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Developing a positive mindset

Self talk

Probably the best evidenced of all the positive thinking techniques, self talk is widely used in sports coaching where it is closely associated with developing a winning mindset. We are becoming better aware that the language we use in our speech and in our heads and the way we process language has a significant effect on how we approach tasks, work, challenges etc.

Words often conjure up images and meaning beyond the simple dictionary definition of the word. It is this “additional” meaning that can influence us. A good example is the word “exam”. The dictionary meaning might describe it simply as a test of ability.

In September 2008 I was present at the start of a new academic year when the year tutor addressed a group of year ten students. During that address, the year tutor spoke about the fact that the students were starting a lengthy run in towards their CGSE exams. It was immediately observable that some students responded positively to talk about “exams”. They sat upright. They smiled and they looked alert. Others visibly shrank. They looked uncomfortable and looked as if they wanted to ignore this bit of the presentation. So use the word “exam” in conversation with students and you will get a range of responses. These will determine performance, wellbeing, and success.

Some students will hear the word “exam” and will associate it with an eagerly anticipated opportunity to show the examiner what they can do. They associate the word with opportunity. The link is provides a positive experience. They may even feel a surge of excitement (coupled with some nerves).

Others hear the word “exam” and respond quite differently. They associate it with something to be avoided. In their mind the exam is more than a test, it is a situation which will reveal how little they know about the topic being assessed. Anxiety swamps any attempt at positivity.

Both groups of students may have equal abilities and they may have attended exactly the same classes and programmes but they are thinking differently and the results will almost certainly be different.

We see this behaviour replicated in many walks of life. Whether it is on the sports field playing with your team in an important match, in a leisure activity such as performing in a drama group or doing some activity at home. The way they approach the “match”, the “performance” or the “job” may affect significantly how these are handled.

One exercise could be to challenge students in teams to reduce or even eliminate the use of negative words. They keep a score of how often others use negative words. They earn bonus points if they offer a positive substitute. Agree that for the duration of the exercise they omit negative words, such as “don't”, “can't”, “not”, “won't”, and “no.” Unless of course they are entirely appropriate.

When subject to anxiety or pressure, try persuading the young person to talking themselves through it. Examples include:

• “These feelings will fade away—they won't last forever”

• “I know how to control these feelings. I must concentrate on relaxing myself”

• “I will begin to feel better soon”

• “No-one is looking at me. I am not going to make a fool of myself”

• “This is perfectly natural and normal. I know what is happening to me”.

Exercise: self talk—think of three positive statements which would work for you.




There is a scientific/biological explanation for how self talk works. The MRI brain scan study described earlier in the book confirmed that the challenge scale in the mental toughness model is closely associated with the part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus. This is the part of the brain which is responsible for the visual word form (written not spoken) and semantic processing and language comprehension. These are all likely to play a part in “self talk”.

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