Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 2011, 33, 666-687
© 2011 Human Kinetics, Inc.
David Tod and Emily Oliver are with Sport and Exercise Science, Aberystwyth University, Aberystwyth,
Ceredigion, United Kingdom. James Hardy is with the Institute for Psychology of Elite Performance,
Bangor University, Bangor, United Kingdom.
Effects of Self-Talk: A Systematic Review
David Tod,1 James Hardy,2 and Emily Oliver1
1Aberystwyth University, Aberystwyth; 2Bangor University
This article presents a systematic review of the literature examining the relation-
ship between self-talk and performance. “Second-generation questions” regarding
potential mediators and moderators of the self-talk–performance relationship were
also examined. A total of 47 studies were analyzed. Results indicated benecial
effects of positive, instructional, and motivational self-talk for performance. Some-
what surprisingly, two evidence-based challenges to popular current viewpoints on
self-talk emerged. First, negative self-talk did not impede performance. Second,
there was inconsistent evidence for the differential effects of instructional and
motivational self-talk based on task characteristics. Results from the mediation-
based analysis indicate that cognitive and behavioral factors had the most consistent
relationships with self-talk. The ndings are discussed in the context of recent
theoretical advances, and the article includes recommendations for future research
(e.g., the use of designs allowing the testing of meditational hypotheses) and for
current applied practice (e.g., avoiding the use of thought-stopping techniques).
Keywords: psychological skills training, mental preparation, applied sport psy-
Athletes and coaches believe that self-talk is an intervention that enhances
sporting performance and various psychological states, such as condence (Vargas-
Tonsing, Myers, & Feltz, 2004; Wang, Huddleston, & Peng, 2003). In addition,
many sport psychologists promulgate the benets athletes and coaches can expect
from using self-talk interventions. There is disagreement, however, among sport
psychology researchers regarding the data on which to advise sport participants. For
example, some investigators argue there is limited evidence that self-talk enhances
competitive sporting performance (Gardner & Moore, 2006; Martin, Vause, &
Schwartzman, 2005). One historical reason for the lack of evidence is that self-talk
has not been subject to extensive empirical examination. The situation has evolved
somewhat in the last 15 years, and researchers have expended considerable effort
investigating the self-talk and performance relationship. It has only been recently
that sufcient research has accumulated to allow investigators to review the empiri-
cal literature regarding self-talk (e.g., J. Hardy, 2006).
Effects of Self-Talk 667
The present review is timely and contributes to knowledge for at least three rea-
sons. First, a number of studies have appeared since the rst peer-reviewed synthesis
of the self-talk literature (J. Hardy, 2006), and an analysis of these investigations
can allow reviewers to make more meaningful knowledge contributions, particu-
larly within a relatively underdeveloped aspect of sports psychology. Second, the
previously published self-talk literature review did not critically examine the self-
talk and performance relationship, but focused on conceptual issues pertaining to
self-talk (J. Hardy, 2006). Third, to date, both peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed
self-talk reviews and coaching articles have focused primarily on what might be
termed “rst-generation questions” (cf. Higgins, 1999, p. 1313) or the effect self-
talk interventions have on performance. Reviewers have seldom sought answers
to “second-generation questions”: the examination of the mediators underlying
(i.e., how does self-talk inuence performance?) or moderators inuencing (i.e.,
which type of self-talk is most effective?) the effect of self-talk on performance.
Such a focus would have both theoretical and applied value, providing athletes and
coaches with advice on optimizing their use of self-talk. Consequently, a summary
of the available literature examining the self-talk–performance relationship that also
generates initial mediator- and moderator-related information ought to stimulate
future investigations with strong theoretical and applied implications.
Having identied the ways that an evaluation of the literature might contribute
to knowledge, a relevant issue is the determination of a suitable review method-
ology. To date, only narrative self-talk reviews have been published. With such
approaches, clear inclusion and exclusion criteria are not always present, and in
addition, the possibility of reviewer bias is increased. One way to minimize bias is
to adopt systematic and more objective ways of reviewing literature. As a further
advantage, systematic and objective approaches can allow authors to answer more
complex and theory-driven questions beyond those focused on self-talk’s inuence
on motor skill execution. Among the methods available, the systematic review and
the meta-analysis are the two most common approaches. The systematic review
is a methodology wherein investigators collate studies that t specic eligibility
criteria to answer research questions. Authors use transparent systematic methods
to minimize bias and provide more reliable ndings compared with narrative
approaches. Key characteristics include (a) clearly stated objectives with dened
eligibility criteria, (b) transparent replicable methodology, (c) systematic attempts
to identify studies meeting the eligibility criteria, (d) assessment of research, and
(e) systematic presentation and synthesis of the ndings (Higgins & Green, 2009).
In addition to these characteristics, a meta-analytic approach utilizes a denitive
methodology, in which previous studies’ ndings are converted to a standard metric
(i.e., effect size) that permits the use of statistical tests to analyze results (Thomas,
Nelson, & Silverman, 2005).
Although a meta-analysis may generate very precise information regarding
effects, this technique is not suitable for all study designs and literatures. For
example, within the self-talk literature, single-subject designs have been popular.
Their reliance, however, on qualitative interpretation negates the generation of an
effect size, thus preventing their inclusion in a meta-analysis. An additional pertinent
feature of the present self-talk empirical literature is its relative underdevelop-
ment. From a meta-analytic perspective, the use of a small number of studies can
have adverse effects on statistical power (Shadish & Sweeney, 1991). Given the
668 Tod, Hardy, and Oliver
pertinence of second-generation research questions to the present investigation,
which have received limited attention from self-talk researchers, such a situation
was likely to be compounded. Consequently, a systematic review was adopted as
the methodology of choice.
