The Mental Trick That Makes You Fitter

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To sprint a faster interval, hit a heavier squat, or nail a more perfect tennis serve, golf swing, or jump shot, you only need to think one thing: “I can do better.” Telling yourself this simple statement, or others like it, were backed by a broad new study published in Frontiers in Psychology that suggests using positive self-talk techniques may actually help better your chance of success.

The U.K.-based study, which engaged more than 44,000 volunteers, examined the effectiveness of psychological skills including self-talk, imagery, and "if-then" planning. Participants were asked to compete in an online game while using one of the three techniques. Those who used self-talk not only found it simple to learn, but they also saw the greatest improvements in their performance.

Self-compassion may be the source of self-talk’s power to effect change, says Dr. Michelle Segar, author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. “We’ve been taught to have very perfectionistic standards about what we do; it’s hit or miss, it’s a bull's-eye, or you fail,” says Segar. She explains that this kind of achievement-oriented approach is unsustainable, and, in most cases, won’t lead to positive outcomes. A more adaptable perspective — seeing mistakes as individual occurrences from which we can learn — can boost confidence and ultimately lead to a better “next time.”

The exact self-talk phrase you choose to use — say, “Run faster this time,” “You can sprint harder,” or “I can knock another couple seconds off that time” — isn’t as important as keeping the phrasing “objectively optimistic,” says Dr. Jonathan Fader, sports psychologist and author of Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You About How to Win in Life. He jokes that there’s a part of the brain called the “Bullshit Meter” that automatically rejects too-lofty goals. “It’s not about just saying, ‘I’m going to win.’ Because you’re not [going to win] some of the time,” he says. The key is to craft a statement that’s inspirational, but still one you believe you can do.

Fader recommends incorporating self-talk into a daily routine, versus using it only as a Band-Aid for disappointment. Before heading to the gym, for example, he recommends telling yourself “centering” phrases like, “I’m going to be present in this workout.” “While you’re there, you might have a cue word,” he says. His go-to statements include “this lift” or “this moment.” “I don’t get caught up in the set I did before, or the exercise I was doing before that,” he says.

Fader has successfully used self-talk methods with everyone from professional ball players to hedge fund managers, but he cautions against expecting immediate results. “People try positive self-talk for one session, and if it doesn’t work, they’re out,” he says. Fader suggests approaching it with the same patience and expectations you would have for a training program or weight-loss plan. “It’s going to take a while for it to kick in and become second nature,” he says. But once it does, Fader says, “You’re really changing your brain."