Instructional design/Psychomotor behaviors/Self Talk in Psychomotor Skills

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Topic:Instructional Design > Psychomotor behaviors > Self Talk in Psychomotor Skills


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“It is not the skills we actually have that determine how we feel, but the ones we think we have.”

- Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi, from “Flow”

In this lesson, you will learn to

  • define self talk
  • relate the impact of self talk on performance in psychomotor skills
  • diagnose common performance problems unrelated to skills and knowledge
  • distinguish between motivation and self efficacy beliefs
  • apply self talk improvement strategies as they relate to psychomotor tasks and skills your learners are expected to master.

Case studies

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Before continuing with this lesson, print out the Lesson worksheet.

Sara and stage fright

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Sara, a senior in high school had played her instrument for seven years. She is now auditioning for universities and under consideration for several full ride scholarships. While she plays extremely well in low pressure situations, she can freeze up during a performances. Her hands start shaking and she can barely get a decent note out because her mind is going in about 10 different directions at once. She is frustrated with her less than stellar solo performances and is terrified that she won’t get a scholarship because of fumbling up at the audition.

Bob Ain’t Wowing Them

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Bob is a young manager who has impressed his supervisors with his vast knowledge of the industry and his problem solving skills. Congenial and well liked by most, he is being considered for a promotion into executive leadership, but there’s one problem. The position would require him to represent his division in company and industry wide meetings, typically through formal presentations. Bob does well in small group meetings, but when called upon to present to larger groups, he freezes up. He come across as cold, heavily scripted and at times, stammers and stutters when asked a question.

“Out too fast” Tracy

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Tracy is a sprinter who is preparing for Olympic qualifications for the 400 meter relay. While usually a strong performer, she sometimes has difficulty pacing herself in the race. She usually finishes easily in the top three, although at times she starts out way too fast. As a result, she loses the stamina she needs to place. She has talked with her coach about it and tells him that nerves sometimes get to her, causing her to forget about her pacing in her attempt to take the lead too soon.

What are the common threads in these stories? Think about what you would do if you were coaching each of these individuals. Complete questions 1-3A from the lesson worksheet.

The concept of “self talk”

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Stage fright. The jitters. Performance anxiety. Call it what you want. If your learner needs to perform in a high stress situation, no matter how much they've practiced or how much they know, you may need to help them approach a psychomotor task using a mind set that will contribute most to success.

The concept of “self talk” refers to the mental voice that a performer hears while completing their task. Self talk can be positive or negative and can directly contribute to how successful the performer is at a task. Self talk is especially key in a wide range of psychomotor skills. By addressing self talk, you can enhance the performance on the task.

Self talk is somewhat related to self-efficacy beliefs. Self talk describes the learner's internal dialogue as they complete a task. This differs from self efficacy in that self talk occurs during performance and may or may not be related to the learner's general beliefs about their ability to succeed at the task. Self efficacy beliefs generally refer to a learner's general response and beliefs related to their own performance, either before or after performance has occurred. Self efficacy beliefs also form as a response to external feedback.

Strategies for addressing performance issues caused by negative self talk

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Tennis coach Timothy Galway, an expert in managing performance in a wide range of fields, developed the following a model of self concept:

“Self 1” is what is causing the chatter, or the anxiety and nerves about the performance. It is usually in the form of verbal, internal negative feedback, although it can take the form of a physical response (shaking, stammering, nausea) or emotional response (anxiety, fear, nervousness). “Self 2” is the ideal state, where the performer can apply all skills and knowledge to the task, without dealing with a barrier of internal dialogue, feelings and/pr physical symptoms working against them.

What then, can you do when you know and have seen a performer complete a psychomotor task successfully, but then see it decline under stress? Read on to learn more about how to identify root causes for negative self talk and provide strategies to help a performer manage.

Awareness & Diagnosis

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Try this for a moment. Walk ten feet in a perfectly straight line. As you are doing this, make sure everything is done perfectly. No twisting of the feet, no wiggling around. Each step must be absolutely perfect. If not, you will have completely failed in this task. Repeat this guidance to yourself as you are walking the line.

How well did you do? Likely, not very well. The guidance above represents the type of negative “self 1” dialogue that may occur. If you notice well skilled and capable learners have difficulty performing:

  • First ask them what is occurring in their mind as they are completing the task. Try asking the question several different ways if you aren’t getting much of a reponse (“What do you think of when you do x…?” “What are you feeling?”, “What are your greatest concerns?”
  • Then, ask them to focus their awareness on their thoughts, emotions and physical reactions as they are performing.
  • Have them report back to you.

