The Self-Talk Struggle Is Real: How To Win At Work With Sports Psychology

negative self-talk

In the 1998 NBA Finals, down by one point and with only 18 seconds left in the game, Michael Jordan tore the ball away from the opponent and made the winning shot of his last game with the Chicago Bulls.

That pivotal moment would go down as one of the greatest in sports history, but the remarkable thing, besides the observable aspect, is what was going on behind the scenes—more specifically, inside Jordan’s mind.

“When I got that rebound, my thoughts were very positive,” Jordan reported later, according to the book The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford, his sports psychologist at the time. Years before that championship game, Jordan and his entire team had been working with Mumford on mastering mindfulness, including harnessing the power of self-talk.

What Is Self-Talk?

Self-talk is anything you say to yourself, whether in your head or out loud. It can consist of positive statements, such as “I can do this” or “I’m going to win,” or negative ones, such as “I always mess up” or “I’m going to fail.”

Self-talk is quite natural, but ignorance of its effects can hinder your performance. Mastering self-talk is already a major part of the sports world. Why do star athletes such as Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, and Tiger Woods work with sports psychologists and mental coaches to train their brains to respond better to stress? Because they know that a huge part of winning the game is mental.

And if an athlete’s inner dialog affects their performance on the court or field, why wouldn’t your self-talk also affect your performance in the office?

How Does Negative Self-Talk Affect You?

1. It can make you feel depressed.

Therapists know that one of the main things to look for in a client who may be depressed is the amount of negative self-talk the patient uses. In fact, nurse Jaclene Zauszniewski developed an eight-item survey for healthcare providers to use to detect when someone is in a downward spiral toward clinical depression. One of the biggest predictors? Excessive negative thinking.

2. It can make you feel anxious.

One study of children 8 to 18 years of age showed that negative thoughts were among the strongest predictors of anxiety. Another study of counselor trainees found that high negative self-talk was correlated with high anxiety levels and that lower negative self-talk was associated with lower anxiety levels and improved performances in video-taped counseling interviews.

3. It can make you lose.

In a tennis study, researchers watched 24 tennis players in tournament matches and recorded their observable self-talk, gestures, and match scores. Afterward, players also reported the thoughts that were going on while they were competing. These researchers found that negative self-talk was associated with losing, and the tennis players who believed positive self-talk was useful scored more points than the players who didn’t think it was useful.

Further, a study of elite wrestlers vying for spots on the Canadian World Wrestling teams found that those who ended up qualifying had fewer negative self-thoughts one hour before competition than those who did not end up qualifying.

So if negative self-talk is so detrimental, is positive self-talk helpful? Let’s see what science has to say.

The Power of Positive Self-Talk

While negative self-talk is linked to depression, anxiety, and losing, positive self-talk, on the other hand, is associated with improvements in your performance and mood. And while it may sound hokey to “talk nicely” to yourself, the supporting evidence from scientific research might have you singing a different tune.

positive self-talk

1. It can improve your health.

One study of elementary school children found that positive self-talk was positively related to self-esteem. And a study in Denmark found that heart disease patients with a positive attitude were more likely to be alive five years later, which might be because optimistic patients are more likely to exercise.

If you’re in the habit of constantly telling yourself “I’m incompetent” or “I’m going to get fired,” then feelings of worthlessness are soon to follow, impacting your mental health and your work performance. As you saw earlier, negative self-talk can lead to depression. And in the workplace, depression costs us an estimated $44 billion a year in lost productivity.

Reframing your perspective with self-talk such as “you’re going to get better” and “look how far you’ve come compared to last year” makes for a more optimistic view that might encourage you to seek opportunities to improve.

2. It can boost your performance.

In a review of the literature on self-talk and mental imagery, researchers from Arizona State University proposed that constructive thought management, which includes positive self-talk, can improve employee and organizational performance.

In a water polo study, two experiments tested very specific kinds of self-talk: instructional versus motivational. Experiment one had the participants complete a precision task of throwing the ball at a target, while experiment two had them complete a power task of throwing the ball for distance. Researchers found that when precision was needed, instructional self-talk (“elbow high” and “hand follow the ball”) helped the most. But when power was needed, motivational self-talk (“I can”) worked best.

