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Does your motivation drop after a losing streak?

Do you get frustrated when a night that was supposed to be full of training, ends up feeling completely wasted with troll teams and not getting to play your role?

Do you go sometimes go into matches completely confident, and other times apprehensive?

If so, you are in good company. Athletes of all levels experience the same emotions: strength, confidence, motivation, or worry, doubt, and anxiety. The biggest difference between professional players and amateurs is understanding why those emotions occur personally, and how to deal with them.

Awareness and tools. They are the mental edge that elite players use to be better than the rest.

It’s better to say awareness and coping skills, these are the two essential parts of a mentally tough athlete.

Today begins a three-part series on self-talk.

Self-talk is both a way to become aware of your mental state, and to help cope with it in order to play at your peak performance level.

Mental toughness means being able to play at your peak, even when you feel doubt, anxiety, and low motivation. It means overcoming adversity through mental effort, and never letting it affect your match.

In this three-part series first we will cover what IS self-talk and why it matters.

In the second part we will cover how to ANALYZE your self-talk and identify the difference between positive self-talk and productive self-talk. We’ll also go over a striking finding from the science of sport psychology, that negative self-talk is not bad for performance. Instead, we will discover how to identify unproductive self-talk. This dangerous self-talk can sound positive while being detrimental to how you perform.

In the third part of this series I’ll give you concrete TOOLS to take into match situations in order to deal with your mindset. Ensuring you can perform when necessary, no matter what kind of day you are having.

So without further ado, let’s get started.

Why does self-talk matter?

Here are two statements. What is the difference between the athletes who said them?

“I could kick your a$$ one-on-one.”

“Let’s do our best.”

The talk reveals a lot about the athlete’s mindset and their beliefs. And even more than that, talk also has a cyclical effect. It comes back in the ears and influences beliefs!

“I can do this.”

Said by Jason Lezak right before he swam the fastest split in history and won Phelps his impossible Gold medal.

Here’s a small graphic:

Personal Beliefs




Let me go over 5 facts about self-talk.

1. Self-talk isn’t true, but it is real

We use self-talk to boost ourselves up and to beat ourselves down.

He who says he can and he who says he can’t are usually both right. ~Confucius

Your actual innate beliefs often differ from what we tell ourselves quietly in our head, and especially what we utter out of our mouths.

The big question is, how much do personal beliefs affect an elite athlete’s, or your, performance?

2. Self-talk affects performance

If we only go by observation, then we can see people who are equally skilled + confident do better than equally skilled + less confident players. However, sometimes we see confident people who do not practice enough. Or fall of their game. Or simply lose out in skill.

The science bears out this observation. Self-talk does in fact have an effect on performance. However it’s complicated. You’ll see more examples in points three and four.

If you have any of these problems, improving your self-talk can help:

  • Not learning from losses
  • Losing motivation on a losing streak
  • Getting pissed off at teammates
  • Going on tilt in an important match (requires more than just self-talk to prevent, unless you become a self-talk god…)
  • Dedication to practice during a game
  • Getting in the mindset before a match starts
  • Focusing on common mistakes you make

In the next session we’ll go over how to improve your own self-talk. However, in the next points three and four you’ll see two simple examples of exactly how self-talk transfers from a mindset issue to an in-game issue.

3. Positive self-talk isn’t always good

Let’s start with practice time.

If you do some amazing play, and then tell yourself “I’m awesome,” statistics show that you will be less likely to improve.

Wait a minute, isn’t that good positive reinforcement? Turns out it’s actually bad positive reinforcement. The best message is “Yes! My effort paid off!”

Studies show that athletes who believe that effort yields results perform consistently better, improve faster, and get better after losses compared to athletes who believe that they win because of their talent.

And because self-talk affects belief and self-talk in a way reveals beliefs, the results show up in studies on self-talk.

So start praising your effort. Hopefully if you learn one thing from me in all of my courses it is the core truth of all elite performance: The only talent that exists is hard work.

4. Negative self-talk isn’t always bad

What people usually don’t realize is that negative self talk does bad self-talk. There’s two kinds of negative self-talk. The kind that helps you perform and the kind that hurts you.