One criticism of rst generation–oriented research is that results indicate little
about when, where, why, and how interventions may work (Shadish & Sweeney,
1991). These questions pertain to the role of mediating variables, which might
help explain the effect of self-talk on performance-related outcomes, as well as
moderating variables, which might identify constraints as to when those effects
will hold. Previous researchers (e.g., J. Hardy, Oliver, & Tod, 2009) have argued
that to determine meaningfully whether self-talk affects performance it is necessary
to consider a number of moderating factors. For example, it may be that certain
types of self-talk are effective and others are not, or that self-talk works for some
types of athletes and not others.
Potential Moderators of the Relationship
Between Self-Talk and Performance
In the present review, we examined the evidence concerning two variables, athlete
skill level and self-talk type, with the potential to moderate the self-talk–perfor-
mance relationship. Moderators inuence relationships (in the present case, the
self-talk–performance relationship) by altering the direction (e.g., positive or
negative effect) and/or by varying the magnitude/strength. This may then affect the
consistency/robustness of this relationship within the sampled literature. Although
it is important to note that we are not directly testing whether a moderating effect
exists, examining the overall direction and consistency of ndings for different
categories or levels of potential moderators generates meaningful albeit initial
information concerning the presence of a moderating effect.
Athlete level and skill type were selected as moderators because there was
descriptive evidence suggesting they may inuence self-talk intervention effective-
ness as far as performance is concerned (e.g., Mahoney & Avener, 1977). Moreover,
it was possible to formulate theoretically grounded rationale for their potential
moderating role. For instance, descriptive studies have highlighted differences in the
use of self-talk between elite and nonelite, and between successful and unsuccess-
ful athletes (e.g., Highlen & Bennett, 1983), and it has been theorized that during
early stages of learning, novices use more explicit instruction and talk themselves
through the phases of a movement (Fitts & Posner, 1967). During later stages of
learning, individuals engage in less cognitive activity and their performances are
more automatic. As such, although the moderating role of skill level has not been
empirically assessed, novice athletes may benet more frequently from the use of
self-talk as compared with their skilled counterparts.
There is also a growing body of research indicating that the type of self-talk
used is important in terms of performance outcomes. By and large researchers
have conceptualized self-talk as either positive or negative, or instructional or
motivational in nature. Positive self-talk has predominantly been hypothesized to
aid performance whereas negative self-talk has been expected to cause detrimental
performance effects (Zinsser et al., 2010). From another perspective, Theodorakis,
Effects of Self-Talk 669
Weinberg, Natsis, Douma, and Kazakas (2000) argued that the effects of self-talk,
either instructional or motivational, on performance might depend on the type of task
being performed. As the execution of precision-based tasks can be aided through
increased attentional focus on relevant technical components, instructional self-talk,
which focuses on technical, tactical, and/or kinesthetic aspects of movements, is
hypothesized to be more effective than motivational self-talk for the execution of
such tasks. In contrast, motivational self-talk is predicted to be more effective than
its instructional counterpart for the execution of condition-related tasks character-
ized by strength and endurance, as motivational self-talk is used to increase effort,
enhance self-condence, and/or create positive moods. Theodorakis et al. (2000)
reported some support for their task-matching hypothesis, and results from some
subsequent studies have provided additional support for their original predictions
(e.g., water polo; Hatzigeorgiadis et al., 2004).
Potential Mediators of the Relationship
Between Self-Talk and Performance
In addition to examining the research regarding self-talk and performance, and the
conditions that might inuence the consistency and direction of any effect, this
review also considered potential mechanisms that might explain the relationship.
J. Hardy and colleagues’ (2009) recently proposed conceptual framework included
factors they theorized to underpin the self-talk–performance relationship. Adopting
a throughput perspective, the authors argued that self-talk improves motor skill
execution via four possible (cognitive, motivational, behavioral, and affective)
mechanisms. The authors stated that more research was required to develop a cur-
rent understanding of the identied mechanisms’ salience. This was primarily due
to the lack of explicit testing of mediation within the empirical self-talk literature.
By collating the existing ndings where the conceptualized mechanisms have been
examined as dependent not mediating variables, the current study represents an
initial step toward examining the credibility of J. Hardy and colleagues’ conceptual
postulates. The rationale behind these researchers’ proposed mediators is briey
J. Hardy and colleagues (2009) used the term cognitive mechanisms to encom-
pass informational processing and attentional control. Athletes have reported using
self-talk for a variety of attention-based outcomes (e.g., concentration; Chroni,
Perkos, & Theodorakis, 2007), and in addition, experimental studies have indicated
that manipulating self-talk may be a useful adjunct strategy to alter attentional foci
(Bell & Hardy, 2009) and decrease interfering thoughts (Hatzigeorgiadis et al.,
2004). Attention appears to be a potential mediatory mechanism worthy of closer
examination given its strong theoretical and empirical links with performance
(Wulf & Prinz, 2001).
