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Science has found a motivational trick that actually improves your performance

You got this!

DAVID NIELD
1 JUL 2016
 

Tune into any major sporting event, and you'll see some players looking calm and composed while others are visibly trying and psyche themselves up for the challenge ahead. But does pumping yourself into a frenzy of confidence actually work? According to a new study by researchers in the UK, it does.

After testing more than 44,000 people playing an online game, the team found that those who kept telling themselves they could improve - a common trick used by psychologists - achieved the best scores.

 

The use of imagery - where players imagined themselves beating their best score before they played - was effective, too, though not to the same extent as self-talk, the study found.

"Results suggest that psychological skills focused on outcome and process goals had the strongest positive effects on performance speed, coupled with increased positive emotions," explained the researchers in the report, published in Frontiers in Psychology.

The team, drawn from a number of universities and staff at the BBC Lab UK, also noted that self-talk resulted in additional benefits besides better performance, because it's such a simple and easy technique for anyone to get a handle on.

Watching a short motivational video before playing the game was also found to have a positive effect, the report says.

'If-then planning' - spelling out a course of action and what will happen as a result - was found to be the least effective way of improving performance during the game.

The experiment involved people logging on to the computer game at home before being told which motivational strategy to try. The game involved completing a grid of numbers in the right order against an opponent. 

 

At a grand total of 44,742, the number of participants in this experiment is way above the usual level for psychology studies, which usually involve less than 300 people. Volunteers were recruited through adverts on various BBC services and could log into the test on their computers at home.

Several previous studies have also highlighted the benefits of a little personal pep talk when it comes to reaching your potential - it's been shown to reduce anxiety and increase self-confidence, as well as having an effect on how well someone performs.

If you want to boost your own level of performance with self-talk, keep your inner monologue short, precise and consistent, says sports psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, over at Psych Central.

"It is a matter of personal preference or what works for each person," Hatzigeorgiadis explains. "But generally, it is advised that self-talk is positively rather than negatively phrased and focuses on what you should do rather than on what you should avoid."

The study has its limitations - it was unsupervised, so the scientists don't exactly know what was going on in each player's home. It also only looked at one specific task, which doesn't necessarily reflect other abilities.

But seeing as studies have shown that, when it comes to sport, at least, practice alone isn't going to take you to the elite level, a little positive self-talk can't hurt, especially if it makes you do just a little bit better next time.

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