“Dangit I screwed up. Don’t lose focus, $%^#!”

“Dangit I suck. Gotta stop sucking, #&$@.”

Yeah, they look similar, but the small differences are huge. Both of these are negative. But one of these is a value judgement, and the other one is a confession.

Value judgements usually don’t ever help you perform better. Often they hurt your performance because they define who you are and how good you are, or who your opponent is and how good they are. Reality should NOT be defined in your head. It’s defined out on the field of play, by the result of the contest.

The first one is an admission. Even though it is negative, it’s actually healthy. People who blame others for their losing often keep making the same mistakes over and over. Recognizing and admitting your errors in every team-fight goes a long way to improving team-fighting skills.

4. Self-talk can be improved

The final fact about self-talk is that there is a recipe for improvement. There’s a proven path that countless successful athletes have taken to change harmful self-talk into productive self-talk.

In my next session I’ll teach the three-step path on how to recognize, stop, and redirect unproductive self-talk to improve how you handle training and live matches.

Thanks for reading,


Session 2

Knowledge is power, understanding your own self-talk

Welcome to the second session on self-talk and how to improve your performance. In the first session I went over five facts about self-talk:

  • Self-talk isn’t true, but it is real
  • Self-talk affects performance
  • Positive self-talk isn’t always good
  • Negative self-talk isn’t always bad
  • Self-talk can be improved

Knowledge is power

This phrase gets used a lot. In the context of this course it might be better to say that “Awareness is power.”

  • Good singers listen to recordings of their own voice.
  • Ballet dancers practice in front of mirrors.
  • Athlete’s analyze videos of their own movements.
  • Professional league players watch replays of their games.

Why do all these things work? It might be better to ask, why don’t other things work. The answer is because learning is so complex we can’t figure it out. How does a ballet dancer learn a new dance move? If we were to break-down the neuroscience it probably would NOT be a 12-step process or a 3-part course. It would be billions of thoughts, millions of emotions, thousands of motions, hundreds of days.

The most effective way humanity has discovered to teach these incredibly complex skills is through observing our own movement and improving it. Awareness.

The first step to improving self-talk. Yes, you guessed it. Awareness!

After awareness comes two techniques, or tips, for turning unproductive self-talk into productive, motivating self-talk. The kind of self-talk that influences your beliefs in a positive way.

However, the most important step is the first. Even if you never get to part three in this series and learn the two tips, it won’t matter. Simply by being aware of your self-talk you will be able to improve it. To coach yourself. To learn. You’ll figure out through trial and error what helps you succeed and what drives you to failure.

That’s why today’s entire session is on awareness building.

So let’s get right into it.

Activity 1: Monitoring

This is a simple activity. It involves carrying around pennies or paperclips in a pocket, or keeping them on your desk. You may recognize this activity from The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Habit. Yes, this children’s book teaches the same technique that we spend millions of dollars researching in sport psychology, and that countless self-help books promote.

What a steal for only 4.94 euros.

The concept is simple. Any time you recognize a negative or unhelpful self-talk, you move a marker to the opposite pocket or side of your desk. Likewise any time you recognize productive self-talk, you move a marker the other way.

You might be amazed how quickly the stacks change.

If you don’t have much success with this awareness building activity, don’t beat yourself up. You might find yourself much better at it if you set some goals related to the activity (see my free online goal setting course). It might also be that it just doesn’t work well for you.

Activity 2: Profiling

The second activity is based on recall. Unlike the Monitoring activity this is one you can just sit down and do. It does take a few minutes though, so set aside some time real quick.

If you are an athlete or a performer, it will be best to do this recall activity using a recent game, practice, or performance. If you are not, then any recent, high-stakes event where you had to “show up” will do. (i.e. a presentation in class, a speech, an interview, even a standardized test. Did you know that performance enhancement mental skills work with tests too? Awesome!)

Ok so actually we want to remember two different recent events. A good one and a bad one. Actually we want “the best” and “the worst” ones. If you can remember a time, even in the last year, where you have just a great moment when you felt really on top of your game, that’s what we are looking for. A time when you crushed it.