The second self-talk–performance relationship mediator that J. Hardy and
colleagues (2009) proposed represents a motivational theme, with a focus on self-
efcacy (Bandura, 1997) and persistence or long-term goal commitment. Although
self-talk has been conceptualized as an antecedent of self-efcacy, empirical ndings
regarding the effects of self-talk on self-efcacy are equivocal (Landin & Hebert,
1999; Scopp, 2003), which might threaten conclusions regarding self-efcacy’s
670 Tod, Hardy, and Oliver
mediatory role. Self-talk use has also been associated with persistence and subse-
quent performance on a challenging task (Chiu & Alexander, 2000).
Third, J. Hardy and colleagues (2009) suggested behavior as a class of self-
talk–performance mechanisms. Researchers have identied improvements in both
subjectively and objectively assessed technique resulting from self-talk (Anderson,
Vogel, & Albrecht, 1999; Edwards, Tod, & McGuigan, 2008). Furthermore, it
has been proposed that during early phases of skill learning, novices may “talk”
themselves through movements (Coker & Fischman, 2010; Fitts & Posner, 1967).
It is possible that changes in movement patterns or technical execution underlie
any performance improvements as a result of using self-talk.
Lastly, J. Hardy and colleagues (2009) proposed affect as a potential mediator
category. There is a great deal of psychological literature linking cognitive content
and affect (e.g., Beck, 1976; Lazarus, 1991), and in turn, affect and performance
(e.g., Beedie, Terry, & Lane, 2000). The contention that affective variables may
mediate the self-talk–performance relationship is not new (L. Hardy, Jones, &
Gould, 1996), and ndings from intervention studies offer support that self-talk
may inuence anxiety in a sporting context (e.g., Maynard, Warwick-Evans, &
Smith, 1995). The explicit mediating roles of affect, anxiety, or mood, however,
have yet to be examined. A summation of the self-talk–affective states literature
was considered an important initial step toward this goal.
In sum, the purpose of the current study was to review the sports-oriented
experimental self-talk literature employing a transparent systematic approach. The
rst specic aim was to review the evidence concerning whether self-talk inuences
sporting performance. The second specic aim was to review the evidence regard-
ing four types of mediators: cognitive, motivational, behavioral, and affectual. The
third specic aim was to review the evidence regarding two proposed moderators:
athlete skill level and self-talk type. Ultimately, the examination of this literature
might allow sport psychologists to advance their knowledge toward addressing one
of the most commonly cited queries in therapy-based research: “What treatment,
by whom, is most effective for this individual with that specic problem, and under
which set of circumstances?” (Paul, 1967, p. 111).
To obtain articles of interest, a comprehensive search of three sources was con-
ducted: (a) online search of electronic databases such as, SPORTDiscus, PsycINFO,
PsycARTICLES, PubMed, Google Scholar, and Web of Science; (b) manual review
of reference lists within retrieved articles; and (c) manual search of journals, includ-
ing International Journal of Sport Psychology, International Journal of Sport
and Exercise Psychology, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Journal of Sport
Behavior, Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, Journal of Sports Sciences,
Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, and
The Sport Psychologist. Key phrases employed included self-talk, self-statements,
self-verbalizations, mental skills, psychological skills, psychological skills training,
performance, athlete, sport, exercise, and physical activity. Only English language
articles that contained data relevant to self-talk and sport-related activities were
Effects of Self-Talk 671
included in the present review. Studies that examined the effects of self-talk in
combination with other mental skills (e.g., goal setting) and citations that were
abstracts were excluded from our review. Furthermore, papers were excluded if
the type of self-talk or procedure used was unclear.
Retrieved papers were scrutinized using the aforementioned inclusion and exclu-
sion criteria. Once these criteria had been satised, we used procedures similar to
those that Sallis, Prochaska, and Taylor (2000) used to analyze the papers’ content
in a descriptive and semiquantitative review. Each study was listed alphabetically
according to author; however, as independent effects (k) were employed as the
unit of analysis, coding also reected papers that reported multiple studies and/
or effects on multiple dependent variables (e.g., Theodorakis et al., 2000, Study
1; Theodorakis et al., 2000, Study 2). All papers meeting the stated criteria are
indicated in the reference list with an asterisk (*). Data tables were developed to
reect sample characteristics (e.g., sex, age, competitive level), research designs
(e.g., presence of manipulation check, random allocation, random selection), and
the effects of self-talk.
The data tables mentioned above were analyzed to create summary tables presented
in the results section, which involved a number of stages. First, sample and design
characteristics were summarized by a tally count. Second, the effects of self-talk
on performance were examined. In a fashion similar to that of Goodger, Gorely,
Lavallee, and Harwood (2007), for a potential effect of self-talk to be examined, a
k of at least 3 was required to have the variable included as an outcome measure.
When there were an insufcient number of comparisons, theoretically meaningful
and conceptually similar variables were combined together (e.g., cognitive media-
tion mechanism). Consistent with other semiquantitative reviews, the direction
of each effect was subsequently coded as positive (+), negative (–), no effect (0),
or indeterminant/inconsistent (?) if the effect was ambiguous. To more compre-
hensively represent the data, a narrative commentary accompanied each effect.
The summarizing of the research surrounding each consequence was performed
by the calculation of the percentage of support offered by the relevant studies.
We employed Sallis et al.’s (2000) coding system: 0–33% = no effect, 34–59% =
inconsistent or indeterminate effect, 60–100% = positive or negative effect. Third,
potential mediator- and moderator-related research ndings were examined using
the same classication system described here.
