Be Careful What You Say to Yourself

“I am the greatest!” — Muhammed Ali

What do you think the late, great Muhammad Ali said to himself that made him come out and publicly claim that he was the greatest? Do you think his self-talk may have been overwhelmingly positive?

The next thing Ali said when he first made that famous declaration, which is not often quoted is, “…I said that even before I knew I was.”

We can be our own harshest critics. We say things to ourselves that we wouldn’t dream of saying to others. Why do we do this? What is it doing to our performance? How can we improve our self-talk and our performance?

The Self System

Your attitudes, abilities, and cognitive skills comprise what is known as the self-system. This system plays a major role in how we perceive situations and how we behave in response to different situations.

Self-efficacy is an essential part of this self-system. In his seminal 1977 paper, “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioural Change”, psychologist Albert Bandura describes self-efficacy as “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.”

In other words, self-efficacy is a person’s belief in his or her ability to succeed in a particular situation. When you have a high-level of self-efficacy, or self-belief, in your ability to perform a task, you are far more likely to be successful in the achievement of that task than someone with low self-belief.


Our self-talk is inextricably linked to our self-belief, which affects our performance, which affects our self-talk. It is a never-ending circle. One affects the other and vice versa. When the chips are down and you’re struggling, your self-talk can raise you up or defeat you. For example, how many times have you watched an athlete make error after error, where one error seems to merge into another. Nothing is going right. In that type of situation, athletes will generally respond in one of two ways:

He becomes more and more defeated. His whole body language changes as he drops his head, moves slowly, arms down by his sides. He avoids getting involved in the next play or he avoids the ball.

OR, she keeps her head up. There’s a spring in her step. She is eager to get after it and be involved in the next play. She wants that ball.

How do you think the self-talk differs in these two situations? One is full of negativity and criticism. The other is positive, supportive and encouraging. Self-talk will enhance or diminish self-belief, and self-belief will enhance or diminish performance.

Did you watch the sideline footage of Tom Brady and Julian Edelman in this year’s Super Bowl? The Pats were down and out. Or so WE all thought. Those who that mattered, the guys on the field, knew differently. They were full of positive self-talk for each other, even while well behind and challenged in every facet of the game. And we all know what happened next.

Improving Your Self-Talk

When you face an obstacle, when a workout is getting tough, when you’re in a race and doubt is creeping in, what do you say to yourself? Is it positive or negative? Is it enhancing or diminishing your performance? The first step in changing your self-talk is awareness of what you’re saying to yourself. Here are some more ways to have a more productive conversation with yourself:

  1. Crush any negative thoughts like a bug. Replace them with positive thoughts. Instead of: “I’m so far behind, I’ll never catch up”, use: “I’m going to keep pushing as hard as I can. I’m giving it my all. I’m going to catch the next person.”
  2. Eliminate the word “CAN’T”. Instead of: “I can’t do double-unders. I’m so uncoordinated!”, use: “I’m going to keep working on these until I get them. I’ve got this.
  3. Be grateful for obstacles and challenges. They can be a blessing in disguise. It’s the tough times, the hard things in life that make us who we are.
  4. See failure as stepping stones to success. It’s from failures that we learn our greatest lessons. You learn far more from a defeat than you do from a win.
  5. Don’t compare yourself to others. Be inspired by them.
  6. Surround yourself with those who are positive and lift you up, not bring you down.
  7. Accept constructive criticism with grace, but ignore the haters.
  8. Use positive affirmations to improve your self-talk. Like anything, self-talk needs to be practiced and reinforced until it’s second nature. That way, when things are tough, you’ll already have the skill. Affirmations are a great way to develop this skill.

Your self-talk is crucial to your performance in sport and in life. Developing the skill of positive and supportive self-talk is a powerful performance enhancer. Start today by simply being aware of your self-talk. Then try some of the suggestions above for strengthening your self-talk skill.