So if you’re, say, pitching a business idea to potential investors and feel nervous about your performance, telling yourself, “deep breaths” and “remember the talking points you practiced” are instructional self-talk examples that will help you do your best. But if you’re doing a task that doesn’t require much thought and you just need to power through it, such as organizing files or entering data, simply telling yourself “I can do this” should do the trick.

3. It can help you land a job.

A study conducted on unemployed managers divided them into two groups: One group received training on monitoring their functional versus dysfunctional self-talk, while the control group received no training. Nine months later, 50 percent of those who had been trained to increase their functional self-talk had found jobs, versus just one percent of the control group.

Bottom line: positive self-talk can help to boost your confidence and give you that extra drive needed to land your dream job.

How Can You Combat Negative Self-Talk in the Workplace?

Now that you see how damaging negative self-talk can be, let’s dive into the strategies you can use to fight it in the workplace.

1. Accept some anxiety as normal.

If your heart is racing before a team presentation, instead of getting more worked up about it, acknowledge that what you’re feeling is natural.

One study of cross-country athletes found that those who experienced pre-competition anxiety and viewed it as helpful experienced less negative self-talk during the competition than those who perceived pre-competition anxiety as harmful. The study’s researchers concluded it might be useful to recognize anxiety before a competition as a normal response to a stressful situation.

So the next time you’re standing in front of the boardroom, take a deep breath, recognize those anxious feelings, accept them, and move on to crushing your presentation.

2. Challenge your negative thoughts.

In cognitive behavioral therapy, one technique that helps clients reduce their anxiety is to immediately challenge a negative thought when it comes up.

For example, if you’re about to go into a job interview and think, “I’m not qualified for this,” turn that right around and ask yourself, “Would they have invited me to an interview if I weren’t qualified for this?”

Challenging your negative thoughts will cause them to loosen their grip on you, as you’ll begin to realize that many of them are irrational or untrue.

3. Speak to yourself as you would speak to your best friend.

Isn’t it funny how many of the cruel things we tell ourselves, we would never say to someone we love? Given that, a helpful tactic for combating negative self-talk is to speak to yourself the way you would speak to your best friend.

positive self talk to friends

If you find this difficult, talking to yourself in the third person can help. LeBron James famously did this when, in an ESPN interview, he announced his decision to join the Miami Heat, saying: "I wanted to do what’s best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy."

Watching this interesting interview was psychologist Ethan Kross, who decided to explore James’ use of “self-distancing” by conducting seven studies, which found that forgoing the use of first-person language can actually enhance your ability to regulate your thoughts and feelings. And when it’s done in light of a future anxiety-inducing event, it can help you view it as less threatening.

While it may feel unnatural to speak to yourself in the third person, using self-distancing might help you to be kinder.

4. Practice positive self-talk.

Sometimes it’s not enough to simply get rid of a bad habit; often, you’ll need to replace it with a good one. If you’re used to speaking unfavorably to yourself, replace that negative self-talk with positive self-talk. Practice this regularly until it becomes your new habit.

Remember the water polo study? If the task you’re about to do requires precision, like crunching numbers for a statistical forecast, then perhaps instructional self-talk is what you need. If, however, the task you’re about to do calls for power, such as hauling inventory across a department store floor, motivational self-talk might work best.

Either way, positive self-talk should help you get rid of distracting thoughts so you can focus better on the task at hand.

Now, Get to Work! (And Be Kind to Yourself)

Even if you never find yourself under pressure to score the winning goal of a game, you can take a page out of the pro athlete’s playbook and leverage your self-talk to score big wins in your career.

What you think informs what you do; science has shown that time and time again. With that being said, it’s important that you gain an understanding of and control over what you tell yourself. To recap, here are four ways to do that:

  1. Recognize anxiety as a normal response to a stressful situation.

  2. Challenge your negative thoughts. If you need some free tools to do this, check out this automatic thoughts worksheet.

  3. Speak to yourself the way you would speak to your best friend.

  4. Get in the habit of positive self-talk.

If you still find yourself resorting to unhelpful negative self-talk throughout your workday—take heart. The goal isn’t to completely eradicate negative thoughts from your mind, but to have your positive thoughts outweigh them.

Researcher Barbara Fredrickson writes in her book, Positivity: 

“Positivity doesn’t just change the contents of your mind, trading bad thoughts for good ones. … It widens the span of possibilities that you see.”

And that should give us a lot to feel (and think) good about.


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