Three researchers familiar with the eld of self-talk and with experience at
employing a variety of qualitative analysis techniques coded the data. Through
discussion, a consensus and nal coding of the data were agreed between all three
researchers. This allowed the researchers to form an in-depth appreciation of the
searched literature and ensure that only valid studies were included in the nal
analysis stage. As a result of this procedure, a limited number of initially retrieved
papers were subsequently excluded from the study (see below for a more complete
672 Tod, Hardy, and Oliver
Following the aforementioned search strategy, a number of studies were initially
identied as being potentially relevant for the review. Upon closer inspection of
the reported interventions, however, a variety of concerns emerged regarding their
suitability. For example, a common reason for a study’s exclusion was the incorpora-
tion of supplementary intervention components, such as educational lectures (e.g.,
Howard & Reardon, 1986) or additional mental skills (Tenenbaum et al., 1995).
Another two studies met the inclusion criteria, but either did not employ a design
capable of generating salient data to address the present research questions (Tynes
& McFatter, 1987) or the manipulation check indicated that self-talk groups were
not established (J. Hardy, Hall, Gibbs, & Greenslade, 2005). Descriptive (sample
and design) data from these studies were included in the review, but excluded from
the main performance-oriented analysis. Consequently, a total of 47 studies were
identied. The number of ks throughout the results varies depending on the specic
question being answered and is reported.
Descriptive Characteristics of Self-Talk Studies
The analysis of the literature allowed a clear picture of the types of samples and
designs that self-talk researchers have employed. As a result, we were able to
highlight gaps in these descriptive aspects. The present review was based on a total
population size of 2,113 participants (1,146 male, 715 female, and 252 not speci-
ed) with an average sample size of 44 (SD = 39). Inspection of Table 1 reveals
that half of the studies employed samples that comprised both males and females,
with a little less than half (46%) of the eligible studies reporting a mean age of
20–39 years. The average age, based on the studies that reported a mean age, and
weighted to account for sample size, was 19.16 (SD = 4.88). No investigations
were based on data collected from masters or older athletes. Students, as opposed
to competitive athletes, were recruited most frequently (41%). Despite self-talk’s
applied relevance, slightly less than one quarter of the studies were based on
ndings employing talented or elite-level athletes (e.g., national developmental
As seen in Table 2, the vast majority of the research occurred within laboratory
or noncompetitive settings (91%) using mixed model (54%), within-participant
(24%), or single-subject experimental designs (9%). The majority of studies (56%)
had used either random or matched allocation strategies. Allocation strategies were
not relevant for one third of the studies (31%) owing to their within-participant
designs, and of these, nearly all (92%) used a full or partial counterbalancing strat-
egy. Other notable design features were that the majority of studies (63%) made
use of a manipulation check or an overt self-talk manipulation strategy (22%), with
just over half (52%) of the studies incorporating a self-talk practice/familiarization
phase. A range of control conditions were represented within the literature: (a)
no instruction (37%), (b) “do your best” (11%), (c) placebo (9%), (d) distraction/
neutral (7%), or (e) another type of psychological intervention (13%). A control
condition was not described in 2% of the non-single-subject studies with no control
Effects of Self-Talk 673
Table 1 Self-Talk Research Sample
<20 8 (17)
20–39 12 (26)
40–59 12 (26)
60–79 12 (26)
80–99 1 (2)
100+ 2 (4)
Male only 12 (26)
Female only 6 (13)
Combined 24 (51)
Not stated 5 (11)
<20 18 (38)
20–39 21 (45)
Not stated 6 (13)
Range given 2 (4)
Student 20 (43)
Novice 5 (11)
Competitive 6 (13)
Talented/Elite 10 (21)
Youth 5 (11)
Injured 1 (2)
Total N = 47 (100)
group. Regarding type of self-talk intervention, the majority of research (67%) has
focused on the effects of instructional self-talk and 41% of the studies had compared
different self-talk interventions, with the most common comparisons involving
instructional versus motivational self-talk, and positive versus negative self-talk.
Effects of Self-Talk on Performance
As previously stated, researchers have conceptualized self-talk in two different
manners. Traditionally, there has been emphasis on positive and negative self-talk;
however, a slightly more contemporary conceptualization has been instructional
Table 2 Self-Talk Research Design Characteristics
(%) Characteristic Studies,
Type of Self-Talk* Self-Talk Practice/Familiarity
Instructional 32 (68) Practice/familiarity 24 (51)
Motivational 16 (34) No practice 23 (49)
Positive 13 (28)
Negative 3 (6) Manipulation Check*
Other/Ambiguous 8 (17) Present 30 (64)
Overt self-talk 10 (21)
Context Not stated 9 (19)
Precompetition and competition 3 (6)
Practice/training/eld test 32 (68) Counterbalancing
Laboratory 11 (23) Present 6 (13)
Ambiguous 1 (2) Partial 4 (9)
Not used 1 (2)
Design Setup Not applicable 36 (77)
Between–posttest only 5 (11)
Mixed model 26 (55) Control Condition*
Within 11 (23) Baseline/pretest 29 (62)
Single-subject experimental 4 (9) Placebo 4 (9)
Other 1 (2) No instruction 17 (36)
Distraction/neutral 3 (6)
Assignment Strategy Do your best 6 (13)
Random assignment 21 (45) Other 6 (13)
Matched 6 (13) Not stated 1 (2)
Quasi-random 2 (4) None 3 (6)
Nonrandom 2 (4)
Not applicable 14 (30)
Not stated 2 (4)
Note. *The totals in these design characteristics add up to more than 47 because some studies used more than one type of self-talk, manipulation check, or control condition.
