Looking at some of the articles being shared and tweeted at the moment, I see a lot of support for positive affirmations and articles for self-talk i.e. “How self-talk can help your performance”.
But while I was prepping for my internship in Sweden, I came to stumble upon some interesting insights. I had been looking for articles and books (in the Fall of 2011) on the applied work of sport psychology in professional football/soccer but was hard-pressed to find much except for Professor Mark Nesti’s —Psychology in Football.
What I read opened my eyes to what it was like to work with professional footballers in England’s leagues and it was nothing like I read in the classroom nor the textbooks.
One of the points was that the typical psychological skills training (PST) like “self-talk” flaunted in textbooks wasn’t of much use in the big leagues either because the players had many of these skills already or (after critical review of the research) they were actually fundamentally ineffective.
The second time, during my thesis on mindfulness techniques, I found yet a second similar revelation from Frank Gardner and Zella Moore who had also reviewed PST research and found similar results, PST techniques were inconclusive and at times even worked against individuals even stated from the researchers themselves.
Further support came from research via the Ironic Process Theory by Daniel M. Wegner.
“The theory of ironic processes of mental control holds that any intentional control of the mind introduces an operating process that directs conscious attention—focusing our minds on positive thoughts, for example, if we are hoping to improve our mood. This process is accompanied, however, by an ironic monitoring (subconscious) process that looks for the failure of our intention. Such monitoring can, when we are stressed or under mental load, actually promote the unwanted mental state—for example, making us sad when we want to be happy…
…and can produce unwanted actions in sports and performance settings as well.” (Wegner, Ansfield, & Pilloff, 1998)
A recent meta-analysis on self-talk and sports performance was published by Hatzigeorgiadis and his colleagues in 2011. I’ve found several pop-sci articles which also wrote about this study and its “positive” benefits.
But upon closer inspection, I noticed some interesting details within the study that should raise some eyebrows.
The authors state that within their meta-analysis of studies, that a moderate effect size (= 0.48) was found overall in support for self-talk use.
This effect size dropped to = 0.26 in gross tasks (large sport movements) as opposed to fine tasks (0.67), i.e. dart throwing.
These studies were less effective with more experienced athletes.
The sample sizes within the studies analyzed were small thus potentially over-exaggerating effect sizes.
Importantly, the authors themselves also stated there is a— “lack of systematic examinations of the effectiveness of self-talk in competitive settings.”
The relatively few experimental studies on athletes in actual competitive situations has also been addressed by Martin and colleagues (2005). Weinberg and Comar (1994) have also brought up shortcomings of PST studies which were applicable within the self-talk meta-analysis. Having looked at just the studies within soccer/football (which were very few), I found such concerns. Some of these included:
Manipulation checks (these were missing in some studies)
Did self-talk improve say shooting or did repetitive practice aid performance?
- Inclusion of placebo groups to address a potential expectancy effect
- Diverse and large participant sample sizes
I also found one study (not included in the meta-analysis) by Hardy and his colleagues (2005) which found no correlation between performance and self-talk in gross movements.
The mere fact that the authors themselves stated that self-talk has not been studied in actual competitive environments, nor systematically, provides grounds for concern.
Compounded with the potential for the Ironic Process Theory to affect self-talk in competitive and stress induced environments, it appear the jury should still be out regarding self-talk, especially in gross motor movements and competition.
Updating outdated techniques isn’t new in scientific fields. Lobotomies and phrenology were also once common practice. Critical and skeptical reviews have changed that. Maybe sport psychology has also some growing pains and closer reviews to endure.
Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Galanis, E., & Theodorakis, Y. (2011). Self-talk and sports performance: A meta-analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6: 348
Martin, G. L., Vause, T., & Schwartzman, L. (2005). Experimental studies of psychological interventions with athletes in competitions: Why so few? Behavior Modification, 29, 616–641.
Nesti M. 2010. Psychology in Football. Routledge.
Wegner, D. M., Ansfield, M. E., & Pilloff, D. (1998). The putt and the pendulum: Ironic effects of the mental control of action. Psychological Science, 9, 196-199.
Alex Titkov studied the European master’s in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Lund University (Sweden) and at the Universität Leipzig (Germany) with a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise Science and Russian Area Studies from St. Olaf College (USA). Alex has worked with Swedish football club Ängelholm FF’s U21 squad and is the editor of the EMSEP blog. His areas of interest include imagery and mindfulness.
Follow Alex on Twitter: @alextitkov