By Alyssa Parten |
Mindset, confidence, social life factors, and anxiety can make a large impact on fitness goals and performance. For example, many athletes experience either state- or trait- anxiety in competitive environments. State-anxiety is presented as intense stress and/or nervousness that may impair performance either right before or during a competition; whereas trait-anxiety is often caused by repeated negative experiences with competing. Another example is how each individual is uniquely wired to approach exercise. Some people have the natural ability to be intrinsically motivated in approaching their exercise routine or training program, whereas others may need a greater degree of external motivation to maintain consistency. One well-studied variable within athletic research is the concept and theory of psyching oneself up through self-directed cognitive strategies. This psychological technique is a common way athletes and fitness enthusiasts influence their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors through purposeful statements, to achieve better results and/or improve motivation and discipline. Studies support using deliberate self-talk strategies and, if implemented long term, these strategies can improve self-confidence and state-anxiety.
There are several cognitive and behavioral approaches used to improve performance and confidence, depending on the needs and personality of the individual. Two commonly used methods are imagery- and preparatory-arousal techniques. The imagery technique is described as visualizing oneself executing a task with immaculate precision. This is one I often use on myself when prepping for a powerlifting competition. Before every squat, bench press, and deadlift attempt, regardless of the load on the bar, I imagine myself lifting whatever my planned third attempt (or more) will be, perfectly! I also advise my powerlifting athletes to always imagine light loads as heavy, in effort to teach them to treat all loads the same way – with the goal of precision and intent. Preparatory arousal is a strategy of performing an action that increases excitement to perform (i.e., getting “pumped up”). I can give another powerlifting example for this one. Many of my athletes, when I have the opportunity to coach them on the day of their meet, want me, their coach, to beat them on the upper back hard as I provide motivational speech just before they walk out to the lifting platform. This action psyches many athletes up, prompting them to go out and give it their all. In a study by Hammoudi-Nassib and colleagues (2014), researchers found using imagery and preparatory arousal augmented sprint performance by 5.7%, with the greatest improvements seen in the imagery condition, with 14 out of 16 athletes significantly decreasing 30-meter sprint time.
Walter and associates (2019) describe a behavioral, cognitive, affective, and motivational strategy for implementing self-talk prior to athletic endeavors. In the behavior-mechanism model, the self-talk tactic prioritizes technique, in an effort to properly execute specific-motor tasks, enhance motor learning, improve quality of a movement, and engrain automatic behavior/cues. This mechanism can be implemented by providing a visual cue as a client/athlete performs a task. For example, in corrective exercise programs, clinicians or coaches instruct their clients to lower into a position slowly while engaging the muscles involved, hold the end range for a couple seconds, and then return to the starting position. The self-directed statement of this instruction may be them counting “1-Mississippi, 2-Mississippi, hold.” This would provide the benefits listed with the behavioral mechanism, while teaching the athlete how to properly execute the movement. The cognitive mechanism is utilized in attempt to enhance an individual/athlete’s information processing, attentional control, and decision-making skills. The goal with this method of self-talk is to improve reaction time and skillful response to environmental stimuli. An example of this may be teaching an athlete to remind themselves to look in the direction they desire to run when performing an agility or change of direction drill. Affective mechanisms of self-talk primarily impact the psychological state (e.g. mood, state-anxiety) of a person. When applying the affective approach, evidence has observed a reduction in elicited anxiousness and anger. With affective self-talk, I imagine an individual speaking positive thoughts and focusing on breathing patterns, in effort to alter their state of mind and trigger relaxation toward a given situation. Lastly, the motivational mechanism is said to enhance an athlete’s enthusiasm and physical endurance toward a specific event. This method is often used by coaches to “psych up” their athletes prior to a competition but is also commonly used individually to pep oneself up to complete a task.
Though each of these techniques may improve performance to some degree, other evidence supports their involvement is secondary to other key performance variables, such as previous-training experience and anthropometric factors. Vigotsjys et al (2018) found that self-efficacy (the belief in one’s ability to successfully produce a desired outcome) is primarily established with experience, in that the more familiarity one has in performing a given task, the greater their confidence for successful execution. Additionally, this study found maximal strength in the back squat was primarily determined through anthropometric measures (fat-free mass relative to height), rather than the athlete’s confidence in performing the skill. Though self-efficacy may very well help by enhancing confidence, increasing arousal, and potentially improving mind-muscle connection, self-efficacy alone does not produce force to generate joint moment.
As with most concepts, there are multiple mechanisms by which self-talk and psyching up strategies may influence performance. Cognitive strategies for self-efficacy and psyching oneself up are said to occur in the cerebral cortex, providing an effect on the central nervous system (CNS) and sympathetic nervous system. The stimulation of the CNS through self-directed cognitive strategies may enhance motor unit recruitment, synchronization, and firing rate. Furthermore, the stimulation to the sympathetic nervous system may also have an impact on muscle contractility through the peripheral nervous system. Collectively, there is evidence that self-talk can benefit the mind-muscle connection, as well as, a number of psychological mechanisms that may promote better performance outcomes.
Alyssa Parten is an NSCA-CSCS and USAPL certified personal trainer and powerlifting coach from Birmingham, Alabama. She received her Bachelors in Exercise and Sport Science from The University of Alabama and is currently pursuing a double Masters at the University of Concordia Chicago in Human Movement Science and Strength & Conditioning. Currently, she works in a studio personal training gym as a personal trainer and strength coach and owns an online powerlifting coaching business, Ladybeef Inc. Additional certifications include: Precision Nutrition Level 1, TPI Level 1, and Human Movement Specialist.