Effects of Self-Talk 675
and motivational self-talk. Given that researchers have proposed that these different
types of self-talk ought to have differing, and at times contrasting, performance
effects (e.g., Van Raalte, Brewer, Rivera, & Petitpas, 1994), we felt that greatest
clarity would be obtained if we analyzed the effects of these types of self-talk sepa-
rately. Table 3 contains the results regarding the effect of self-talk on performance.
We identied 11 studies (k = 16) that had investigated positive or negative self-talk
in relation to performance. Although positive self-talk was found to have a positive
effect (75%) on performance, no support for an effect of negative self-talk (0%)
was detected. As Theodorakis and colleagues’ (2000) matching hypothesis impli-
cates the relevance of task type for the relative effectiveness of instructional and
motivational self-talk, this more contemporary body of literature was subdivided to
help assess the independent effects of instructional and motivational self-talk on the
performance of precision-oriented tasks (k = 26) and the execution of gross motor
skills susceptible to the effects of physical conditioning (k = 16). When consider-
ing the effect of self-talk on precision-based tasks, both instructional (80%) and
motivational (67%) self-talk were found to have a positive effect on performance.
Similarly, instructional (70%) and motivational (83%) self-talk were found to have
a positive effect on the performance of gross motor skills. Taken together, it would
seem that the empirical literature would support the contention that self-talk is
benecial for athletic performance.
Type of Self-Talk. Table 3 presents results regarding the comparison of positive
versus negative self-talk and instructional versus motivational self-talk. Given
the commonly held belief that positive self-talk is better than negative self-talk,
it is surprising that only four studies (k = 5) to date have addressed this issue.
Nevertheless, the empirical research ndings support this belief: when pitted against
one another, 60% of the research indicated that positive self-talk was more benecial
for performance than negative self-talk, the remainder of research (40%) reported
no performance differences between positive and negative self-talk. However, given
the small number of effects we were able to analyze, continued investigation of
this issue is warranted before rm conclusions can be drawn.
As mentioned earlier, the matching hypothesis presented by Theodorakis et
al. (2000) highlights the potential role of different types of self-talk. Following an
analysis of currently available literature, Table 3 illustrates the apparent lack of
support within the literature for differential effects of instructional and motivational
self-talk. Instructional self-talk was not consistently more effective than motivational
self-talk for the execution of precision-oriented tasks. Moreover, motivational self-
talk was not more effective than instructional self-talk for conditioning-based tasks
in the vast majority of studies conducted to date.
Athlete Skill Level. Table 4 depicts results regarding the effect of self-talk on
performance across different skill levels. No studies to date have directly addressed
this issue. When isolating the ndings of studies across different skill levels, the
picture is somewhat mixed. While there is evidence supporting a positive effect of
self-talk on performance for novices, youth athletes, and talented athletes, there
was an indeterminate effect for student samples, and no effect for competitive
adult athletes. Across the various samples, there was no evidence that self-talk
Table 3 Effects of Self-Talk on Performance
Percentage of Effects Supporting
the Presence of Effect
Sum Code+ – 0
Inuence on General Performance Levels
Positive ST 11 12 75 0 25 +
Negative ST 3 4 0 0 100 0
Inuence on Performance of Precision-Based Tasks
Instructional ST 16 20 80 0 20 +
Motivational ST 6 6 67 0 33 +
Inuence on Performance of Condition-Based Tasks
Instructional ST 9 10 70 0 30 +
Motivational ST 6 6 83 0 17 +
Positive Versus Negative ST
PST > NST NST > PST
General performance 3 4 50 0 50 ?
Instructional Versus Motivational ST
IST > MST MST > IST 0
Precision-based tasks 6 6 33 0 67 0
Condition-based tasks 8 8 0 12.5 87.5 0
Note. ST = self-talk, PST = positive self-talk, NST = negative self-talk, IST = instructional self-talk, and MST = motivational self-talk.
Effects of Self-Talk 677
had a negative inuence on performance. However, given the small number of
effects we were able to analyze in several athlete categories (e.g., competitive
adults), continued investigation of this issue is warranted before rm conclusions
can be drawn.
Table 5 summarizes research regarding potential mediators of the self-talk–perfor-
mance relationship. As none of the included studies explicitly addresses mediation-
based hypotheses, research was included if it examined the effect of self-talk on
a proposed mediator.
Table 5 indicates repeated consistent positive effects of self-talk on cogni-
tive and behavioral variables. All four studies examining cognition identied
that self-talk had positive effects. Given that a wide range of dependent variables
were examined within this category (e.g., the frequency of interfering thoughts,
decision-making ability), replication of the specic ndings is necessary. With
regard to the behavior-focused studies, again unequivocal support was found for
a benecial effect of self-talk for both subjectively rated (n = 6) and objectively
assessed (n = 2) tasks. Whereas the majority of these studies used instructional
self-talk, changes in behavior were also reported when motivational self-talk was
used (e.g., Tod et al., 2009).
With regards to motivational mediators, all the identied studies focused on
self-condence or self-efcacy. Overall, the ndings regarding the effect of self-
talk on condence were inconsistent (43% positive effect, 57% no effect). Closer
scrutiny suggests that this may be related to the type of self-talk used, however, with
all studies using positive self-talk showing no effect and all studies using a motiva-
tional or instructional type of self-talk demonstrating a positive effect. Regarding
affectual mechanisms, all studies examined the effect of self-talk on anxiety. A
mixed picture emerged overall, however, and differential effects were identied
when considering cognitive and somatic anxiety separately. All studies examining
cognitive anxiety reported a benecial effect of self-talk, whereas 75% of studies
examining somatic anxiety showed no effect. Overall, there is some evidence that
positive and motivational types of self-talk may decrease cognitive anxiety. The
existing evidence regarding somatic anxiety demonstrates no clear effect.
