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Introduction to self-talk

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I think that self-talk, that is the things that we tell ourselves either out loud or internally, reflects a lot our beliefs about ourselves. When a Korean Starcraft player enters a North American tournament says to his teamates, “I’m going to go over there and kick some a$$,” it is because he is confident in his ability to at least place in the top 8. When a Halo Reach player cheers his team up before the match, “Let’s do our best!” it’s because he is confident in his ability to at least do his best, but not sure if he believes that will be good enough to win.

Many people realize that this is a cyclical affect. What you tell yourself changes what you believe about reality, and what you believe changes what you tell yourself. Here is a helpful little diagram:

Personal Beliefs –>

The big question is, how much do personal beliefs affect an elite athlete’s, or even a normal person’s, performance. Well it is quite common to see in sport that confident players are often more successful and make fewer errors in competition than equally skilled and less confident players. However, sometimes we see confident people who do not practice enough and fall off their game. What if that person were to tell themselves constantly, “I’m only this good because of my focused, serious practice, I need to work harder.” I think they would begin to believe it, and that it would change their actual behavior. If they then got back to winning we would have a clear example of one way self-talk can indirectly affect performance.

This article explains my idea of self-talk and all the ways it can help you succeed before a performance and even during one.

Ali’s confidence

One of my favorite examples of self-talk is Muhammed Ali in the lead up to his various fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman.

The video is pretty obvious when it comes to verbal self-talk. There is also internal self-talk. I’m sure that there were many more things that Ali told himself that he did not share out loud. Probably his doubts as well. Tied up in that were also his emotions and imagery, which are also ways we communicate with ourselves. However, I think that emotions are more reflexive and much harder to control, and imagery is something that must be practiced a lot before it can be used well. Self-talk though is really easy to do and really easy to catch yourself doing. So in my mind it is the easiest and best place to start working on your self-communication.

Jason’s self-talk

I wrote a little example taken from a real life situation that can help reveal the internal dialogue as well. “Jason” is a water-polo goalie and in the story he just missed a save during a live game. I underlined all the examples that I think show emotions, imagery and self-talk. This is different from Ali because it’s during the competition, where sudden results can easily break down any sort of confidence that was built up by talking-up yourself pre-performance. How can Jason use self-talk to change his reaction as the game is happening?

Jason is the goalie on a water-polo team. They are in the midst of an intense game with a rival team and there was a foul called on one of his teammates. The result is a penalty shot, which Jason does not save. In his mind he is frustrated with missing the save, and angry at his teammate for the penalty shot. He is embarrassed because the shot was an isolated moment in front of many friends and family, and he thinks to himself, “I should have had that, darn it.” Out loud he says, “damnit! I can’t believe you got a penalty shot.” During the next offensive push he finds himself scared of missing another save, and images of his mistake keep replaying in his mind when he is trying to prepare to save more goals. He can not help but think, “I’ll probably miss this next shot,” and he starts to panic a little bit.

You probably noticed that emotions play a big part of Jason’s story, and I think they are the most likely thing to have an effect on his next save attempt. One of the best ways to help control emotions is with self-talk. If Jason were to say, “I’ll get the next one. Mistakes and penalty shots are part of the game,” he would quickly get over the past and refocus that emotional energy towards the next save.

The science of self-talk

There has actually been quite a lot of research on using self-talk to do things like control emotions, boost confidence, help with focus, and make practice more efficient. For psychological skills trainers, self-talk is a technique used with many mental skills. Simple life skills such as achieving goals, self-confidence, and developing competence are enhanced with the correct use of self-talk. In the performance setting, such as professional eSports, self-talk is typically used to focus attention or manage energy and emotions (arousal or relaxation). It is a fundamental technique that is usually already well-developed in successful athletes, but all athletes, including amateurs, can still benefit from raising their awareness of self-talk and refining their ability.

Self-talk is usually described as the communication one has with him or herself, most often in the form of a voiced or internal narrative. Self-talk can be classified as either productive or unproductive. Productive self-talk has a positive affect on performance. Unproductive either has no effect or a negative effect on performance.

There are numerous ways to practice improving self-talk, and they all share the same fundamental principles. The first aspect is awareness of ones’ own self talk. The second is thought stoppage; using some sort of method for clearing your mind. The final step is then either countering the unproductive thoughts or reframing them into productive communication.

Self-talk in League of Legends

Like traditional sports, I think that self-talk has applications to League of Legends during practice and competition. Most performance sports benefit from competent self-talk because they require skills like moderating focus, reacting quickly to new information, or managing emotions. Since League of Legends is also a team game, self-talk has applications for improving team skills like communication, leadership, cohesion and team confidence or momentum.

What does it look like in-game?

