I was watching the highlights of an Australian Open warm-up tournament a few days ago, and noted how players often spoke aloud to themselves during the game, either congratulating themselves, or telling themselves to keep on going, or being critical of themselves when making an error. I have been trying to keep cycling through the Christmas break, even though it has been pretty cold and occasionally icy in the North-East UK, and I have had to have conversations with myself (internally, rather than out loud like the tennis players) both to get on the bike when sitting in front of a warm fire with a good book seemed a better option, and when I was out on the cycle path, and my toes and fingers felt frozen, to not stop, and keep on going. I have always been aware of the inner dialogue that continues incessantly in my mind throughout the day, either thinking of a science puzzle that I can’t work out, or how best to sort out a challenge at work, or being reminded by an inner voice to get presents for the family for Christmas, amongst a million other discussions I have with myself, and I am sure each of you reading this is aware of these inner voices similarly. Curiously, there has not been a lot of attention paid to inner dialogue or the inner voices, which is surprising given how central one’s inner dialogue is to one’s life, and are indeed a constant component of one’s life of which one is usually very aware of. Even less work has been done on the effect of inner voices, either positive or negative, on athletic performance (or indeed any type of performance, be it sport, work, or any activity which puts stress on one), or indeed if one’s inner voices alter during either competitive sport or exercise participation. A few years ago, I worked with one of the absolute legends and mavens in the Sport Science academic community, Professor Carl Foster, from Wisconsin in the USA, in order to try and understand a bit more about this curious yet fascinating subject, and we eventually published a theoretical review article on it a decade ago. All of these recent observations reminded me of this article we published, and the role of inner voices and the inner dialogue they create, and how this inner dialogue affects, and is altered by, competitive sporting activities and challenges.
Inner speech has also been described as self-talk, private speech, inner dialogue, soliloquy, egocentric speech, sub-vocal speech, and self-communicative speech, amongst others. Inner speech is predominantly overt during early childhood, and children up to four years of age believe that a mind of a person sitting quietly is ‘not doing anything’ and is ‘completely empty of all thoughts and ideas’. With increasing age, and associated increasing self-awareness, children reduce the quantity of overt inner speech, particularly when in large groups or around teachers, until overt inner speech only occurs when the child is alone, due to them becoming aware of the social consequences of unchecked overt inner speech. This change of inner speech from overt to covert appears to be related to appropriate physical and cognitive developmental changes, as children with Down’s syndrome continue to use overt inner speech, and folk who are Schizophrenic also use overt inner speech, and indeed feel that their inner speech is generated ‘outside’ of their heads and by an external agent, and often feel tormented by the ongoing dialogue which to them appears to be ‘outside’ of their minds. In adolescents, increasing negative or self-critical inner speech has been related to psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety and anger.
As described above, the makeup and function of the inner voices during sport have not been extensively researched previously. However, Van Raalte and colleagues examined overt inner speech in tennis players, and found that a large percentage was negative, and that there was a correlation between the quantity of negative inner speech and losing, which was not present between positive inner speech and winning, a somewhat puzzling finding. The laboratory group of father and son academics Lew and James Hardy have done some excellent work in this field. A study by their group, first authored by Kimberley Gammage, where they looked at the nature of inner speech in a variety of sports, found that 95% of athletes reported they used / were aware of inner speech during exercise (why 5% of folk do not is perhaps more curious than those folk that did), and noticed their inner speech to a greater degree when they were fatigued, when they wanted to terminate the exercise bout, and near the end of the exercise bout. Their inner speech was described most often to be phrases (such as ‘keep it up’ or ‘don’t stop’) rather than single words or sentences, and interestingly, they used the second person tense more frequently than the first person during exercise. The athletes perceived that they used inner speech for motivational purposes, maintaining drive and effort, maintaining focus and arousal, and to a lesser degree for cognitive functions such as ensuring correct race strategy, or using methods that would enhance their performance, such as breathing regularly. Helgo Schomer and colleagues did a great study where they got folk doing long Sunday runs to take walkie-talkies (the study was done in the 1980’s) and he would contact them randomly during the run and ask what they were thinking. While there will always be a degree of self-censorship of personal thoughts and inner discussion, he found that at lower running speeds, most inner speech was described as conversational chatter or problem solving social or work issues, and at higher speeds monitoring their body function, and the environment.
