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We all talk to ourselves when we run, especially during races and hard workouts. (Ideally, most of this isn’t audible to others.) These conversations with ourselves are known as self-talk. Research has consistently shown that the right kind of self-talk can improve athletic performance. Take, for example, a study conducted at Bangor University in Wales.
To start, 24 cyclists rode at 80% of their peak power for as long as possible; most fit people can sustain this effort level for about 10 minutes. Over the next two weeks, half of the cyclists received training in helpful self-talk. Then all of the cyclists repeated the time-to-exhaustion trial. The self-talk group lasted an average of 18%, or almost two minutes, longer than in the first trial. Those who hadn’t been taught self-talk techniques performed slightly worse than the first time around.
Athletes use two main forms of self-talk. Motivational self-talk (sometimes referred to as positive self-talk) serves many functions; you can use it to increase the effort you exert (“I’m going to give it everything I have”) or build belief and self-confidence (“I can do this”). Instructional self-talk involves cues or trigger words. Telling yourself “Drop your shoulders” or “Run tall” can help you maintain concentration or channel your focus.
Those general frameworks are a good starting point in using self-talk to get the most out of yourself. But you can get even more benefit from self-talk by honing how you address yourself. There’s growing evidence that calling yourself “you” is usually better than calling yourself “I” in challenging situations.
You Talking to Me?
To gain insight into the effects of how we speak to ourselves, some of the Bangor University researchers who conducted the cycling time-to-exhaustion trials mentioned earlier did a follow-up study in which they had sixteen individuals do three 10-kilometer cycling time trials in separate sessions. The first time trial set a baseline level of performance and familiarized the participants with the study’s procedures.
Immediately after this first trial, the participants completed a self-talk introduction and workbook. During this session, participants identified their spontaneous self-talk during the first time trial and developed an alternative list of motivational self-statements they could use during the next two time trials. The participants recorded two versions of each of these statements: one beginning with the first-person pronoun “I” and the other beginning with the second-person pronoun “you.” So, for example, if a participant said “This is hurting” during the first time trial, the statement was transformed to a more motivational first- and second-person statement, such as “I can tolerate this” and “You can tolerate this.” The personalized lists included a range of motivational statements in addition to “I/You can tolerate this,” including, “I/You can keep going,” and “I am/You are going to finish strong.”
During the remaining two time trials, completed in a random order, the participants used the first-person statements on one occasion and the second-person statements on the other. The results revealed that, although participants found the “I” and “you” statements equally motivating, they performed 2.2% (or 23 seconds) faster in the second-person (“you”) time trial than in the first-person (“I”) time trial. Importantly, however, they didn’t perceive the second-person time trial to feel any harder than the first-person trial, despite cycling faster.
What this study suggests is that both what we say to ourselves and how we say it can be important.
An example from running history involves Meb Keflezighi in the 2012 Olympic Marathon. At the halfway point, Keflezighi was in 21st place, well off his usual spot in or near the front pack, and was battling foot pain and stomach issues. “I should drop out,” Keflezighi told himself. “My foot hurts, I’m falling farther behind with every mile, I feel like I’m going to get sick. I’m already scheduled to run the New York City Marathon in less than three months. I should save myself for that race.”
Then Keflezighi thought about the family and friends who had traveled to London to watch him race and expected to see him at the finish line. He thought about how many people would love to be running the Olympic Marathon in a Team USA uniform. He thought about the example dropping out would set for his young daughters. After taking stock, Keflezighi told himself, “You’re going to get to the finish line no matter what.”
Drawing on his years of racing experience, Keflezighi latched on to the nearest pack. As his nerves and stomach settled, his competitive instincts kicked in. “Beat at least one of these guys,” he told himself. Twenty-first place became 20th, then 19th, then 16th, and so on, as other runners fell off the pace. Success built on success. Just more than an hour after almost dropping out, Keflezighi crossed the line in fourth place. His race that day gave him the confidence he could still run with the best in the world, and set up his Boston Marathon win less than two years later.
The important thing to note from Keflezighi’s case is that, as his narrative shifted from resignation to resolve, he addressed himself in the second person. When we speak to ourselves in the second person, or use our own name, it helps to create a self-distancing effect, a psychological sense of distance between us and the challenging situation we’re in. Distancing, and taking a different perspective, is a form of reappraisal whereby we evaluate a situation as if it were happening to someone else rather than ourselves.
Adopting this perspective can help to change our emotional response and, in doing so, change how we feel in a situation. The opposite is a self-immersed perspective where we are, in every sense, caught up in the emotion of events as they happen to us (“I can’t do it. I don’t get it”). Although this is a relatively new area of research interest with athletes, the available evidence from non-athletic domains seems to confirm that it may be easier to change our interpretation of stressful events in the moment, and perform better, by taking a second-person, self-distanced perspective than by retaining a first-person, self-immersed perspective.
Some examples of the benefits of self-distancing come from studies by a team of researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Michigan State University; and the University of California, Berkeley. These researchers investigated the use of first-person pronouns, such as “I” or “my,” versus the use of second-person pronouns, like “you,” or one’s own name to regulate thoughts, feelings, and behaviors before, during, and after socially stressful situations. These situations included making a positive first impression on a potential romantic partner, as one might need to do when going on a date; giving a public speech or interview; and ruminating over past anxiety or anger-provoking events.
The researchers found that those who used second-person statements or their own name felt less anxious and appraised stressful events, like public speaking, as more of a challenge and less of a threat than those who spoke to themselves in the first person. They also experienced lower anger and less shame, and felt better when reflecting on these events. Individuals employing second-person statements were also subjectively rated as performing better during a public speech or interview. In a nice example provided in the research paper, the authors give insight into the self-talk of one male participant during an apparently anxiety-inducing date. Hands up if you’ve been there (yep!):
[Participant’s name], you need to slow down. It’s a date; everyone gets nervous. Oh jeez, why did you say that? You need to pull it back. Come on man, pull it together. You can do this.
These studies suggest that a subtle shift in how we speak to ourselves, in addition to what we say, can have a profound impact on our ability to manage our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors during a diverse range of stressful events. As with most psychological skills, this form of self-talk can be practiced and improved. The next time you’re struggling up a hill, or thinking about bailing on a workout, notice how you’re addressing yourself. If you’re calling yourself “I,” switch to “you,” and talk to yourself as a coach or friend might. You won’t regret it.
Excerpted from The Genius of Athletes: What World-Class Competitors Know That Can Change Your Life. Copyright © 2021 by Noel Brick, PhD, and Scott Douglas. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available everywhere books are sold.