Whether through books like The Little Engine That Could or TV shows like Sesame Street, I think many of us have been exposed from an early age to the idea that positive thinking is a good thing and negative thinking is a bad thing.
And indeed, the research does suggest that pervasive and excessive negativity can not just be a real downer, but have some pretty adverse effects on our life as well.
But when it comes to the impact of spontaneous, negative self-talk on performance, the research is actually somewhat mixed. In that negative self-talk doesn’t always undermine performance like you might expect it to.
For instance, in a 1980 study of elite skiers (Rotella, Gansneder, Ojala, & Billing), the lower and higher-ranked skiers both reported experiencing about the same amount of negative self-talk.
And in a 1983 study (Highlen & Bennett), the wrestlers who qualified for the Pan-American championships reported more negative self-talk than those who failed to qualify.
Weird, right? How could this be? Does that mean negative self-talk could even be helpful at times?
Well, a 1994 tennis study (Van Raalte, Brewer, Rivera, & Petitpas) provides a little hint as to what might be going on.
Because in this study, the players who won their matches were more likely to win the point after experiencing negative self-talk, than the players who ended up losing their matches were.
So…could it be that the impact of negative self-talk depends on the individual in some way? That maybe it’s how we respond to the critic in our head that determines its effect on our performance?
A cycling challenge
A team of Canadian researchers (DeWolfe, Scott, & Seaman, 2020) decided to look into this a bit further, and recruited 93 participants (age range=18 to 29), to participate in a challenging bicycling task.
Essentially, they were asked to cycle the maximum distance possible in 20 minutes on an indoor bike simulator (with one of those video screens to simulate the experience of being on an actual bike course).
Every five minutes, the researchers measured how far the participants traveled, and also presented them with different self-talk statements to use, based on which self-talk group they were randomly assigned to.
Four types of self-talk
The motivational self-talk group used self-talk prompts like “Keep it up.”
The neutral self-talk group used phrases that were related to bicycling, but were pretty dry and emotion-less – like “The bike is red.”
The negative self-talk group used discouraging statements like “My legs are tired.”
And finally, the challenging self-talk group used the same discouraging statements as the negative group – but they added a statement at the end that embraced the negative thought as a challenge they could overcome. Like “My legs are tired, but I can push through it.”
And did there end up being any difference between the self-talk groups’ performance?
A performance difference
On average, yes, the challenging self-talk group did travel further in each 5-min interval than the other groups. Although, it should be noted that this difference, at the 5-min, 10-min, and 15-min time markers, wasn’t statistically significant.
But in the final 5 minutes of the cycling challenge, when everyone was the most fatigued, the challenging self-talk group’s performance edge over the other self-talk groups was statistically significant.
Which seems to suggest that maybe it isn’t the end of the world that our brain has this habit of spontaneously generating unhelpful and discouraging thoughts – so long as our inner critic doesn’t get the final word.
Using “buts” to your advantage
You know how sometimes someone will be giving you a compliment – but then you start to get the sense that there’s a “but” coming?
Like, “Your vibrato was really lovely, and I loved the richness of your sound, and it seems like you had a really clear idea of what you wanted to do musically…but your intonation was so inconsistent that it was hard to pay attention to anything else.”
(Or, as in the dreaded – and maddeningly misnamed – “compliment sandwich,” like “You’re so talented. But your rhythm is so erratic and unreliable. I liked that glissando you threw in there at the end though!” And incidentally, if you struggle with feedback-giving, here is a feedback formula to try that seems to be a less icky, and more effective alternative.)
To me at least, the “but” in these kinds of sentences makes the complimentary part sound obligatory and insincere, placed there to simply buffer the critique, which is really all they wanted to say.
But this week’s study makes me wonder if maybe this principle works in reverse too?
Like, when your inner critic says “That was really out of tune,” sure, that’s kind of a bummer.
But if you then respond with a “but” statement that’s centered around overcoming a challenge – like “That was really out of tune; but I’m sure I can solve this as I’ve dealt with tricky intonation challenges in the past,” the overall statement feels like it changes to one that’s more supportive, empowering, and performance-enhancing.
Of course, this particular study looked at performance from an endurance perspective, rather than skill development or performance of a highly technical or intricate skill, so you’ll want to take all of this with a grain of salt.
But then again, practicing does feel like a test of endurance in many ways – in that it can be easy to get frustrated, give up, or start beating yourself up when you’re faced with a particularly vexing challenge that doesn’t seem to be improving.
So before you embark on your next week of practice, try taking a couple minutes to a) write down a few discouraging or negative things that your inner critic is fond of saying.
And then b) write down a few counter-statements to make sure your inner dialogue ends on a more positive note, in which you embrace the problem as a challenge that you can totally overcome.
Like, “Ugh that sounded awful; c’mon, you can do better than that!”
Or “Man, this is so hard; but I’m sure I’ll find a solution if I just keep working at it and thinking creatively.”
DeWolfe, C. E. J., Scott, D., & Seaman, K. A. (2020). Embrace the Challenge: Acknowledging a Challenge Following Negative Self-Talk Improves Performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 1–31. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2020.1795951