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Quickly consider this scenario for a moment…

If you had a trustworthy and personal cheerleader and coach each day at practice, encouraging you and helping you to push just a little bit further, reminding you that you are a certified butt-kicker, do you suppose this would improve the way you train for your sport?

Of course it would.

After all, you are the most important person you listen to. Even if it is just intuitively, you know that the things you say to yourself have a major impact.

Just how much so, is a bit surprising when you consider the research on the subject:

  • Research done with elite cross-country skiers found that positive self-talk significantly increased performance, with instructional self-talk being the most powerful form.
  • In another study positive self-talk was shown to greatly increase persistence during a “muscular leg-endurance task” amongst a group of athletes compared to the control group.
  • Positive verbalized self-talk was shown to improve dart throwing performance versus those who were told to use negative or neutral self-talk in a study of nearly 50 collegiate students.
  • A group of 24 participants were asked to perform a vertical jump after verbalizing various types of self-talk. Motivational and positive self-talk significantly increased both jump velocity and height.
  • After developing a series of motivational self-talk statements participants in this study increased their time to exhaustion on a stationary bike by nearly 20% over a two-week period, showing that it was possible to self-talk your way through fatigue.
  • A meta-analysis of 47 different studies showed that while negative self-talk won’t make you a worse athlete, it won’t help.

The research above reveals that the cliché you have endlessly heard over the years that “it’s mind over matter” is true.

The ultimate value in working on your self-talk is this:

The way you perform on the field/ in the pool and your mental state are inextricably linked.

In other words, stop shaking your head and start coaching your way to faster swimming.


Okay, so now that you understand the very real and tangible benefits of mastering the voice in your melon, it’s time to put this skill into practice.

Here are three proven ways to incorporate smarter self-talk into your swimming, regardless of whether you consider yourself the rah-rah type or not:


When used effectively self-talk is great for helping us calm down when we feel ourselves getting too riled up or stressed. A simple way to chill out is by using your name or “you” when talking to yourself.

By using “you” instead of “I” you distance yourself from what’s happening and emulate the role of coach.

In this study researchers found that the difference in language between the two was stark. The “I” crowd tended to over-exaggerate the problem at hand, while the “you” group sounded far more logical.

Remember Jules?

“C’mon Jules, you can do it!”

She was basically taking the place of our coach with her self-talk, and by referring to herself with her name she was able to distance herself from the conflicting pull of wanting to give up on the set.


Your self-talk toolbox is adaptable and fits the current performance needs on the field/ in the water.

There are moments when you need to motivate yourself to push through those tough sets and tight intervals in the water, and there are moments where you need to focus on performing particularly technical things.

Instructional self-talk is handy for when you are trying to focus in on technical elements of your swimming (“High elbow! Crisp hand entry! Finish your kick!”), while motivational self-talk is there to push you through the exhaustion and get you hyped up  (“You got this! Finish hard! You can do it!”).

Research with athletes showed that when something requires precise motor movements that instructional self-talk is most effective, while when it comes to feats of strength and endurance both types of self-talk have positive effects on performance.

Which makes sense.

I can think of countless times where I used instructional self-talk (“keep your elbow up, buddy!”) in order to distract myself from the exhaustion of a particularly trying set.


This is my favorite self-talk tool, and I have used it over the years in the pool, in the classroom, at work, to do chores, and basically anything in my life that requires any type of willpower.

“Just one more rep…”

How many times have you found yourself getting deflated at the amount of work ahead? At the sheer enormity of all of the reps and swimming in front of you?

“I have 19 more 200’s to go? Ugh….”

When you roll with “just one more…” it removes the disheartened paralysis that comes with thinking about all of the work that lays ahead. It helps you not get so flummoxed (love that word!) with all of the effort and work ahead that you psych yourself out before you even start.

The power lies in ignoring everything but the very next step. It requires you to be completely present.

The simple turn-of-phrase also gives you a way-out, a get out of jail free card, as you are “only” doing one. What’s the big deal, after all, if it’s just one?

  • “I’ll just do one.”
  • “Just one more rep.”
  • “I’ll just warm-up and see how I feel after that.”


Self-talk has a very real impact on the way you perform, as the research has shown that the way you play/ swim is highly reflective of your mental state. Something you probably already knew anyway.

Like anything else, positive and encouraging self-talk is a skill that you get better at the more you use it.

Using it regularly will help keep you calm and distant in times of stress, help you persevere during tough sets, and ultimately, become a faster swimmer.

The next time you step out on the field or pool deck give some of the above techniques a try and let me know how it goes.

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