The laning phase is one of the times when professional players usually differentiate themselves from amateur players by their ability to maintain broad focus on the playing field and still execute fundamentals such as last hitting, zoning, and trading. One example of self-talk’s use in LoL is with the skill of attentional focus during competition. There is a range of attentional focus that spans from narrow to broad. When focus is set to “wide-angle” a League of Legends athlete would be assimilating information from all over the map. When focus is set to “narrow angle” they would be taking in just their screen view, or possibly only their target. Soccer players use self-talk ‘cues’ to narrow (for penalty shots) or widen (during teamplay) their focus if they find themselves distracted. Esport athletes struggling to reduce their errors during laning phase due to missing key information could do the same.

Errors are especially important in League of Legends competition play, particularly in the end game stages. Similar to hockey, a single error can result in an absent teammate and a four versus five player field for a short time. Such errors usually result in turning over important game objectives to the opponents. Mistakes, of course, are inevitable, but often stem from bad judgement because of mental fatigue. When a player is mentally fatigued they cannot concentrate on as many things at the same time. For example, an argument among team members or a pressure situation like a teamfight could cause a silly slip-up. Using self-talk a player can stimulate their mental energy levels or use the emotions of the situation, such as anxiety or excitement, to increase their focus rather than distract from it.

Dealing with emotions, before and after the fact

In fact, self-talk can be used very well to modulate reactions to emotions. The general idea is that it is best to control one’s reaction to emotions rather than to try to condition emotions directly. Self-talk is extremely helpful for controlling one’s immediate reaction to emotions that would otherwise be distracting, such as frustration or anxiousness. For example, suppose a successful late game engagement results in an enemy death. Going into the next 5 versus 4 situation some athletes feel a sense of calmness or excitement in their victory. Calmness, however, has a negative effect on focus and readiness and could thus result in a nasty turnaround. Excitement is beneficial for energy, but can lower focus and cause distraction. If the athlete is aware of the affect being calm or over-excited has on his performance, he can have prepared some pre-set phrases to help arouse his emotions or increase his focus so he does not make a simple error in the upcoming engagement.

I want to use a sample video to discuss self-talk in a team setting in League of Legends. Since we cannot hear what is going on inside the athletes’ minds, I take the liberty of extrapolating a scenario using a recent video of team Counter Logic Gaming in their match versus Team Solo Mid during the NESL LoL season 2 playoffs. Start the video at 2:30 for the fight I analyze. Credit goes to GeneralWiser for availability on youtube. In the video we hear CLG setting up to take a game objective, the second top turret, after seeing that TSM’s Karthus player is bottom. As they approach the tower Chauster uses the phrase “watch out, the next tower is not free”. I believe this is meant both as communication for his team as well as for himself.

Take a moment to imagine yourself in a game “taking a free tower”, what are the prevailing emotions? If two or three opponents rush up against your team what is the response? As a team in a superior position I can easily imagine diving onto the enemy who foolishly overextend under a vulnerable, dying turret. Now imagine yourself in a game “fighting and clawing to take down a defended tower”, does the image play out differently in your mind? If their attack damage carry dashes forwards behind a tank I can easily imagine backing up and re-evaluating the strategy. Finally, what if you imagine yourself in a situation “quickly take this before they arrive and get out.” If 3 opponents show up and dash forward I might start frantically blowing summoners to escape. Each situation carries with it different emotions that lead to different reactions and tactical decisions. Now lets return to the game at hand.

Chauster goes into the situation in a fighting mindset, aware that the next tower might not fall as easily as the first, and he encourages his team to do the same. SaintVicious is under the impression that their Karthus is stuck bottom lane, and envisions this as a 5 versus 4 encounter with the possibility of a successful teamfight if the enemy overextends. We can clearly see in the replay that when the enemy team approaches the tower, 3 CLG members retreat, and SaintVicious stays extended and eventually initiates. It is my impression that if we took an emotional profiling of the 3 CLG members who stepped back at that moment we would find them with similar levels of confidence and excitement. SaintVicious probably shared the same emotions, but in different quantities. His confidence was clearly much, much higher than that of his team and so his instant reaction was different from theirs. Luckily these are highly skilled professionals and they reacted to his engagement by trading 4 for 3 and losing almost no tactical ground. After the engagement SaintVicious analyzes the situation and realizes he did not believe that Karthus could have joined the fight so fast.

Belief, emotions, and self-communication are intertwined in the human mind, and the easiest for us to effect as players is our self-talk. Using such a powerful tool we can help shape our beliefs and emotions to minimize errors and aim for consistent, high-level play. To read about identifying good or bad self-talk and activities for raising your awareness, check out the next article in this self-talk series here.