By focusing the performer's awareness on the symptoms of nervousness and anxiety, they may be able to address their own performance issues without further work. For example, if you are coaching an individual on presenting, they may realize as they focus on their own performance that they say “um” a lot during their presentation. Acknowlegdement of saying "um" may in itself be enough for them to cease this outward manifestation of negative self talk.

If self awareness alone does not solve address performance jitters, try one of these addition 5 strategies below as you discuss and diagnose the source of performance anxiety.


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“Task relevant concentration” is the term used by sport psychologists to help a performer maintain focus and reduce the amount of negative "self 1” thoughts. For tennis, it could be the feel of a tennis racket on your hand, the color of the ball as it come toward you or the sound as it hits the racket springs. By picking on a single element to focus on, this keeps the mind concentrated and minimizes the effect of any internal or external distractions. This is a strategy that can be planned by picking an element prior to performance or used spontaneously. One musician reported that as they felt themselves getting more and more nervous, they managed to focus on the bald head of a audience member to keep their mind from straying off task.

Mood/mantra words

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Barbra was in her third year as a surgical resident and was finding that as she made her first incision, her hands sometimes shook uncontrollably. Not a good thing for a surgeon. She realized that she was nervous about making a mistake, although she had received some of the highest grades in her classes. She decided that as she was prepping for surgery, she would let only one thought enter her head: “I am the best surgeon in the world”. She would repeat this phrase until the first incision was completed and found that her shaking hands had disappeared.

Picking a mood or mantra of some sort can help some focus their thoughts in a more positive fashion. It can be as simple as “I am the best…” or a single word (nonsense or real) that may have special meaning to the performer.

Picturing success

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Think of a role model in your occupation. Someone you admire and respect. Someone that you see as very effective and influential.

Now, the next time you are performing a difficult task in your field, pretend you are your role model. Visualize what they would say and do. See how your performance changes.

This example illustrates visualization techniques that can help enhance performance. The selection of a role model is one. Another is mentally rehearsing the task prior to performance. Rehearsing the task allows learners to focus on potential problems and how to fix before they happen. It can also help in building confidence as they see themselves being successful.

Goal setting

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Csikszenthmihalyi shares the story of a factory worker who excelled above his peers. Although the work was fairly repetitive and uninteresting, this particular worker was always able to meet and exceed quota for the day. When asked what he thought he did differently from his peers, he shared how he played a game with himself each day. He would count how many packages he was able to complete that day and then add 10 more to it. The task he gave himself for his next shift was to meet this number and beat it if he could. He found that the time passed much more quickly and he found himself enjoying the work more than he might have otherwise.

This is an example of goal setting that can be used to manage nervousness or boredom. Goals can be set can by segmenting a task and/or determine certain milestones. Distance and time are also ways that goals can be set when performing a physical task.


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Try this simple exercise. Inhale for 4 counts. Hold your breath for 7 counts. Now exhale for 8 counts. Try this three times in a row. Feeling any different?

Breathing exercises such as the one above can help steady nerves and reduce anxiety. When paired with music and neck and shoulder shrugs, this can slow down the heart rate. What this does is helps focus the mind, as well as impact physiological aspects that contribute to a stress reaction. Other types of meditation and yoga breathing exercises can all help. This can be done moments before the performance or as a long term preparation strategy the night before. Cellist Yo Yo Ma has been known to meditate for a full day prior to an important performance.

Summary and practice

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You should now have an understanding of self talk, describe how it can negatively impact performance and can provide guidance to your learners on how to improve their performance.

Now complete your lesson worksheet (questions 3B - 6). For those responses not placed in this lesson's discussion tab, review your answers. Self talk and flow is simply a persons way in individually masticate themselves, controlling ones breathing or playing a game with your mind to beat your self and reach a goal.


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Csikszenthmihalyi, Mihaly. (1990) “Flow: the psychology of optimal experience” New York, Harper Perennial.

Gallwey, W. Timothy and Green, Barry. (1986). “The Inner Game of Tennis.” New York, Double Day.

Romiszowski, A (1999) The Development of Physical Skills: Instruction in the Psychomotor Domain, Chapter 19, Instructional Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory, Volume II, C. M. Reigeluth, Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

“Some Psychological Factors for Promoting Exceptional Athletic Performance” PSI CHI, National Honor Society in Psychology. [1]

Instructional Design Psychomotor Behaviors