Self-talk, or internal dialogue, is when people talk to themselves in either a positive or negative manner, e.g. “I can do it” or “I can’t do it”. Evidence shows that positive self-talk has a moderate positive effect on sport task performance (Hatzigeorigiadis et al., 2011). Athletes may be either task-oriented or ego-oriented. Task-oriented individuals focus on mastery, are intrinsically motivated, give high value to effort and seek for personal improvement. Ego-oriented individuals compare themselves with others, and they focus on outperforming them.
In a review by Biddle and colleagues (2003), task orientation was found to be a significant predictor of enjoyment, satisfaction, motivation, positivity, perceived competence; ego orientation, on the other hand, was found to predict anxiety, stress and cognitive interference.
New research by Zourbanos and colleagues (2014) of over 2,000 participants shows that task-oriented individuals are more likely to engage in positive self-talk, i.e. they are more psyched up, and they have greater confidence and anxiety control.
This piece of research also shows that task orientation is negatively related to negative self-talk (worry, disengagement, somatic fatigue and irrelevant thoughts), irrespective of how individuals view their own competence.
Why do task-oriented individuals engage in more positive self-talk? The authors offer one possible explanation:
“When task oriented students play with high achievers, they experience positive thoughts irrespective of their level of abilities because they feel that a challenging game offers them opportunities to improve and because they enjoy their involvement in it…”
So it seems that task-oriented individuals are more likely to use positive self-talk, and that individuals who have a high degree of perceived competence are more likely to use positive self-talk.
Since task orientation has a positive effect on self-talk, motivation, and sport performance in general, we should move our focus from outperforming others (ego orientation) to improving ourselves (task orientation).