How to help your writing by talking like an athlete

talking like an athlete

Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

Most writers aren’t terribly sporty but did you know you can help your writing by talking like an athlete?

I’ve written before about how we writers seem addicted to self-sabotage by trash-talking to ourselves.

  • I really don’t know how to write…
  • My boss is going to hate this…
  • Readers are going to be so bored…

…are just some of the supremely unhelpful things we say. One of my best solutions for dealing with this problem, I think, is making a friend of doubt. You know, who I mean — that narrow-eyed monster who tells you you’re not good enough to write a blog post, never mind a report, and really don’t even consider a book.

But I recently stumbled across some useful advice directed specifically at self-talk. In a 2011 review published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers reported that athletes who were trained to talk to themselves, the right way, performed better than those who weren’t.

The biggest lesson from this review? Instructional self-talk is particularly helpful. Have you ever learned to play a racquet sport? (I always hated tennis but I love racquetball and squash.) If so, you’ll likely be familiar with instructional self-talk. Keep your eye on the ball, you tell yourself. That bounce against the right wall will put the ball back in the middle, so stay in the middle, you say. Snap your wrist (for raquetball); move your elbow up (for squash.) Stay on your toes so you can move quickly.

I used the 2nd person voice (“you”) deliberately here because I find when I’m instructing myself it’s almost as if I’m talking to an entirely separate person.

This kind of self-talk works for the following reasons:

1)   It improves our attention. Instead of focusing on our feelings, which might well be negative, it teaches us to concentrate on specifically what we need to do. This is an excellent way to screen out distractions.

2)   It’s unfailingly positive. Instead of telling us what we’re bad at (“I really suck at metaphors”) it challenges us to do good work (“I need to place a metaphor in the next paragraph.”) This type of challenge is actually more than positive — it’s invigorating!

3)   It regulates our effort. If we’re going to instruct ourselves, we need a goal and a plan for how to achieve it. Below, I’ve suggested some scripted lines you might want to consider saying to yourself when doing your own writing. After your next writing session, evaluate which lines worked best for you and consider pasting them onto a wall or bulletin board near your screen.

Here’s the script:

1)    My goal is to write __ words per day. [insert your own number] As long as I do that, I’ve succeeded.

2)    I don’t need to look at Facebook/Twitter/email right now. I can use that as a reward when I’ve finished my writing.

3)    My number 1 objective is to write a really crappy first draft.

4)    I can make this writing better, later.

5)    When writing, my only job is to put words on the page. Publishing, pleasing come later.

6)    Doubt has its job to do: doubting. I have mine: writing.

7)    The opinions of other people don’t matter for now; I can deal with them later.

8)    The faster I get this first draft written the sooner I can get on with editing.

9)    The best writers are the best re-writers. No one — not even ____ [insert name of your favourite writer here] — writes a perfect first draft.

10) I am learning how to write and I will improve with time and practice.

What kind of self-talk works best for you? We can all learn from each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me by commenting below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)

Posted January 7th, 2014 in Power Writing

  • Bob

    Right on! I have always followed Coué. “Every day, in every way, I am becoming more and more . . . whatever.”
    I don’t much like your No. 3 though. Surely better aim at doing it quickly, but as good as possible. Isn’t it nice to be able to say: “That’s pretty good, Daphne.”?

    • Bob, I know you don’t have this problem but for many people the “permission” to write badly is really essential to the reality of being able to produce a first draft.

  • Wendy Kalman

    Reading your blog made me think the act of positive direction might mesh with something else I’d just read, from s+b, on making better decisions over time:; their article focuses on “deliberate practice.” And doesn’t it also tie in to your last blog ( on ditching resolutions and making routines?

    The idea of inculcating instruction, to me, is akin to creating new habits and that, we know, takes practice. I’ve found to be a useful tool in that area. It asks you daily if you’ve done what you’re trying to do daily…and once you hit 21 days in a row, it shuts off. I think we often know what we have to do; the hard part is in integrating it into part of our routine…

    • Thanks for providing this very helpful link, Wendy. I’m a big fan of deliberate practice (and have written about it here: I’ve also used Habit forge ( and found it helpful. Anything we can do to establish the HABIT of writing is always positive.

  • Joshua

    This is great advice and a good reminder! I use negative self talk and can immediately see how useful this advice it.

  • Bernoe

    Hi Daphne, You are always great about turning off the inner-editor while you write. I was thinking about that while reading this article in the Ottawa Citizen. The writer, Brian Doyle is a retired teacher in Ottawa. He has been writing a column about his life as a teacher. This particular story describes how he learned to write.

  • Elizabeth

    Thanks for this message. I’ve just been realizing how self talk and a positive outlook really are important, but hadn’t applied it to writing before. Will have to try this.

    • Funny, writing is the ONLY place to which I apply this. Will have to think about other areas of my life in which talking like an athlete will help me. Thanks for making this very useful point!

  • Mossback in SC

    “No. 1 Objective: Write a really crappy first draft” I LOVE that suggestion. I’m amazed at how many good phrases sprout when we feel nobody’s watching. . . or will ever see what we write in a first draft.
    The poet Seamus Heaney says he learned that all poetry flows from self-forgetfulness. The same often applies to prose.

    I also employ your idea to do first drafts in Papyrus 24 font. . . a reminder that not another soul on this planet is ever going to see this version, so just flail merrily away and clean up the mess later.

    It works!

    • Yes, the permission to write a really crappy first draft is very freeing, isn’t it?

  • Herb Mapes

    What another great piece. For years I’ve been a people person (another way of saying adult ADD) and never really addressed writing. I found Ms. Gray-Grant accidentally on Visual Thesaurus and have enjoyed learning about writing. Thank You!