Judy Van Raalte is a sport psychology professor at Massachusetts’ Springfield College. She is also an avid tennis player — recently winning the American doubles championship in her group (left) — and an enthralling speaker full of wisdom and support for us as we begin our fledgling careers in performance psychology. From day one she was sincerely cheerful and approachable, emanating a warmth and helpfulness as few professors do. Judy gave us so much information I will have to split this post into two, but before you read on, here, check out some of her charisma as she talks about winning the 2012 US tennis doubles championships in the 45+ women’s category:
Judy started her string of seminars with the subject of self-talk. This is defined as any words forming the dialogue one has with oneself. They can be negative or positive, may consist of a single cue phrase or an entire tirade of emotion, may be uttered verbally or remain in the mental sphere, and may take place at any time before, during, or after an event. Here a young girl employs self-talk to positively kill a pivotal moment in her skiing development:
I remember we had a very tough time nailing down what exactly qualifies as self-talk, even beyond the seemingly all-encompassing definition above. For example, is an onomatopoeic outburst self-talk — something like “Bang!” or “Swish!”, or the battle-cry kiai often taught and encouraged in combat sports? How about mentally hammering out a beat, a rhythm, or a count-down? Or a song, like going through the Rocky theme before a big event? How about simply humming it? Or how about if, instead of softly humming the words to Eye of the Tiger, we instead imagine Rocky knocking out Ivan Drago?
And then there are the behaviours Judy mentioned as related to but not exactly self-talk, including hand and body gestures (as outlined in Tony’s lecture on imagery) and quiet verbalizations that are at least partially directed at others (eg: grunting “Yeah!” after a tennis shot and fist-pumping the air toward an opponent). Defining self-talk gets tricky, see. Judy showed the importance of this meta-communication via asking one of us to describe an umbrella without using his hands. This took a full minute. Then, when the student was allowed to do so aided by gestures, he simply shrugged, “An umbrella — you know…” and drew the shaft and canopy with his hands, and presto.
The subject of self-talk immediately turned my own reflections to judo, where a great coach of mine would always tell me to circle to my opponents’ lapel side, tiring them out and making it much more difficult for them to enter into a throw. A second favourite coach would always underline how judo bouts consisted of two fights: the first for a grip, the second for a throw. “Without a win in the first, it is incredibly difficult to win the second,” he would always point out. He would also encourage leaning on my opponent’s lapel arm to put them in a defensive state of mind, and again, to tire them out. These instructions distilled in my mind into three key phrases: “Circle, grip, and lean,” all of which led to very successful results.
Thinking more generally about the subject, it occurred to me that anything acoustic (verbal or rhythmic) that happens in our minds or is uttered verbally, is directed at least partially at ourselves, and serves a semantic function should qualify as self-talk. Under this definition, the only example in the earlier litany that would not count was the last — imagining Rocky knock Drago to the canvas — which falls more under the domain of imagery. Extending this reflection, it seemed to me that perhaps mental processes including imagery, self-talk, and relaxation may well be plotted along gradients of variables like increased word content or changes in focus from pin-point to global. Maybe an idea for a later post, this.
During our attempts at explaining self-talk, Judy presented an interesting philosophical edge to this discussion: that self-talk may have effects other than on the conscious mind. The fact that this process is almost universally described as a dialogue rather than a monologue hints that the subconscious may be involved. Judy pointed out that perhaps self-talk could be the conscious mind talking to the subconscious, or even vice versa. This follows work set out by Kahneman in his 2011 psychological book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, where he described two systems at work in the human mind. The first (“affect”) is the fast, automatic, unconscious, reactive mind that is harnessed when quick decisions are needed. The second (“cognition”) is the slow, calculating, planning, conscious, comprehensive mind that analyzes elements like ethics and values of decisions, integrating them into final choices before setting out on behaviour. With these two in mind, Judy invited us to draw up a model of the factors involved in self-talk and their respective relationships. Our results are in the inset above, with arrows showing which factor may affect which.
In thinking of this model, however, I thought it might make more sense to build it within a temporal construct, coming up with this inset: a person finds himself in a situation that is the combination of personal factors like character, personality, and ability, and contextual factors like task demands and environmental limitations. Within this setting his mind is at work, his cognitions instructing his affect and his affect providing perhaps subtler feedback to his cognitions. This conversation is the sphere that is self-talk. This whole construct then leads to a new platform that is performance, upon which the same scenario repeats, leading to subsequent, tertiary, quaternary, and so on platforms, each embedded within a slightly different personal/contextual setting because of previous choices. These series can occur within seconds or over months; time length is not really a determinant beyond the fact that self-talk and the subsequent behaviour it leads to is embedded within it.
A final theoretical construct Judy mentioned were Eberspächer’s circles of attention (1990). In them, the Heidelberg University professor outlines a gradient of where attentional energy may be lost during performance. Ideally, you want your attention to be focused just on yourself and on the things relevant to your task, though you may find it fading from time to time to tune in to simple external distractors like the environment. From these it is easy to shake yourself loose — it is from the further rings that returns to centre become increasingly difficult. These include more existential ponderings like comparing what is happening to what ought to be happening or focusing on the upcoming outcome and on what it might mean in a greater context (eg: “If I win this match, I’ll have to face last year’s national champion in the next round.”). The final ring is an interesting one because it indicates the lowest level of motivation, often belying forced attendance. These cases inevitably end in task termination, even if it takes some time. A classic example is a child being forced into a sport and then dropping out of it the moment they move away from home, as in during their university years.