On the other hand, we also want a bad performance. Unfortunately these are all too common, so it might be a little too easy to come up with one.

You have to fill in the following worksheet for each of these moments.

Imagine. Put yourself on the day of the moment. Actually IN the moment. Activate all your senses. What were the sights? The sounds? What were the smells? What did touch feel like? What about taste?

Do as much as you can to put your mind back to that time and place.

Start at the beginning of the performance, and run through as much of the performance as you can remember. Feel free to use the fast-forward button. Don’t worry about parts you miss out. Think especially about the thoughts you were having while you were performing. The emotions. All the little things your brain ‘said’ to itself as it was going along.

Keep in mind that even though most negative self-talk and destructive, and most positive self-talk is productive, it’s not always the case. When you grade your self-talk below, sometimes you’ll want to grade positive self-talk as destructive.

For example: “This is going to be so easy!” is positive, but actually destructive for your performance because you don’t focus enough on what they need to do to win. Likewise “I screwed up! C’mon stop getting distracted” is negative but could be productive.

How do you know if it’s destructive or productive? A good tip is to check out and see how happy you are with the performance. If you did what you thought you could, then it was an optimal performance even if you lost. However, if you are pissed at yourself for falling short of your potential, it was a “bad” performance even if you won.

Answer the questions in the worksheet.

Self-Talk Awareness Worksheet

Text format:

(1) What were you thinking shortly before the start of your worst performance?



(2) Circle how productive or destructive your thinking was before your worst performance.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Extremely Destructive -> Extremely Productive


(3) What were you thinking during the performance?



(4) Rate how positive or negative your thinking was during your worst performance.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Extremely Destructive -> Extremely Productive


(5) What were you thinking after the performance?



(6) Rate how positive or negative your thinking was after your worst performance.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Extremely Destructive -> Extremely Productive


(7) What were you thinking shortly before the start of your best performance?



(8) Circle how positive or negative your thinking was before your best performance.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Extremely Destructive -> Extremely Productive


(9) What were you thinking during the performance?



(10) Rate how positive or negative your thinking was during your best performance.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Extremely Destructive -> Extremely Productive


(11) What were you thinking during the performance?



(12) Rate how positive or negative your thinking was during your best performance.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Extremely Destructive -> Extremely Productive


The good, the bad, and the ugly

During the worksheet I had you evaluate your self-talk as productive versus destructive.

Starting out most people have the impression that negative self-talk is bad and positive self-talk is good. Actually this is true a lot of the time! But not all the time.

Do you sometimes go into a situation confident, yet come out feeling disappointed in your performance? One way that coaches screw up alot when trying to help with athlete self-talk is that they emphasize positive self-talk instead of productive self-talk; and that can lead to over-confidence!

So instead I want you to label your self-talk that helps you win as different from your self-talk that helps you lose.

The good is positive, productive self-talk

The bad is negative, destructive self-talk

And the ugly is positive, destructive self-talk or negative, productive self-talk.

Here’s a handy chart

Self-talk Destructive Productive
Positive This’ll be easy he sucks. I’m ready, I prepared hard.
Negative Well now I can’t win. Don’t be distracted, don’t be pulled out of position.

Negative self-talk can be:

  • anything with a “no” or “not” in it,
  • a thought full of negative emotion like anger or frustration,
  • can attack, either yourself or somebody else

Positive self-talk can be

  • a thought full of positive emotion like confidence or relaxation
  • can build, either yourself or somebody else

Either of these types of self-talk can help you win.

So since either can help you win, how do you recognize destructive self-talk?

Recognizing destructive self-talk

Professional League of Legends players don’t use the same item build every match. If they are losing to a Lissandra they might buy a quicksilver sash instead of another core item.

Starcraft players don’t keep massing marines once a protoss player gets colossi out. (Ok actually they do, marines OP, but theoretically…)

Likewise, why would you keep saying the same thing over and over if it doesn’t help YOU win? Most people do so simply because they don’t have an altherative.

Also destructive self-talk is hard to recognize, especially since all negative self-talk isn’t automatically destructive, and sometimes positive self-talk is destructive.

