International rugby place kickers Jonny Sexton and Beauden Barrett place the ball, set themselves, say something to themselves and mostly go about their business and put the ball between the posts.
So what exactly should they be saying and why?
Research has shown that the use of psychological techniques, cognitive strategies or mental training has been commonly used by high performance athletes for many years and have been shown to enhance sporting performance (Krane & Williams, 2006). Aided by the growth and development of sport psychology research in recent times, systematic cognitive strategies have become even more common-place as athletes seek out ways to improve performance and gain advantages over opponents. One mental strategy frequently used by athletes is self-talk!
Self-talk has been shown to be beneficial for the learning of motor skills (Hardy, 2006). It can be defined as verbalisations or statements athletes repeat to themselves prior to or during skill execution. These verbalisations may be designed to affect motivation, attentional control, concentration and information processing. Landin (1994) suggested that the use of appropriate cue words may aid task focus by increasing focus on task relevant stimuli. Hardy (2006) suggests that the use of cue words may help athletes adjust their focus of attention towards a more appropriate attentional focus for completion of tasks.
Much empirical research has been carried out investigating the impact of such statements and a lot of this has examined the effect of motivational and instructional self talk on performance. Motivational self talk tends to boost confidence and belief in one’s ability, helping to raise performance, while instructional tends to divert focus of attention on to certain elements of a movement to increase attentional focus and help task execution accordingly.
Additionally, a lot of research made a distinction between two types of focus - internal and external focus. Wulf et al's work showed that for skilled athletes, an external focus is better than an internal focus of attention. This may be because an internal focus of attention draws attention towards little pieces of movement, thus reducing automaticity of that same movement while an external focus draws the focus towards the intended target.
Until recently, very little empirical research has differentiated between the different types of self-talk for skilled or elite athletes in sporting tasks. Of such investigations, mostly power based motor tasks have been utilised. Two examples (Todd and McGuigan (2008) in a rugby power jump task & Goudas, Hatzidimitriou and Kikidi (2006) in a shot putt task) found that motivational self-talk was best when strength or power based movements were concerned.
Until recently, it was never fully investigated which type of "self-talk" is best for use by elite level performers in closed skill accuracy based tasks. New research (Begley, Hardy & Blanchfield, (2014), Journal of Applied Sport Psychology) distinguishes that the most appropriate type of attentional focus will be dependent on the skill level of the performer.
The study utilised 40 inter-county level Gaelic Football free takers, many of whom are now household names in GAA. Our research investigated the differences between externally focused instructional self-talk (EFIST) and motivational self-talk (MST).
12 kicks were taken from a 22m distance at 4 standardised angles from the centre of the goal. The study was fully counter-balanced between starting point and nature of self talk.
A two way ANOVA of data shows significant results favouring “Motivational Self Talk” over “Externally Focused Instructional Self Talk” for skilled players. The “Motivational Self Talk” condition (Mean of 19.93) significantly exceeded the “Externally Focused Instructional Self Talk” condition (Mean of 18.75) proving that motivational self talk proved best for elite level players.
As this accuracy based study and all of the existing power based task research using skilled athletes (Edwards et al (2008) and Goudas et al, (2006)) replicate each other’s findings, it may be that motivational self-talk may exceed all types of instructional self-talk in all tasks for skilled athletes by boosting athletes’ confidence and reinforcing belief in natural movement processes and well-honed skills. This research should inform the next wave of thinking when it comes to skill execution and skills coaching of elite performing athletes in closed skill sporting tasks; ie rugby place kicking, GAA free taking, soccer free kicks, golf snooker etc
Conversely, in another aspect of the investigation in an unskilled condition, “Externally Focused Instructional Self Talk” (Mean of 14.13) exceeded “Motivational Self Talk” (Mean of 13.23) and correlated with results shown in other studies.
This research will have implications for all skills coaches, PE teachers and sport psychologists in skill development in novice athletes and skill execution for elite level performers on closed skill tasks; ie: rugby place kickers, GAA free takers, soccer dead ball specialists, American football field goal, basketball free throw, golfers, snooker and darts players among others.
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Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited performance psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport