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The power of positive thinking

How positive self-talk can improve your sports performance.

Woman doing a plank on an outdoor track

One of the basic principles of sports psychology is that positive thinking can improve your performance – and ongoing research consistently supports this idea.

Sports psychologists teach that developing positive self-talk and practising techniques like creative visualisation and mental rehearsal can help you to perform at your best, improving your accuracy, speed, technique and endurance.

To take one example, in a study at Nicholls State University in Los Angeles the reaction times of tennis players were shown to be faster when they had heard a positive or encouraging message beforehand, compared to when they were played a negative message.

In a meta-analysis of 32 sports psychology studies, published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Thessaly collected some key findings about the link between positive thinking and sports performance:

  • For sports tasks focussed on skill and technique, using “instructional self-talk” is the most effective way to channel positive thinking. For example, when concentrating on driving a golf ball, the player can benefit from focusing on thoughts like “keep your eye on the ball” or “swing with your hips.”
  • When you require endurance or strength, “motivational self-talk” is effective – telling yourself “you can do it!” might seem cheesy, but it works.
  • Positive self-talk is especially beneficial when learning a new skill, compared to when performing a familiar task. Sports psychologists suggest this is because positive thinking can make us better learners.
  • Mental rehearsal or visualisation exercises – where you imagine yourself performing at your best before you start – can be an effective way to condition your mind and prepare yourself for performance.

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