A second, more insidious problem is that you can win while using destructive self-talk. Especially if you far outskill an opponent.

You can get better while using destructive self-talk. It’s hard to see how much faster you could get better using only productive self-talk.

So people continue without realizing their full potential. Without unlocking the power of their beliefs.

I like to tell athletes that productive self-talk focuses on “controlling the controllable.” Therefore, destructive self-talk focuses on uncontrollables. The past, the future. Weaknesses (during matches). Outcomes like winning or losing. Perfection.

In a competitive match it is easier to control things like effort, abusing your strengths, and what you are focusing on.

Take a look at your profile worksheet. See if you can classify your self-talk. What is productive for you? What is destructive?

Being aware of what’s going on in your head, and realizing how it can help you succeed, is a huge first step. And the most important. If you stopped the course right now you would be far ahead of where you started, especially if you apply awareness strategies consistently over a season, or a school year.

In the next session we’ll learn some tips for how to stop destructive self-talk in its tracks and replace it with productive self-talk.

Almost all of you already do this, but the effect is a lot more powerful when you are aware of it and can control it. Looking forward to seeing you then, and best of luck!

Session 3


Focus and drive, the mental edge

Now that you are convinced that your self-talk can give you an edge in training and competition it’s time to practice making the best productive self-talk.  First though, you should practice some sort of technique for emptying your mind or stopping your thoughts.  Most people use a simple word like “stop” or “no” and associate a strong image with it such as a bus or train screeching to a halt or slamming into a solid object.  It doesn’t seem to mater much what you choose, as long as it is simple and strong (or fast and fun).  Typically though the effect will start off rather weak and only get stronger with use. The next step is to replace unhelpful self-talk with productive, and the best way to do this is use your unproductive self-talk to craft your helpful statements. For example, if you catch yourself thinking, “my rush failed, now I’m behind,” depending on your strategy you could change it to, “my rush failed, now I need good scouting and catch her out of position.”  You see, if you just ignore yourself when you say “now I’m behind” and try to get it out of your head, it won’t work.  You still believe it, you still ‘know’ it, and even if you don’t say it out loud or in your mind you play like you did.  Countering your unproductive self-talk revolves around the idea of belief.  The reason self-talk can help or harm your performance is because you believe it.  If you don’t believe it, it’s just words.  So when you are in a sticky situation and what you are thinking or saying is not helping you get out, it helps to be able to argue against yourself (and win). Some athletes actually keep small cards on hand when they are performing with their most common doubts and problems and productive self-talk that they created before hand to help them counter it.  This might be a good tactic for you, especially if you find that you do much better in practice than you do in competition.  That’s because your performance stress is causing you to make errors, and self-talk is a great way to build confidence, which reduces your performance stress.

Jason’s productive self-talk

I want to take a moment to go back to Jason, our water-polo goalie from the first article.  In this version of the story, he has the same unproductive self-talk, but he uses countering and reframing to get himself on the right track mid-competition. 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. As the shot is being prepared Jason imagines how it will travel and the save he will make. However, he does not save the shot. In his mind he is frustrated with missing the save, and angry at his teammate for the penalty shot. He thinks to himself, “I will get the next one,” and “mistakes and penalty shots are part of the game.” This is reframing.  Jason is aware of the distracting affect that anger and frustration can have on his concentration. However, that energy can be directed towards kicking harder for the next save. Jason manipulates his emotions in order to direct the energy towards the game instead of towards self-doubt. Later on Jason gives us an example of countering. He can not help but think, “I’ll probably miss this next shot,” and he starts to panic a little bit. Out loud he says, “stop,” and imagines a train screeching to a halt. Then he says, “this nervous energy is good, it is making me fast and alert, if I focus this energy on the ball I will move quickly like a cat and save the shot.” In his mind he imagines his muscles like springs that are tight and prepared to explode, quivering with energy. First off Jason uses his patented thought stopping technique to refocus. Then he wisely decides not to ignore such a strong self-doubt, “I’ll probably miss this next shot.”  He argues against himself and provides a convincing reason, that he is even faster than normal now that he is nervous.  Jason even includes some imagery to go along with it.  Perhaps he has used cat-like imagery in his training before.