Self-talk & performance
Judy then turned her attention to describing different types of known self-talk. Some of the following categories may surprise you, as might their effect on performance. First, there is the obvious distinction between positive and negative self-talk, on the order of “I can do this,” v. “I have no chance.” Judy highlighted that, though negative self-talk is generally associated with poorer performance, culture seems to play an important role here. Findings show that Americans found negative self-talk upsetting while Asians didn’t, because they thought it showed a sincere care for the performance from their end and so were more likely to find it motivating.
A second distinction was between associative and dissociative self-talk, so thoughts tying oneself deeper with one’s body or the performance being experienced v. thoughts cutting oneself off from these things. A good, if tragic, example here are anecdotes of people “turning off their minds” when undergoing torture. Dissociative self-talk was found useful when one had to persevere through something gruelling like a distance race, though a few known elite athletes like Lance Armstrong would adopt the opposite tactic. Armstrong believed one of his key strengths was his tenacity through adversity so he would embrace feelings of pain, thinking, “This is it, bring it on. I can push through like no other.” He knew that if he was feeling this then so was the rest of the pack, and that he was one of the few who had what it takes to survive these moments… which, paradoxically, actually made him thrive on them.
A third distinction was on the grammar of self-talk: who is the subject and who is the object? First, the subject. Self-talk has been used in the first-, second-, and even third-person, ie: “I can do it,” v. “You can do it,” or “Do it!” v. “Tommy can do it.” Without having read too much on this subject yet, I think the first form is more empathetic, the second more commanding and driven, and the third more encouraging. You can see all three methods employed by Germany’s Tommy Haas in his match against Russia’s Davydenko (which he went on to win) in the 2007 Australian Open:
Secondly, the object. The recipient of this psychological technique is most often the self, though sometimes it is directed at the opponent or even taps into a spiritual element with athletes praying or bargaining with higher powers, eg: “God, please don’t let me die.” I would expect the first is used primarily when control is still in the reigns of the self, the second when negative feelings exist between the self and the competition, and the third when despair starts setting in, as in the final legs of a particularly gruelling endurance sports.
A final distinction falls on the purpose of the self-talk: is it instructional or motivational? Effective self-talk usually serves one — if not both — of these purposes. A good exercise when working with athletes is to first wipe away any emotion from their self-talk and to replace it with pure instruction, tying emotions in once this psychological skill is mastered on the neutral level. From here, the Matching Hypothesis1 suggests that motivational self-talk is better for gross power tasks like weight-lifting or combat sports, while instructional self-talk is preferable for fine motor tasks, such as darts. However, here we encounter the issue of spillover as many sports — and indeed, many tasks within these sports — require simultaneous gross and fine motor control. Just think of gymnastics or diving and you’ll quickly get my drift. Developing self-talk programs for these athletes takes particular care.
Next we discussed why self-talk works at all. Judy proposed that it helps an athlete focus on the important things and triggers automatic processing. When you’ve been training a task thousands of times and are suddenly thrown off-kilter, sometimes a single thought is all that is needed to get you back to where you need to be. However, there must be more to this process than just these two elements, as one of Judy’s students found out when he tried to prove self-talk was bogus. Completely not believing in it, he ran an experiment where participants said “I am the best of all dart throwers,” before completing a dart throwing task. To his chagrin, he found the even such a vague, ludicrous statement resulted in improved performance across the board!
Some final words on applying self-talk from a coach’s perspective: it is imperative to encourage an athlete to think of something, rather than to avoid thinking of something. Many have heard the classic example of, “Don’t think of a pink elephant!” — and what do you do? Precisely that: a pink elephant walks into your mind. This is called the ironic process theory, where deliberately suppressing thoughts leads to their being all the more prominent. Judy shared with us a story of a golf coach who had four athletes who were doing superbly well during a competition, and only needed to keep the ball out of the water on their final shots to secure a win. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the coach told them — “Just don’t get the ball in the water.” Needless to say, all four did just the opposite, probably because this pink elephant was now so much in their minds.
Developing self-talk questionnaires
Judy’s second lecture was on creating what is now a classic method by which sport psychologists collect most of their data: questionnaires. First, in regards to categorizing items collected in open-ended interviews or qualitative studies, Judy advised against creating any sort of categories before the data has been collected. Having a hypothesis or theory on which to base your work is helpful, but you want to avoid squeezing findings under preconceived headings when they might better belong somewhere else. Judy led by example in our own previous self-talk lecture, where she presented her current definition of the term but was very open to modifying it as new ideas entered the discussion. The end result? She returned home with a few other constructs to consider that might just enrich her model.
A difficulty Judy pointed out when gathering any sort of data that relies on self-reporting was that results obtained will be a mix of items people sincerely believe, items people think they ought to believe, and items people are willing to share. In my own thoughts I call this the Conversation Onion, of which we visit at least one layer every time we talk with anyone. The first layer is what the person wants us to believe is the truth, the second what the person sincerely believes is the truth, and the third the actual truth. It is our job as budding psychologists to be able to determine which layer we are occupying at every moment during a consultation or intervention. Returning to the difficulty this conjures when collecting data, results received from people will be further masked as they will be reliable since individuals will remember their responses and will likely continue serving them to save face.
Two other difficulties in creating psychological questionnaires are the limitations of words and the WEIRD bias. Regarding the first — and this is especially true with young fields like ours — there exist languages where certain terms, like self-talk, don’t yet exist. “You think of things differently when you have a name for them,” Judy points out. That we have a word for this concept hardens it, moulding it into a structure and making it easier to identify, but also easier to force items under this heading that really might belong somewhere else. Regarding the second, most psychology research is done with Western university undergraduates as subjects, leading to an overabundance of opinion from the Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic population. Thankfully, however, knowing about these limitations makes it easier to account for them and limit their influence.