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​Motivational self-talk for athletes – 6 tips to get it right

Posted by James Eacott on

Pro athletes know the power of motivational self-talk, but most amateurs don’t practice it. There's solid science behind the benefits and big gains to be had - here are six tips to get it right

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Evidence for motivational self-talk

In the same way smiling improves performance, self-talk is a big performance enhancer many still don’t use to its full potential. On smiling, multiple Ironman world champ and 33Fuel team member Chrissie Wellington says, “It does actually give me a boost to smile…I think it [smiling] was a powerful weapon in my armoury.”

Try it. Next time you’re pushing through a hard session, force a smile. Rate of perceived effort (RPE) will reduce and your mind will turn more positive, all with zero extra fitness required. Boom.

Our good pal Chrissie is a big believer in using mind games for an extra edge

Science shows motivational self-talk works

Traditionally a difficult variable to measure in a lab, more and more studies are doing just that. And they’re all producing the same results: the power of the mind on endurance performance is significant.

In his terrific book Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, Alex Hutchinson delves into not only how physiologically remarkable the human body is when it comes to endurance, but also how the right mindset can bring extraordinary gains.

In his book, Hutchinson recounts one fascinating experiment by Samuele Marcora. Cyclists rode at a range of efforts including a time to exhaustion (TTE) test. During the various tests, participants were given non-conscious cues: an image of either a happy or sad face was flashed on a wall in front of them so quick they couldn’t ‘see’ them. Indeed, in post-test conversations, participants recall merely looking at a blank wall for the entire duration of the test.

Yet RPE and TTE was measured and the results were conclusive: those whose subconscious minds saw a happy face pushed harder and longer than those who were shown a sad face.

Think happy, even without knowing it, and you'll go faster. 

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To reach your potential, motivational self-talk is a gain you don’t want to ignore

A team from the University of Northumbria published results in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance demonstrating “M-ST [motivational self-talk] improved endurance performance and enabled a higher power output.”

Another article put 24 cyclists through a TTE test and found “psychobiological interventions designed to specifically target favourable changes in the perception of effort are beneficial to endurance performance.

Samuele Marcora completed another study back in 2013 highlighting the impact of positive self-talk on performance. After a two week self-talk intervention, endurance test performance was boosted by as much as 18% and showed that self-talk “significantly reduces RPE and enhances endurance performance.

Another study, this time testing the impact of positive self-talk on cognitive performance found “those who used positive self-talk performed significantly better than those who used negative/mixed self-talk.

33fuel Motivational self-talk for athletes - cycling endurance

Cycling endurance is boosted with motivational self-talk

Motivational self-talk – 6 tips to get it right

  1. Leave the negatives behind. After a training session or race that didn’t go as planned (or hoped), don’t linger on the negatives. Of course, recognise them so you’re able to make changes going forward, but focus on the positives. Speak aloud the positives that came from the experience
  2. How you speak to yourself mattersSpeak in the second person. Rather than “I can do this”, say “You can do this”. Distancing yourself from the exertion you’re currently feeling reduces RPE and increases endurance.
  3. Employ a growth mindset. Use setbacks as an opportunity to learn and grow. Every experience – particularly negative ones – provide an opportunity to develop as an athlete
  4. Choose a mantra. Mantras are sentences that resonate with you and can be spoken aloud or in your head in moments of hardship. “Come on, you can do this”, “You’ve got this, you’re strong”, “Go go go, squeeze a little more” all reduce RPE and increase endurance. Have half a dozen up your sleeve for those tough moments
  5. Talk about process. When you’re in the hurt locker, take an objective view and focus motivational self-talk on the process. What can you do in the immediacy to improve your performance and affect the outcome?
  6. Think about the physiology. Tell yourself the benefit this session is bringing. Are you building capillary density? Nudging your lactate threshold ceiling? Building muscular endurance? Like focusing on the process, telling yourself what you’re improving physiologically by being in this uncomfortable space provides good distraction

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