The Coach in Your Head: How to Get Better at Self-Talk

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Self talk is the world’s most mysterious language. We all do it constantly — you know, that whisper that comes into your head at key moments, the one that says, okay, take a deep breath… keep your weight on the balls of your feet… now go!  — but it happens mostly unconsciously, and nobody talks about it.

Which is strange, because when it comes to skills, self talk is a massively useful tool. For example, studies show that skilled athletes tend to self-talk more often, and in a more planned and consistent manner (less-skilled athletes tend merely to react). Sprinters who self-talk run faster. Good self talk functions like an early-warning radar system, helping us to identify key moves and navigate problems. Done well, it’s like having a coach inside your head.

But here’s the question: if self talk is a good thing, how do we get better at it? Is it possible to teach it, the same way you’d learn any language?  With that in mind, here are a few tips — some from experiments, some from my observations.

1) Keep it short and chunky. Good self talk is never chatty or complicated. It divides the skill into its key moves, and uses those as clear cues. For example, with a golf swing:

  • Say this: “Smooth arms, still head.”
  • Not this: “Okay, let’s keep the takeaway smooth, relax your posture, make sure to keep your head still through the backswing.”

2) Make it vivid. The more vivid the image, the easier it is to remember, and to do. For example, with a violin player working on posture:

  • Say this: “Stand like a tree.”
  • Not this: “Make sure you stand up straight.”

3) Keep it positive. Don’t focus on what you want to avoid, but on what you want to accomplish. For example, for a soccer player practicing penalty kicks:

  • Say this: “Keep tempo; hit it clean.”
  • Not this: “Don’t rush the shot, don’t get under the ball.”

Finally, and maybe most usefully, fluent self-talkers don’t just talk to themselves during their performance; they also do it before and after. Self talk is like a game tape: you use it to preview what’s going to happen, and then afterwards you use it again to walk through what happened, and figure out how you might do it better the next time.


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8 Responses to “The Coach in Your Head: How to Get Better at Self-Talk”

  1. Rob says:

    Good stuff Daniel!

  2. Matt says:

    Hey Daniel I have a question, I am studying audio engineering and I was wondering if you could think of any inventive ways to help me to continue to grow my critical listening skills. I already do frequency ear training and apply many of the techniques in the book. If you think of anything please let me know

  3. stephwn waymire says:

    GREAT SIMPLE AND TO THE POINT. I love the way u use simple words to get to the point. I teach little kids tennis and always try to teach them to use positive self talk. Tell yourself what to do and not what not to do. ALSO TALK TO YOURSELF LIKE WOULD TALK TO YOUR DOUBLES PARTNER.

  4. Jason Maxwell says:

    I’m in my 8th year as an elementary school teacher and have come to understand the intricacies of good teaching. Or, more accurately, after 8 years I am BEGINNING to understand the art of teaching. This self talk thing often gets a laugh from my students because it isn’t always to myself. As I’m moving around the classroom engaging with the students its not uncommon for my lips to be moving. Sometimes I am practicing what I’m going to say next (Where do we see adaptations in plants?), sometimes it is the kind of self talk described above. Usually I am checking myself and my attitude (calm and assertive, calm and assertive). Either way its good for me and the students get a kick out of it. They no longer ask me, “Why are you talking to yourself?” at this point it is just, “What are you going to say to us next?”

    On an aside I love The Talent Code. I’m convinced that if I could merge the concepts in The Talent Code, Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and Getting to Got It by Betty Garner I could pretty much crack this education thing. I’ll be sure to let you know when it happens.

  5. djcoyle says:

    Hey Matt,

    Listening well is all about identifying patterns. The first step to that is decoding what makes something good. I’d suggest taking some of your favorite alltime recordings and breaking them down — dissecting them, on paper, to see what exactly makes them work. Sorta like a quarterback looks at game film, or a writer analyzes Dickens. See what patterns you find. Good luck, Dan

  6. djcoyle says:

    Hey Jason, Great comment. When I read about you walking around the classroom with your lips moving, I realized: I think I do the same thing in my office. Nice that your students can see you modeling that.
    On another front, I’ve never heard of the Garner book you reference. Should I check it out? Thanks, Dan

  7. Jason Maxwell says:

    Hey Daniel, Getting To Got It by Betty Garner is a book that is usually considered specific to teaching, but I think it has wider implications. It describes the various mental constructs that humans form during development (conservation of mass, spatial relationships, temporal relationships, etc). She discusses it from the standpoint of teaching. Her argument is that reason students have troulbe mastering concepts is that they haven’t developed the necessary mental construct for it. For example, if a student has difficulty mesuring liquid, it is probably a lack of development in the construct of conservation of volume (can’t remember her actual phrasing). I reccomend it to anyone interested in the learning process as it has helped me understand and overcome many of the challenges faced by my students.

  8. Hello.
    I just discovered your site: The Coach in Your Head:
    How to Get Better at Self-Talk

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