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Motivational interpretation of self-talk statements

Generally, sport and exercise psychologists have conceptualised self-talk as either positive or negative and motivational or instructional in nature. A number of different factors will play a role in helping an athlete to determine whether they employ instructional or motivational self-talk (re-visit section 3.2 for a recap). We might use the title ‘proactive self-talk’ to encompass both instructional and motivational self-talk. More specifically, proactive self-talk is when we use our inner voice with a specific intention or outcome in mind, and it requires us to expend mental effort.

Instructional Self-Talk

Instructional self-talk has been effectively used for decades in clinical and educational settings, and has become one of the most widely used mental techniques by athletes during the early stages of learning. More specifically, Perkos and Theodorakis (2002)1 suggested that instructional self-talk has a particular application for novice or young athletes who might have difficulties focusing and recalling information. Further to this, instructional self-talk lends itself to closed skills. Closed skills are those that are not affected by the environment, so the athlete has a high level of control over how the skill is executed. For example, a darts player throwing a dart or a gymnast completing a routine on the beam.

As a concept, instructional self-talk is the use of cues that instruct or guide certain aspects of performance. For example, “set-up”, “left foot”, “knees high” are all examples of instructional self-talk statements. These statements are instructional in nature, and might help an individual successfully master or execute a particular skill.

Landin and Hebert (1999)2 delivered an instructional self-talk intervention to a group of elite collegiate tennis players. The performance of those players in the intervention group significantly improved, which was attributed to enhanced focus on appropriate parts of shot execution. More recently, Van Raalte et al. (2018)3 found that instructional self-talk had a positive impact on SCUBA divers ability to focus as well as their self-confidence.

Motivational Self-Talk

Motivational self-talk refers to statements that motivate our performance, for example “Let’s go” and “You can do this”. More specifically, the motivational function includes;

a.Motivational arousal function – psyching up, relaxation, arousal control b.Motivational mastery function – confidence, mental toughness c.Motivational drive function – regulation of effort

Consequently, it is suggested that motivational self-talk might be beneficial for athletes in enhancing their self-efficacy, persistence and mood. Motivational self-talk may also be most appropriate for athletes who participate in open skills. These are skills that are influenced by a number of variables where the starting point is determined by the environment. Examples include; team-based sports such as hockey, football and rugby, or individual sports such as surfing and cross country running.

Thelwell and Greenlees (2003)4 explored the effects of a psychological skills training program on the performance of recreational triathletes. The results showed that the self-talk aspect of the intervention increased both the athletes’ motivation and their self-confidence. In addition to this, Johnson et al. (2004)5 used a motivational self-talk intervention to improve the confidence of a group of female footballers with a focus on shooting accuracy.


In 2011, Hatzigeorgadis et al.6 explored all of the research studies that have looked at instructional and motivational self-talk. The following conclusions can be drawn from the paper:

  • Instructional self-talk is more effective than motivational self-talk at enhancing performance on fine motor tasks such as archery;
  • Instructional self-talk was more effective when used to enhance the performance of closed skills rather than open skills;
  • Instructional self-talk increased attentional focus and helped performers to improve the technical, tactical and kinaesthetic elements of performance;
  • Motivational self-talk increased effort, enhanced self-confidence and left performers feeling energised;
  • Instructional self-talk as more effective in improving the performance of novel skills;
  • Motivational self-talk was more beneficial for sports that required arousal regulation e.g. boxing;
  • Both instructional and motivational self-talk were associated with enhanced sports performance;
  • The positive performance effects of self-talk were enhanced by increased practice and frequency of self-talk;

Identify three sports that you think would be suited to instructional self-talk, and another three that would be suited to motivational self-talk. Explain what sport specific characteristics have contributed to your choices. Share your answers and ideas in the Discussion.


  1. Perkos, S., Theodorakis, Y., & Chroni, S. (2002). Enhancing performance and skill acquisition in novice basketball players with instructional self-talk. The Sport Psychologist, 16(4), 368-383.
  2. Landin, D., & Hebert, E. P. (1999). The influence of self-talk on the performance of skilled female tennis players. Journal of applied sport psychology, 11(2), 263-282.
  3. Van Raalte, J. L., Wilson, L., Cornelius, A., & Brewer, B. W. (2018). Self-Talk in a SCUBA Diving Context. The Sport Psychologist, 32(3), 244-247.
  4. Thelwell, R. C., & Greenlees, I. A. (2003). Developing competitive endurance performance using mental skills training. The Sport Psychologist, 17(3), 318-337.
  5. Johnson, J. J., Hrycaiko, D. W., Johnson, G. V., & Halas, J. M. (2004). Self-talk and female youth soccer performance. The Sport Psychologist, 18(1), 44-59.
  6. Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Galanis, E., & Theodorakis, Y. (2011). Self-talk and sports performance: A meta-analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(4), 348-356.

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This article is from the free online course:

Mental Skills Training for Sport and Health

Manchester Metropolitan University