Sure enough, there were clear differences between faster and slower runners. Interestingly, the slower athletes tended to use shorter, more positive, and more repetitive self-talk—precisely the same pattern that, in the overall sample, characterized harder efforts rather than easier efforts. Nedergaard’s interpretation is that more experienced runners are able to zone out during easy training runs, whereas novice runners have to deploy the heavy self-talk artillery pretty much all the time to get through their runs.
A study like this can’t tell us whether changing those self-talk patterns would lead to better performances (though several previous studies do suggest that is indeed the case). But it does reaffirm what the Blue Jays sports psychologist told me. As Nedergaard put it in a Twitter thread summarizing her results, self-talk techniques “need to be tailored to the situation: whether you’re in competition or practice, an expert or a novice, doing fine-motor or endurance sport.”
And it also normalizes the thoughts that, as it turns out, many of us have. If you’re midway through a race thinking “I want to quit” and “I can’t keep going,” that’s probably not a good thing. If you can figure out how to change that negative inner monologue, you should do so. But in the meantime, take comfort from the fact that everyone around you is probably thinking the same thing.
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