Table 4 Relationship Between Self-Talk and Performance Stratified
by Skill Level
Athlete Skill Level
Percentage of Effects Supporting
the Presence of Effect
+ – 0
Student 16 32 59 0 41 ?
Novice 4 7 86 0 14 +
Youth 4 6 83 0 17 +
Competitive 3 12 25 0 75 0
Talented 9 18 88 0 12 +
Injured 1 1 100 0 0 +
678 Tod, Hardy, and Oliver
From reviewing the research, two other studies pertaining to potential mediators
of the self-talk–performance relationship were identied, which were not easily
integrated into the categories proposed in the model of J. Hardy and colleagues
(2009). First, Rushall, Hall, Roux, Sasseville, and Rushall (1988) reported that
heart rate was higher in self-talk conditions relative to a control condition. This
nding suggests that physiological changes, perhaps linked to arousal or effort, may
mediate effects of self-talk on performance. Second, Weinberg, Smith, Jackson, and
Gould (1984) examined the effect of self-talk on ratings of perceived exertion, and
found no differences between associative thinking, dissociative thinking, positive
self-talk, and control groups.
With regards to the primary purpose of the current study, our results offer initial
support for the effectiveness of self-talk interventions. More specically, consultants
may be heartened to know that the performance benets of self-talk were seen for
the use of positive, instructional, and motivational categories of self-talk. Never-
theless, contrary to the sentiments expressed in applied texts (e.g., Bull, Albinson,
& Shambrook, 1996) currently available data suggest that negative self-talk may
not have a detrimental effect on motor skill performance. Some researchers (e.g.,
J. Hardy, Hall, & Alexander, 2001; Van Raalte et al., 1994) have posed a possible
explanation for this null nding, namely, that some athletes may interpret their
negative self-talk as having motivational qualities (e.g., following a silly mistake,
athletes may give themselves a “talking to”). This null nding is also contrary to
writings discussing the “power of non-negative thinking” (e.g., Kendall, 1984)
and questions the value of thought-stopping interventions, which aim to reduce
the amount of negative self-talk said by performers. The present sentiment aug-
ments previous authors’ ironic effects-related warnings surrounding the continued
promotion of the thought-stopping technique by consultants (e.g., J. Hardy et al.,
2009). In addition, given the coverage concerning the use of positive or negative
self-talk within the self-talk literature, surprisingly few empirical examinations
of the assumption that positive self-talk is better for performance than negative
self-talk have been conducted. Although fairly consistent support was generated
Table 5 Summary of Research Examining Mediators of the Relationship
Between Self-Talk and Performance
Percentage of Effects Supporting
the Presence of Effect
Sum Code+ – 0
1. Cognitive 4 5 100 0 0 +
2. Motivational 7 7 43 0 57 ?
3. Behavioral 8 10 100 0 0 +
4. Affectual 5 9 0 55 45 ?
Note. Dependent variables were as follows: 1. attentional focus, suppression of distracting stimuli, frequency of inter-
fering thoughts, and decision-making ability; 2. self-condence and self-efcacy; 3. subjective rating of technique
or movement execution, and vertical jump biometrics; and 4. pretest anxiety, and cognitive and somatic anxiety.
Effects of Self-Talk 679
for the use of positive self-talk compared with no self-talk, an inconsistent effect
was detected for the possible benets of positive self-talk over the use of nega-
tive self-talk. Given that the present analysis is based on the ndings of only four
studies, extreme caution is necessary when interpreting this nding. Nevertheless,
the identication of this shortcoming within the self-talk literature highlights an
avenue where additional research would continue to facilitate our understanding
of the effects of negative self-talk.
A matching hypothesis principle (Theodorakis et al., 2000) is another potential
inuence shaping the nature of self-talk interventions. Pivotal to this principle is
the precision or gross nature of the tasks being attempted. Our analysis provided a
lack of support for this intuitively appealing matching principle. It is possible that
other researchers may come to a more supportive conclusion, given that on occasion
nonsignicant results have been interpreted in favor of the matching hypothesis
principle. In such cases, relatively small sample sizes were employed reective of
the challenges of conducting research with very specic samples of the population
(e.g., Harbalis et al., 2008; disability sport athletes). Nevertheless, taken collectively,
the positive effects found for instructional and motivational self-talk (as opposed to
a control condition) on the performance of both precision and conditioning-based
tasks does provide preliminary evidence for the use of these cognitive strategies.
