What Are Athletes Saying to Themselves? Self-talk and Motivation in Youth Tennis

C. Jordan Thibodeaux

Advisor: Adam Winsler, PhD, Department of Psychology

Committee Members: Tim Curby, Anastasia Kitsantas

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August 22, 2016, 10:30 AM to 08:00 AM


Self-talk is used to behaviorally regulate in many situations. Researchers studying self-talk in developmental and sport psychology tend to examine what young athletes say to themselves using different methodological approaches. Developmental scientists tend to observe speech in its natural context, while sport scientists tend to examine the self-report of self-talk. This dissertation attempted to bridge these approaches by describing what young athletes actually say to themselves, examining the relation between observed and reported self-talk, and exploring the relation of self-talk to the self-regulation of performance and motivation in a youth sport context. Twenty-eight tennis players (ages 9 to 17 years) were recruited from a competitive camp. They were observed in practice and match play scenarios, and reported their self-talk on the Self-Talk Use Questionnaire (STUQ), the Automatic Self-Talk Questionnaire for Sport (ASTQS), and observed during a competitive match using the Self-Talk and Gestures Rating Scale (STAGRS). Self-talk during practice sessions was coded from naturalistic observations using positive, negative, instructional, and motivational categories. Players also reported their personal motivation for sport using the Achievement Goal Scale for Youth Sports (AGSYS), self-efficacy for tennis, their perceptions of the coach motivational climate using the Motivational Climate Scale for Youth Sports (MCSYS), and their coach’s promotion of self-talk. Observation was expected to be related to self-report of self-talk, and speech was expected to predict performance, personal motivation, and the perceptions of the coach climate.

Descriptive analyses showed that players reported using self-talk often, and mostly positive and instructional as compared to negative (ASTQS), and mostly inside their head as compared to out loud (STUQ). On the court, they were mostly observed to use negative self-talk (80%), less positive self-talk (15%), and very little instructional self-talk (5%). Correlations showed that players who reported talking more out loud during tennis actually talked more, and players who reported using more inner speech actually talked less overtly on the court. Player responses to predetermined positive and negative self-talk phrases (ASTQS) were unrelated to observed self-talk. Players who recalled personal positive self-talk after their match used more positive self-talk on the court. Relations between speech and performance showed that players using negative speech tended also to lose more points, and players using positive speech tended also to win more points. Multi-level modeling was used to analyze speech and performance sequentially, which included speech at T1 predicting the odds of winning a point at T2. Results showed that using positive self-talk within a set led to greater odds of winning the next point. Players using instructional self-talk trended toward winning the next point. Reported positive self-talk was related to both a strong mastery orientation (AGSYS) and a strong mastery-oriented climate (MCSYS), which suggested self-talk and motivation could be initiated or discouraged by the coach’s climate. Coaches generally promoted self-talk in athletes, but this was unrelated to player motivation or athlete perceptions of the coach climate.

Self-talk in young athletes must be studied using multiple assessments as compared to self-report alone. Further, the evidence presented from multiple assessments suggests that studying self-talk should incorporate work that is in situ (as naturally occurring). This work may also be useful for studying the development of self-talk in very young athletes.