When you hear the phrase “I think I can…I think I can…I think I can,” you probably think immediately of the classic children’s book The Little Engine That Could (and if by some chance you don’t remember it, here’s a retelling of the tale , or if you prefer, the Damon Wayans PG-13 version ).

It’s an uplifting little tale, and conveys a nice message about positive attitudes. But does saying “I think I can” actually do anything?

Can you compete under pressure?

A group of British researchers collaborated with BBC Lab UK to test out 12 different performance-enhancement strategies that elite athletes often use. Twelve sounds like a lot of different things to compare, but really it was just 3 different types of strategies – (1) self-talk, (2) imagery, and (3) if/then planning, plus 4 different sub-categories within each type – the categories being (a) outcome-focused (i.e. focusing on winning or losing), (b) process-focused (i.e. focusing on what it takes to win), (c) technical/strategic (i.e. tactical advice or instructions), and (d) arousal control (i.e. staying calm).

I’ll share some examples of these in a moment, but the gist is that they were curious to see if all of these strategies were equally effective in boosting competitive performance, or if some were more performance-enhancing than others.

“The Grid”

Through TV and radio ads (like this ), they were able to recruit 44,000+ participants to participate in an online competition/psychological skills training program, where they would compete against an opponent in a concentration game called “The Grid.” Which sounds like a super-intriguing game, but really, it was just a 6×6 grid of randomly arranged numbers from 1 to 36, where the goal is to find and click on each number in order as quickly as possible.

Each game consisted of four rounds, and between each round, they received some mental skills training from Olympic sprinter/4-time gold medalist Michael Johnson, in the form of pre-recorded videos.

The 12 strategies

Below are the 12 different sets of instructions the participants received, depending on which group they were randomly assigned to.

1. Self-talk (process)
“I can react quicker this time”

2. Self-talk (outcome)
“I can beat my best score”

3. Self-talk (arousal control)
“I will stay calm”

4. Self-talk (technical/strategic) 
“I will focus completely on each number I need to find”

5. Imagery (process)
“I want you to picture yourself playing the game, knowing that you can react quicker than you did last time.”

6. Imagery (outcome)
“I want you to picture yourself playing the game, and imagine beating your best score.”

7. Imagery (arousal control)
“I want you to picture yourself sitting in front of the computer calmly with no tension in your body.”

8. Imagery (technical/strategic) 
“See yourself scanning the whole grid to find the next number, moving the pointer back to middle of grid after finding each one.”

9. If/then planning (process)
“IF I start worrying about mistakes, THEN…I will say to myself, “Good performance last time. I can do it again!”

10. If/then planning (outcome)
“IF I can’t find the number, THEN…I will tell myself that I can beat my best score!”

11. If/then planning (arousal control)
“IF I find myself holding my breath, THEN…I will say to myself, ‘I will stay focused!’”

12. If/then planning (technical/strategic) 
“IF I lose my concentration, THEN…I will move the pointer to the middle of the grid after each number!”

13. A 13th group served as the control, and were given only some generic advice about getting mentally prepared
“You have played the game now. You have to find the numbers and finding them can be challenging. It’s a different grid but the challenges will be similar. Spend some time getting mentally ready. Give yourself about 90 seconds to prepare, before you start the next round.”

Which ones do you like?

Which ones do you think would result in the best improvement in scores? Take a moment and pick out the ones you think you might be inclined to use.

And here’s a hint to help you narrow it down: 4 of the 12 were associated with significantly faster times than the rest.

The four winning strategies

Every group got better with practice, and ultimately, I think there’s a time and place for each of the 12 strategies that were compared above. But the greatest improvements in scores occurred with the following four groups:

  • Self-talk outcome group (these are the folks who said things to themselves like ”I can beat my best score”)
  • Self-talk process group (e.g. “I can react quicker this time”)
  • Imagery outcome group (these folks used visualization to imagine themselves beating their best score)
  • Imagery process group (e.g. imagining yourself reacting quicker than last time)

Do you notice something of a theme?

These are all motivational in nature, no? Similar to the idea of “I think I can,” these four in particular seem to focus exclusively on being open to the possibility of greater success in the next round.

So how does this relate to practicing or performing?

Takeways

Any time we learn something new, it can be easy to get discouraged by the level of our performance in the early going. It’s not fun when our ego takes a hit, and if we are accustomed to being good at what we do, and picking things up pretty easily, it can be tempting to give up on ourselves a bit prematurely.

But how quickly you learn a skill in the beginning stages is not necessarily predictive of how well you will be able to perform that skill in the end. So, whether it’s tackling a new genre of music (like joining a baroque ensemble and being flummoxed by the lack of chinrest), or exploring a new facet of your skillset (like improvisation, whether it be in classical or jazz), focusing less on how well you’re doing, and more on simply doing a little better next time seems like it could be a much better strategy for success both in the short term, and in the long run.

So yes, it turns out there is something to that line from the classic children’s book after all. Saying “I think I can” really does seem to help improve performance!