While all this work is excellent in describing what type of inner speech is ‘spoken’ at rest and during exercise, some of the best ‘deep’ theoretical work I have ever read in this field was generated by George Mead more than a hundred years ago, where he suggested that inner speech is a ‘soliloquy’ which occurs between at least two inner voices, rather than a single voice in one’s mind / brain. Mead defined these as an ‘I’ voice, representing the voice describing a current activity, or urging one to act, and a ‘Me’ voice, which takes the ‘perspective of the other’ and with which the ‘I’ voice is assessed. Mead also suggested that previous social interactions with other individuals allowed one to gain a viewpoint of oneself or one’s actions or thoughts, and therefore that ‘taking the perspective of the other’ is the ability to understand that another person’s viewpoint may be different to one’s own, and to use that opinion to change one’s own behaviour or viewpoint. Inner speech thus allows or creates the internalisation of this mechanism for taking another person’s perspective, as one can describe to a ‘real’ person (someone whom one has interacted with in the past that was significant to one), or an imagined person one has never previously interacted with, in one’s mind the reasons for behaving in a certain manner in a previous or ‘current’ situation, or how one is ‘feeling’ the effects of current activity, and the ‘Me’ voice takes the opinion of the other (and can be a conglomeration of many others, and be a ‘generalised other’) to assess the validity of how one says one is feeling. These concepts fit in well with the findings of Gammage and colleagues, who as described above, suggested that inner speech as mostly being reported as occurring in the second person tense (‘Me’), but with first person speech also occurring (which would be the ‘I’ voice), though why the ‘Me’ voice would be ‘heard’ more than the ‘I’ voice during exercise, if the findings of Gammage and colleagues occur in all athletes during all sporting events, is not clear.
A further fascinating hypothesis about inner speech was made by Morin and others, who suggested that inner speech was crucial for self-awareness (and one’s sense of self), by creating a time distance or ‘wedge’ between the ‘self’ and the mental or physical activities which the ‘self’ was currently experiencing. This time-wedge would enable retrospective analysis of the activity in which the individual was currently immersed in, thus facilitating the capacity for self-observation and thus both awareness of the ‘meaning’ of the activity and its effect on the individual, and self-awareness per se. In other words, if an individual was completely immersed in their current experience, they could not understand the meaning of the experience, because a time or perceptual gap is needed to create the time required to get enough ‘distance’ from the activity and assess and understand the meaning of an experience, and whether it is a threat to the individual if it continues. Inner speech therefore has been suggested to be the action that generates the time-wedge by creating a redundancy of self-information. This redundancy is the result of the difference between the actual physiological changes associated with the experience creating one unit of information about the event, and the descriptive ‘I’ inner speech creating a second (retrospective) unit of information of the same activity or event, separated from the first unit of information by a time-wedge. This time-wedge and redundancy of the same information allows retrospective comparison and analysis of the two different activities – the one in real time, and the other a retrospective copy, and a judgement is made of what is happening and how best to respond to it, by the ‘Me’ voice. This theory would suggest that all inner speech is retrospective, even the ‘I’ voice, and allows the retrospective analysis of an event in an ordered and structured way. Lonnie Athens, one of my all-time best creative thinkers, suggested 10 ‘rules’ that well describe all these complex inner speech processes described above: 1) People talk to themselves as if they are talking to someone else, except they talk in short hand; 2) When people talk to each other, they tell themselves at the same time what they are saying; 3) While people are talking to us, we have to tell ourselves what they are saying; 4) we always talk with an interlocutor when we soliloquise – the ‘phantom others’ (which is the ‘Me’ voice as described above); 5) The phantom community is the one and the many. However, we can normally only talk to one phantom at a time during our soliloquies; 6) Soliloquising transforms our raw, bodily sensations into perceived emotions. If it were not for our ability to soliloquise, we would not experience perceived emotions (like fatigue during exercise) in our existence. Instead, we wold only experience a steady stream of vague body sensations; 7) Our phantom others (the ‘Me’ voice) are the hidden sources of our perceived emotions. If we generate emotions by soliloquising about our body sensations, and if our phantom others play a critical role in our soliloquies, then our phantom other must largely shape the perceived emotion we generate; 8) Our phantom community (the ‘Me’ voice) occupies the centre stage of our life whether we are alone or with others. Talking to the phantom others about an experience we are undergoing is absolutely essential to understand its emergent meaning. Only in conversation with our phantom community do we determine its ultimate meaning; 9) Significant social experiences shape our phantom community (which are incorporated into our ‘Me’ voice); and 10) Given that some soliloquies are necessarily ‘multi-party’ dialogues, conflicts of opinion are always possible during inner speech soliloquies.
