Find Your Self-Talk Sweet Spot


Bridge statements are flexible, grounded in reality and, experts say, more effective for reaching your goals. Try one today.

Last updated: 30 June 2022
5 min read
  • Overly positive self-talk can backfire, ending in a dent to your confidence and feelings of discouragement.
  • Bridge statements, though, soften the contradiction between what you're thinking and what you're physically experiencing, so you can better control your mindset.
  • If you struggle with landing the right tone for your internal dialogue, an Audio-Guided Run on NRC can give you some pointers.

Read on to learn more ...

The Best Type of Self-Talk to Improve Your Performance

Purposely or not, you've probably used self-talk during a workout. There's the positive kind, where you amp yourself up with unspoken thoughts directed towards yourself: "You can do it!" or "Don't give up!" Then there's the negative type: "This feels too hard" or "I suck at this".

As you might assume, positive self-talk can result in a better training experience. Not only can it feed a healthier self-image, but it could improve performance too, according to a meta-analysis published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Talking yourself up (particularly when combined with visualisation and goal setting can help boost athletic endurance, according to a review published in the journal Sports Medicine, and it may also make your workout feel less intense, suggests research published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. And using compassionate language in particular can translate into more energy and a lower heart rate, shows research from the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

All that good stuff said, there's a fine line between positive and overly positive self-talk. While the former can fuel progress, the latter can actually work against you because it can feel less realistic. "If your mind rejects your positive self-talk statement, it's worse than having no statement at all", says sport psychologist Jonathan Fader, PhD, the author of Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You About How to Win in Life. "When you over-promise yourself and don't deliver, it diminishes your self-efficacy, or your sense of what you're capable of".

Say you use a phrase like "You've totally got this!" to pump yourself up for your very first chin-up or a weight-lifting PR that's 10 kilograms heavier than your previous one, but you don't hit your goal. You're more likely to get caught up in what you didn't accomplish versus what you did (maybe you pulled yourself halfway up or improved your PR by 2 kilograms). This can potentially lower your confidence for the future, which could discourage you from ever trying again, says Fader.

What's more, too-enthusiastic language can frustrate you even more if you're faking it. "When you're just not feeling it, you're likely going to react with negative emotions", says Gloria Petruzzelli, PsyD, a licensed clinical and sport psychologist in the athletics department at Sacramento State. That can stop you in your tracks.

Why Flexible Is Better

Some psychologists recommend what they call bridge statements. These soften the contradiction between what you're thinking and what you're physically experiencing, says Petruzzelli, creating a bridge between the two opposing sentiments.

They also draw on past experiences to ground your positive self-talk in reality. For example, instead of telling yourself, "I'm going to crush this race because my last 10K was so fast" before your first half-marathon, you might tell yourself something like, "This will be the furthest I've ever run, which will feel tough at times, but I'm up for the challenge". The former might indeed be true, but the latter is more considerate of the situation.

Bridge statements tend to work because they're based in objective optimism, says Fader, which actually isn't an oxymoron. "Optimistic self-talk is only helpful if it's based in facts", he explains—without any truth, it might be hard to convince yourself of something. Bridge statements are also neutral, which helps you be more open-minded and flexible in your mentality before, during and after a workout or event. "Instead of letting your emotions dictate your behaviours, bridge statements redirect your focus to what you can control and what's possible in the moment," adds Petruzzelli.

How to Use Bridge Statements

  • Ground yourself in reality.
    If you're psyching yourself up for a workout or event, you want to swap vague affirmations for fact-based statements, says Fader. Think: "I've made it through this workout before" or "I've run fast despite feeling tired in the past". "These statements don't assume you're necessarily going to have the same results, but they do assume that they're possible", says Fader. They also make it easier to come up with a plan for when you start to struggle, he adds. "You can tell yourself something like, 'I know I'll feel tired around halfway through, so I'll focus on my breathing and form and keep putting in my best effort'".

  • Script in real time.
    When you hit a tough point in a workout, Fader recommends focusing on in-the-moment instructional statements, like "One rep or mile at a time", because they keep you present, while lofty "You can do this!" platitudes don't match how you're feeling. If you're hiking and look up at the summit and think, "Wow, this is going to take forever", that hike is going to feel overwhelming, says Petruzzelli. But if you say, "I can hike for 30 minutes and see how far that gets me", that feels a whole lot more reasonable (and you're more likely to find you can go for another 30, and maybe even another). Hello, progress.

  • Redefine metrics of success.
    Training isn't just about hitting a goal time or lifting a certain weight. "Focusing on outcomes is an all-or-nothing mentality—we're only giving ourselves a fifty-fifty chance at feeling successful", says Petruzzelli. Post-workout, ask yourself: Did I stay focused? Did I push through without taking a break? How much effort did I give under the circumstances, which change day to day? Considering specific wins from your session instead of just the end result will make you feel more accomplished and better equipped to tackle the next session. Plus, you'll have banked some reality to refine your self-talk technique—for training or any other area of your life—for good.

Talking to yourself (even if it's only in your head) can feel a little ... weird. Whichever statements you decide to use, "Try it out for a week or so to see how you feel", says Fader. "Too often, we don't really give self-talk a chance to take full effect".

Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: John Holcroft


Want another voice in your head (besides your own)? Try a Guided Run on NRC, or listen to a mental health mini-series on the Trained podcast.

Originally published: 28 March 2022

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