Such a statement might be best considered in the wider context that conclusions
regarding this evidence base may vary according to the criteria investigators use to
evaluate existing research. If, for example, meta-analyses of randomized trials were
set as the benchmark, as is the case in some bodies of literature (e.g., see Guyatt et
al., 2008; National Institute for Clinical Evidence; Scottish Intercollegiate Guide-
lines Network), then self-talk would be considered an unproven and unjustiable
intervention. Moreover, there remain some highly relevant yet unexamined factors,
which if addressed, would lead to substantial knowledge advances. For instance,
the few researchers who have attempted to collect competitive performance data
have encountered problems; for example, Johnson, Hrycaiko, Johnson, and Halas
(2004) were unable to collect sufcient soccer goal shooting data. As such, in most
situations, practitioners cannot source empirical data to justify using self-talk inter-
ventions for competitive performance-enhancement purposes. Nonetheless, pending
the utilization of appropriate study designs and a focus on measuring performance at
a suitable level, it is possible to investigate the inuence of self-talk on competitive
performance. Rather than focus on competitive outcome or global performance, it
may be more productive for researchers to examine self-talk’s effectiveness in rela-
tion to discrete skills or performance processes, such as the number of successful
tackles made during a rugby game or the proportion of goal kicking attempts that
are successful. Such a focus might generate detailed information concerning the
precise role(s) of self-talk in the competitive domain as well as illustrate to coaches
and athletes the effectiveness of self-talk on variables they value.
Given the relative lack of self-talk investigations employing competitive or
highly skilled athletes, more data gleaned from this seemingly elusive and small
sample of the population is warranted. To date, single-subject multiple baseline
designs have been a popular choice of method when involving such participants
(e.g., Landin & Hebert, 1999). However, these studies have yet to employ contem-
porary quantiable analysis strategies (e.g., ITSACORR; Crosbie, 1993) applicable
to single-subject experimental designs and capable of revealing signicant effects.
680 Tod, Hardy, and Oliver
A complimentary strategy would be for self-talk researchers to ground future
research within theories. Most of the research in the current review was issue,
rather than theory, based. Typically, researchers did not conceptualize self-talk
interventions around theoretical frameworks. Theoretically grounded interventions
will assist in moving self-talk research’s focus from rst- to second-generation
questions (i.e., from “does self-talk help?” to “what types of self-talk help?”).
Answers to these second-generation questions might provide practitioners with
advice that will allow them to design interventions that have a greater probability
of being effective for their clients.
There already exist a number of theories with relevance to variables that
have been viewed by self-talk researchers (e.g., J. Hardy, 2006) as offering at
least partial explanation of the self-talk–performance relationship. For example,
theorists have emphasized the role of self-talk in the interpretation and experience
of affective states (e.g., Lazarus, 1991; Meichenbaum & Butler, 1979) and the
initiation and regulation of behavior (e.g., Brinthaupt, Hein, & Kramer, 2009).
The present review provides some supportive evidence that self-talk also affects
non-performance-based outcomes, and that the mediational categories proposed
by J. Hardy and colleagues (2009) have relevance when seeking to understand the
effects of self-talk on sporting performance.
More specically, despite the paucity of the literature, the existent evidence
base does suggest that self-talk has benecial effects on cognition (in particular,
concentration and focus-related variables), cognitive anxiety, and the technical
execution of movement skills. The effect of self-talk on attentional variables is
consistent with the suggestions of Landin (1994) that verbal cues could be used
to increase focus as well as direct and redirect performers’ attention. Building on
evidence suggesting that self-talk inuences concentration and attention, research-
ers have begun to apply contemporary theories to provide guidance regarding the
precise nature and predicted effects of self-talk. For example, Bell and Hardy
(2009) employed self-talk as an adjunct strategy to manipulate internal and external
attentional foci to test the predictions of the constrained action hypothesis (e.g.,
Wulf, 2007). Continuing to develop and test theoretically grounded hypotheses with
potential relevance to self-talk is likely to clarify the self-talk–attention relationship
and provide clearer guidelines for practitioners. Furthermore, moderators such as
skill level may be particularly salient to this issue, as researchers have suggested
that the self-talk–attention association may be particularly relevant for beginners
The benecial effect of self-talk on cognitive anxiety is consistent with theo-
retical assertions that self-talk lies at the core of anxiety (Conroy & Metzler, 2004),
and ndings that reducing negative or anxious self-talk results in less anxious
states (Kendall & Treadwell, 2007). It may be overly simplistic to focus solely
on reducing negative self-talk, however, as some models have highlighted the
importance of an optimal balance of positive and negative thoughts for well-being
(e.g., state-of-mind ratios; Schwartz & Garamoni, 1986). In addition, the current
results indicate that negative self-talk is not associated with reduced performance.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the evidence did not support an effect of self-talk
on somatic anxiety. Literature in both clinical and sporting populations highlights
the importance of matching (mind–body) anxiety treatments to the mode of (cog-
nitive–somatic) anxiety in order to maximize effectiveness (e.g., Maynard et al.,
Effects of Self-Talk 681
1995). The effect of self-talk on behavioral factors is also supported by theoretical
frameworks, which have particular relevance during the learning phase of skills
acquisition. For example, it has been noted that novices tend to “talk” themselves
through movements (Coker & Fischman, 2010; Fitts & Posner, 1967), and instruc-
tional self-talk may provide an appropriate content for this inner dialogue (J. Hardy
et al., 2009). Furthermore, Wrisberg (1993) suggests that self-talk might inuence
learners’ performance by assisting with the “chunking” of complex information
sequences, assisting with the recall and execution of complex movement patterns.
Although self-talk is often promoted as a means of enhancing condence
(Zinsser et al., 2010), as previously mentioned, the ndings regarding the effect of
self-talk on condence were inconsistent: motivational self-talk appears to enhance
condence, whereas positive self-talk does not. It is possible that this difference
may be due to the specicity of the self-talk interventions; several of the studies that
examined positive self-talk in the context of condence-related beliefs employed a
positive thought control intervention. Such interventions are more all encompassing
and so are likely to be less closely linked with a focused issue such as condence
beliefs than the specic encouraging-type statements typically used as motivational
self-talk (e.g., “come on, you can do it”). The effect of motivational self-talk on
condence is consistent with the role of verbal persuasion as an antecedent of
efcacy, as discussed by Bandura (1997).