Relating all this fascinating theoretical work to an exercise bout therefore – as exercise continues, and physiological sensations change, these changes would be picked up by physiological sensors in the body and transferred to the brain, where they would be raised into our conscious mind by the ‘I’ voice, which already has a time-wedge to make sense of the raw feelings. Therefore, the athlete’s ‘I’ voice would say ‘I am tired’, and the ‘Me’ voice would respond to this assessment of the ‘I’ voice, based on their ‘perspective of the other’ viewpoint. The ‘Me’ Voice may be either positive in response (motivational – ‘keep going, the rewards will be worth it’) or negative (cognitive – ‘if you keep on going, you will damage yourself’). As the race or physical activity continued, as described above in the work of Kimberley Gammage and colleagues, athletes become more aware of their inner speech, probably because the symptoms of fatigue and distress described by the ‘I’ voice becomes more profound, and more persistent, and the ‘Me’ voice has to keep on responding to the more urgent and louder voice of the ‘I’ voice’, given that the ‘I’ voice is describing changes that have greater potential to be damaging to the athlete. It is likely that the relative input of each of the ‘I’ and ‘Me’ voices (and of course the subconscious processes that generate them) are either related to, or create, the temperament and personality of the individual, and their perception of success or failure in sport. For example, the ‘Me’ voice may suggest that it is not a problem to slow down when the ‘I’ voice indicates that the current speed the athlete is producing is too fast and may damage the athlete, if the familial, genetic or psychological history that created the ‘phantom others’ / ‘Me’ voice of the athlete perceived that winning sporting events to not be of particular importance. In contrast, the ‘Me’ voice may disagree with, and disapprove of, the desire of the ‘I’ voice to slow down, if the familial, genetic, psychological history of phantom others that make up the ‘Me’ voice believed that winning was very important, and slowing down a sign of personal failure and weakness. These relative viewpoints of the ‘Me’ voice will therefore likely shape the personality and self-esteem of the athlete (and indeed, all individuals), and whether they regard themselves a success or failure, if they try to keep on going and win, or try to keep on going and slow down due to having reached their physical body limits, which may not be congruent with the athletes psychological desires and demands. Furthermore, the ‘will’ of the athlete is probably to a large degree related to the forcefulness of the ‘Me’ voice in resisting the desire of the ‘I’ voice, or if the ‘I’ voice remains relatively silent even under times of duress or hardship, and is also likely created by the family history or genetic makeup of the athlete when creating the generalised phantom other / ‘Me’ voice. The relative input of both the ‘I’ and ‘Me’ components of an individual’s inner speech and the ‘viewpoint’ of the ‘Me’ voice may therefore be the link between the temperament and performance of an athlete, or may actually be part of or influence both.
In summary therefore, those tennis players with their overt inner speech (usually accompanied by fist pumping or smashed rackets depending on its positive or negative nature) open a window for us to understand one of the most potentially crucial and amazingly complex constituents of the perceptual loop of how sensations generated by the body under stress are changed into emotions that we ‘feel’ and respond to, which both explains to us how our body is feeling, behaving and ‘doing’ by the vocalisation of an ‘I’ voice, and at the same time creates our sense of self as a result of how the dialogue responds to this explanation, vocalised as inner speech, through our ‘Me’ voice, which is both reflective and created by the phantom others which shape us and regulate us. However, the inner voices can be our worst enemies, if they are too strong, or too harsh, or too demanding on us, and if so, they are probably produced by a damaged childhood with over-demanding parents, coaches, or teasing peer children which make us feel like what we are doing is never ‘enough’, even of course though what ‘enough’ is will always be a relative thing, and different for every different person on earth. Some Sport Psychologists have tried to improve sporting performance of athletes they work with by altering the content and nature of their inner speech, though Lonnie Athens made the relevant point that if one’s inner speech was too changeable, one’s sense of self would be fluid and not permanent, which in most folk it seems to be, and that only extreme psychological trauma, such as assault, divorce, near death or death of a loved one, where a state of existence is created which the ‘Me’ voice has no frame of reference, will allow the ‘Me’ voice be changed, and of course, it may change from a positive or neutral to a more negative ‘commentary state’. Having said that, my own inner voices have changed subtly as I have aged, and are (fortunately) more tolerant and forgiving as compared to what they were like in my youth. Often when doing sport, in contrast to when I was young when my ‘Me’ voice was insistent I keep going or be a failure, my inner voices now I am in my fifties often encourage me to slow down and look after myself, now that my body is old, less efficient, and damaged by the excesses of sport and wilful behaviour of my youth. So clearly there is some capacity to change and maintain one’s sense of self. Having said that, my sense of self is also subtly different from what it was in my youth, so this may be related to the changes in the make-up of my inner voices (and their underlying subconscious control mechanisms, perhaps due to the desires of my youth mostly being fulfilled in my life to date), or may not be related to them at all. More research work is needed for us to better understand all these concepts and mental activities that are continuously active in our mind and brain.
At this point in time our inner speech is the only real-time window we have into our subconscious, and is both ‘ourselves’ (as hard a concept this is to understand and accept) and our continuous companion through each minute of each day of our life. Often one wishes to turn off one’s inner voices, and interestingly some drugs do seem reduce the amount of ‘heard’ inner voices, but this does open up the philosophical challenge of whether if one has no inner speech, whether one will be aware that one is conscious, or aware of one’s current state of being. My inner voiced has been ‘shouting at me’ during the last two paragraphs of writing this, telling me I am tired and hungry, and it’s time to stop writing for the day and go in from my garden shed home working office to spend time with the family, and get some food and drink to replenish my energy levels. While I resisted their siren tune until completing this piece of writing, now it’s done, I will bow to my inner voices incessant request and sign off and head in for some welcome rest and relaxation. Of course I know that after a short period of relaxing, my inner speech will be chattering at me again, telling me to go back to my garden shed office and check the grammar and spelling of this article, and start preparing for the next. There is no peace for the wicked, particularly from our ever present, and ever demanding, inner voices!