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on not calling yourself a ****

I recall a golf game with a good friend of mine several years back. He was playing very badly (to my quiet satisfaction). At roughly the halfway point, knowing that I’m a psychologist, he turned to me and asked me for my advice. Whilst at this point in my career I hadn’t really done much work in the field of sport, my reply to him was obvious enough - I made the suggestion to him that if he wanted to play better he might want to stop calling himself a c—t.

He’d been doing it in such a way that I could hear him muttering and swearing under his breath after every loose drive or missed putt. On one level it was actually quite amusing - I might have said something to him earlier, but the fact that I was winning was probably a factor in having kept quiet until that point.

So, my advice worked. His game transformed pretty much immediately, and he managed to maintain his best golf through the remainder of the round.

There are two things this little story makes me think about. First is the power and influence that psychology can and does have over our performance. This is particularly true in a sport like golf, but it is also very true in other sports, and in reality your psychological frame of mind is a pretty fundamental factor in any performance, regardless of where this might be (I’m thinking more broadly than sport). At that early stage in my career, observing the impact of the simple change I’d suggested was a transformative experience. I recall thinking there and then, that I wanted to get professionally involved in elite sport.

The second thing that this story illustrates is the significant role that self-talk plays in performance. Self-talk is basically the (constant) chatter that goes on in your head, whether you are aware of it or not. The technical term that we psychologists use for it is ‘internal dialogue’. It is hugely significant, for all sorts of reasons.

I have conversations with lots of people about self-talk, and it plays a really prominent role in sport. In a nutshell, if you have very negative, critical or destructive self-talk, logically, it will undermine your performance. That’s not to say that anything negative is bad. Far from it. Giving yourself an internal ‘hairdryer’ can work wonders from time to time. But if it’s the only show in town, eventually it’s going to wear you down.

What can be done about it? A bit like the advice that worked with my friend, a decent short-term fix can be simply to make yourself more aware of the negative chatter, and deliberately change it. Don’t let yourself get away with it! In addition to this, ignoring it can sometimes help, or finding something else to focus on. It’s often quite straightforward as soon as you have clocked the fact that you are doing it. However, in extreme cases, and for a longer term solution, I’ve found myself trying to help an individual understand where this type of self-talk comes from and why – it can sometimes point towards more deep rooted confidence issues.

In a future blog, I’ll have a look at this issue in a bit more depth, but for now it might be a good exercise for you to pay close attention to how you talk to yourself in pressurised or important situations. It is likely to be having a significant impact on how well you cope with those.

And in case you were wondering, my friend ended up beating me on the 18th. Damn.

Yours in psychology,


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