Head coach Tony Fagelman discusses self talk

Head coach Tony Fagelman discusses self-talk

Date: Monday 18th May 2020 at Whittlesford

Continuing our view into the use of psychological tools to help you with your training, both while in continued lock-down and once we move back into training, this article is also split into two sections, the first one is on the use of Self-Talk and the second one I on the use of Goal-Setting. I am sure you will all be familiar with the second psychological skill, but its likely that although you may have used Self-Talk, you are probably unaware that either you are doing so or that it is in fact a recognised aid to support learning, motivation and success.

Self-Talk; what is it and how can it help you?

Really it's a just a fancy way of describing the internal monologue you have with yourself, ie, 'do you want to get up right now, or have 5 more minutes in bed' or maybe 'should I have that last piece of cake' or even, 'I really do not want to do that move, its scary'

However, you can use it far more positively, you can and almost certainly do use self-talk to encourage and motivate yourself to do something you do not want to do. 'I will get out of bed now', or 'I won't eat that last piece of cake' or even more relevantly to this article, 'I can do that move, even though it's scary, it's something I really want to do'

Self-talk can be that internal discussion or sometimes you find yourself mumbling the conversation with yourself. Its all perfectly normal and can be a great way of preparing yourself for an activity, improving your confidence and a way of focussing all your efforts onto the activity you're about to undertake.

Think, how many times have you been at training or a competition and seen your fellow gymnasts mouthing to themselves as they imagine themselves doing their routine. You see them say the skill, and sway their body as they visualise themselves doing each move of the routine. This links self-talk with imagery, a very powerful tool indeed.

Self-talk helps you to overcome stress and anxiety when doing something new or even when under pressure (like at a competition). However, it can conversely work against you, you can have negative self-talk, and this disrupts the autonomic actions that have been trained into you ahead of competition. It becomes worse if you are constantly talking yourself down, badly rating your own performance and failing to recognise your achievements. If you hold these negative perceptions, and reinforce them to yourselves, they are most likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy and your performance will suffer because of it. You need to train your thoughts, much like you train your body, to utilise positive messages, not negative ones.

Try to do away with self-labelling and self-rating, while it is perfectly reasonable to rate the execution of a skill or routine, do not rate yourself in comparison to that routine. What do I mean by that last statement? Quite simply, just because you execute a skill poorly or a routine in competition doesn't go to plan, do not then rate yourself as less able or less capable. In that instance, things didn't go to plan, but countless previous times they were successful, use the positive thoughts to outweigh the negative ones.

One of the fastest ways to overcome negative thoughts and imagery is to use positive self-talk. Part of the cycle of negativity is because you are self-talking yourself into a downward spiral. Using positive thoughst will halt that downward trend and improve your own beliefs and self-worth.

It is important to note that self-esteem and self-confidence begins in the mind of the individual, in your mind. Self-talk plays a powerful and primary role in feeding the mind with positivity.

As I have previously stated, obtaining autonomic actions is extremely important in skill acquisition. If you can learn to execute a skill with good form and link it with another, without consciously thinking about doing it, then you're on your way to success. However, self-talk can interrupt that autonomic activity and especially negative self-talk. Try to remove that from your preparations and concentrate on positive thoughts and imagery while you train and while preparing to compete.

One of the ways that you can use self-talk to your advantage is to plan it into your preparation, either during training, before your go or at a competition, before you compete. As part of your preparation, during the meditative activity, use self-talk to attain a positive attitude.

Aim to make your self-talk a focus on the feeling of success achievement of the skill or routine and not on the mechanics of the skill or routine, these have already been learned and are now hopefully at the autonomic stage. If you are using self-talk to assist the learning of a new skill, then focus the self-talk on the elements that are not working to your satisfaction. For example, if the skill is not rotating faster enough in order to achieve the completion of the skill, consider using a key word to assist in that, such as 'tighter' or 'shape' etc. You may feel you need to put the requirement into a phrase or mantra to assist, you might say 'squeeze harder, pull tighter' to assist you as you visualise yourself doing the skill. Using simple verbal clues can help to trigger the normal autonomic reaction you're seeking to engage.

If it helps, you might want to consider a list of phrases or words that assist you while training that can be taken into competitive practice. These could be words that make you feel the skill or action needed, for example, 'lift' or 'stretch', they may be words that give you pause to think 'wait' or 'hold' or they may be descriptive of the action, 'squeeze' or 'tight'. All of these can be internally verbalised to help you make the action automatic irrespective of when or where its occurring.