SMART self-talk

So, how do you practice these techniques?  It is hard to do, and the best place is during competition.  There are a couple of activities to prepare mentally as well, but the best idea is to just practice making good self-talk statements and learn to recognize the ones that don’t work for you. One of the guidelines I like to use for making productive self-talk is borrowed from goal setting; it’s called SMART.  A lot of self-talk is just mini or daily goals, so if you follow the same rules for effective goal setting then it will improve your self-talk.  SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measureable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • and have a Time frame

Here are a few examples of self-talk that has been improved using each of the rules from SMART.

SMART Example
Specific Die less than 4 times a match VS. Don’t die
Measurable Improve my accuracy over 30% every match VS. Get more accurate
Attainable Beat my lane opponent in CS without dying VS. Win this match
Relevant I have to focus harder VS. I’m feeling sluggish right now
and have a Time frame I will run the new build 20 times by Saturday VS. I should work on the new build.

If you are already good at giving yourself miniature goals in competition and keeping up the confidence, you might want to focus on learning what to avoid.  I like to say “control the controllables.”  Avoid demanding yourself to do something that you can’t actually do, like winning a team game or not make a mistake.  Pick something actionable! Like supporting a teammate or attacking to force your opponent to screw up.  Here’s a simple list of what not to focus on:

Don’t focus on… Example
the past or the future We lost to these guys last time.  Only 2 more points then we win!
weaknesses (during competition*) I hope he doesn’t go to my left, that’s my weak side.
outcome I really want to win this match, my grandma is watching.
uncontrollable factors My mouse got lost and I have to use a new one, the settings are different and it’s messing me up.
being perfect I can’t mess this up, I can’t mess this up, I can’t mess this up.

*Just a small note about weakness, which was listed above.  These are great to focus on during practice, but during a match it’s better to abuse your strengths then try to avoid your weaknesses.  Rely on the rule that everybody screws up and make your opponents lose by basing your strategy around your strongest plays.  This advice doesn’t really apply so much in the high jump.

Activity 1: Changing unproductive self-talk

To practice self-talk, first think of a situation in competition or practice that you typically find yourself thinking negatively or unproductively. PDF worksheet (1) Describe the situation as completely as you can. (2) What are the negative harmful thoughts, self-talk, or excuses you usually make?  Try to list at least three. (3) Choose a word or phrase you will use to stop these thoughts.  Include a description of the images you will include with it in your mind. Pretend now that you are a teammate, coach, or counselor for the person who answered the questions just above (you!).  How would you change each of the negatives into productive self-talk?  Remember they should be realistic to your own beliefs about your capability.  Positive and process or performance oriented statements are best, not outcome oriented statements.  That is, more about what you are doing and how you are doing it than about winning.

Positive versus Productive self-talk

Aside from negative self-talk that harms you there is also plenty of positive self-talk that doesn’t help you.  Most of it is too unspecific to matter, like “Let’s do this!” or “Bro bro bro.”  There is also the case of telling yourself something you don’t actually believe, like “I can do it!” when you never have before.  It’s good to recognize those statements and break them down into more applicable or realistic self-talk, for example, “I’ve put hours of practice in.  I know I’m good.  I want to win this, and I’ll prove that by playing as hard as I can.” These kinds of things are really specific to yourself and your situation, but you should not be afraid to try saying something new and outrageous.  During the next activity when you come up with the personalized productive statements, write some that you wouldn’t normally try out and see how they sound, maybe they will work out for you!

Activity 2: Personalized Positive Statements

(1) Think of your pre-performance state.  Can you remember phrases that you use personally to try to pump yourself up or psyche yourself up for the coming game or match? Try to write down three more general positive statements in the chart below, then improve on them to make them more SMART and to highlight your capabilities. PDF worksheet

Positive Statement Personalized Productive Statement
I enjoy competition.  
I will win today!  
I go as hard as I can every time.  
I am always positive.  

If you have been trying out the activities in these articles, it would be great if you would post your experiences in the comments and share your knowledge with other players.  We can all learn from each other’s individual experiences trying to improve their game, and what worked for you might work for others as well.  Happy talking!