The review highlighted some additional noteworthy points regarding J. Hardy
and colleagues’ (2009) model. Although there was support for positive effects of
self-talk on cognitive and behavioral factors, the terminology used to describe
each category is broad, and hence the variables included within each category are
diverse. For example, the cognitive category included decision making, attentional
focus, and interfering thoughts. The precise rationale for effects of self-talk and the
way that self-talk might inuence each of these variables remains to be claried.
Conversely, J. Hardy and colleagues’ motivational category encompassed a range of
motivational factors, including persistence, quality of motivation, and competence
or self-condence. Thus far, research within this theme has exclusively focused on
the effects of self-talk on efcacy-based beliefs. There is clearly room for enrich-
ing the study of these themes. Although a perhaps inevitable consequence of the
still-emerging literature, from a critical perspective, the breadth of the categories
in J. Hardy and colleagues’ model provides little focused guidance for researchers
Despite the breadth of the mediator categories in J. Hardy and colleagues’
model, this review highlighted two factors that were not consistent with any one
category. First, Rushall et al. (1988) identied a physiological effect of self-talk in
the form of increased heart rate. From a theoretical perspective, if considering heart
rate as an indicator of arousal, based on the circumplex model of affect (Russell,
1980), the ndings of this study could be incorporated into the affectual dimension
of mediators. However, an alternative argument could be made that a novel category
should be added to the J. Hardy et al. model to include physiological effects of
self-talk. This could potentially represent effects of self-talk on variables such as
hormones or neurotransmitters. The second nonclassiable effect was measured in
Weinberg et al.’s (1984) study that examined ratings of perceived exertion. Percep-
tions of exertion could be argued to include cognitive, motivational, and affective
elements, and, without clear hypotheses to ground the predicted effect of the types
682 Tod, Hardy, and Oliver
of self-talk used on perceived exertion, it is difcult to determine one classication
for this mediator, and perhaps unsurprising that no effect was found. The identica-
tion of additional potentially explanatory mechanisms of the self-talk–performance
relationship further develops the framework of J. Hardy and colleagues. Similarly,
identifying unsupported mechanisms (e.g., somatic anxiety) helps further rene
the model and counter claims that, owing to the (current) breadth of the themes,
self-talk is viewed as a panacea for all sports-related ailments.
Adopting a broader service delivery perspective on the mediating mecha-
nisms, it is not known if self-talk works because of the specic education involved
in teaching athletes to use particular verbal cues or because of some other less
specic factors, such as increased expectation, hope, or practitioner allegiance.
Psychotherapy research indicates that the specic factors or interventions account
for much less outcome variance than the nonspecic factors, such as the bonds
formed between the parties (Wampold, 2001). Applying these ndings to self-talk
and sport, potentially, self-talk interventions are helpful, but not as a result of the
specic cues used in the intervention. Instead, the nonspecic factors, which to
date have not been assessed or controlled, may be responsible for effectiveness.
By including measures of, or controlling for, nonspecic factors (e.g., increased
expectation or practitioner allegiance) in their designs to help identify the active
ingredients in service delivery, researchers can further advance knowledge concern-
ing self-talk’s effectiveness.
There are a number of limitations associated with the current study that ought
to be acknowledged. First, although restricting the sample to English-only articles
ensured consistency that all articles were thoroughly critiqued, this may have
resulted in the omission of relevant, high-quality literature. This issue is highlighted
when specic research questions have been investigated only in a relatively limited
number of studies. For example, we are aware that additional work has compared the
effect of positive and negative self-talk on performance (Dagrou & Gauvin, 1992),
and the inclusion of this would have altered the interpretation of the evidence base.
This example helps to illustrate how the present review’s ndings are dependent
on available data, as well as serving to demonstrate a second noteworthy point,
which is that the use of Sallis et al.’s (2000) accepted coding system may appear
to produce more denite categorical conclusions than critical inspection of the
literature would support. To compensate for this, we have augmented categoriza-
tions with narrative discussion to more fully reect the literature. We would urge
researchers and practitioners to fully consider the nature of the evidence base, and
to apply any of the review’s summation with appropriate caution. This is a critical
issue, as the drawing of premature conclusions may shunt the literature in aspects
of potential important relevance. Lastly, although the current study summarizes
the evidence regarding whether effects of self-talk are supported, it is unable to
generate information concerning the strength of any of these effects.
It appears from our analysis of the sports-based self-talk literature that practitio-
ners’ promotion of this psychological skill for performance enhancement purposes
has some support, although the breadth of the knowledge base needs expanding
(e.g., examining the intervention’s efcacy in competitive situations). Furthermore,
there is some emerging support of its supplementary, more process-oriented uses
(e.g., to reduce cognitive state anxiety). Theoretically, the present ndings extended
the J. Hardy et al. (2009) framework concerning the mechanisms behind the self-
Effects of Self-Talk 683
talk–performance relationship. Finally, preliminary evidence encouraging closer
scrutiny of two popular current viewpoints on self-talk emerged. The existing
literature suggests that negative self-talk does not impede performance, and there
does not appear to be consistent support for the differential effects of instructional
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Manuscript submitted: January 20, 2011
Revision accepted: June 4, 2011