Research has demonstrated that using self-talk during the activity can also benefit, so verbalising the actions as words can help you achieve the desired outcome. For example, saying 'wait and hold' to yourself while in contact with the bed, through first contact, maximum depression and into last contact can make your body tighter, your body extended in the correct position in preparation for the exit from the bed into the skill (or skills).

It is essential that you use these thoughts positively, direct them to achieve positive actions on what you want to occur and not on the negative actions of what might occur should the skill be incorrectly performed. It has been found that it is virtually impossible to process a thought without performing the action associated with that thought. We need you to focus on what you want to happen and not on what you want to avoid.

Another benefit of self-talk is that it can help you change your mood. we have all done, it, arrived at training or a competition in a poor mood, not feeling ready to train or compete, in fact feeling very negative towards the whole thing. However, using positive self-talk we can successfully change that mood and direct the negative thoughts towards more positive outcomes. You need to identify a word or phrase that you associate with the fun activity of our sport, what do you enjoy about it, what makes you happy when you do it. Here' are some examples I use; 'Freedom', 'Flying', 'Space', 'Air-time'. You probably have your own… find those examples that work for you, that make you feel happy about the sport and use them to redirect the negative thoughts and emotions that are in you. Trampolining is one of the most fun activities anyone can do, and everyone of you who does it for their sport loves it and wants to do it all the time. Find that happiness and use it to bring you to a positive state.

Self-talk is really good and building self-efficacy (self-confidence), I will talk about self-efficacy in another article, but for now, just think how positive words can affect your feelings and moods. If you hear them from your coach, fellow gymnasts or parents, they make you feel good. So why not use them yourself to make yourself feel good. If you feel good and prepared and ready, then you will go into the performance in a good state of mind, ready to perform at your best. If that performance then doesn't go as well as you hoped, you can put a positive spin on it, find the things that went well and concentrate on those. Remember, for you to do well competitively at our sport you have to perform 20 or 30 skills at your optimum. This is a hard thing to do, find positivity in performing an excellent 1st routine, or in achieving a high set of scores, or in completing a routine for the first time in competition.

To finish this article, I want to give you three tools that can assist you with identifying positive self-talk


Think back to a great training session or competition that went particularly well. Try to recreate the thoughts and feelings that you experienced prior to and during the event. If you can pick out words or actions that helped you achieve the quality of the outcome these can assist you in achieving a similar outcome in future events. Maybe you'll have video of the competition and you can see what you did that helped your performance and you can use that to assist you. Although do not ritualise it, its about identifying actions and thoughts that were positive in their outcome.


I have written previously on imagery and how it can be of huge benefit to you in training and in competition. When combined with self-talk practices it increases the efficacy of the activity greatly. Relax as deeply as possible and try reliving a previous performance and using visualisation to remember the sensory experiences (sounds, smells, sights) that you had while doing the performance. Describe to yourself what you're seeing etc and apply key words to those actions so you can use them to help you recall the great performances.

Self-Talk Log

If you can keep a daily diary or log of your thoughts and performance situations, you can then apply those words (or a subset of those words) to assist you in your self-talk. For example, if you have a poor training session, your log may include words that are negative. You may want to identify words that counter those negative thoughts to assist you in preparation to avoid a repeat. If you have a good session or competition, record what you felt and thought and use those words to recreate those feelings. Ask yourself the following questions:

If I am having a poor training session or competition, am I berating myself? Do I seek positive thoughts or am I dwelling on past poor performance? Does my self-talk concentrate on how I feel about myself or on how others might feel about me and my performance, ie, what will the coach say, what will my parents say?

Review the log, identify when you have written negative thoughts and why you wrote them. What caused the negative thought specifically? When you have done that, use the positive thoughts that you have previously recorded to overcome the negative ones, associate words and phrases that allow you to overcome the adverse feelings or conditions and aim to move forward positively next time you train or compete.

Remember the Positive Self-Talker sees a possibility in every problem, not a problem in every possibility

Avoid being a perfectionist, we cannot achieve perfection, nor can we come close to it every time we perform. Replace the need for perfection and success with the recognition that it is human to make mistakes. Remember, you are more than just being a gymnast, and while its great to be a gymnast there is so much more that you are equally as good at.

These practices will help to make you a better gymnast, however, please remember, as I say above, there is more to you than just your gymnastics. These methods can help you in all walks of life, use them to your advantage.

Practice, enjoy and I look forward to seeing you back at training soon