You better watch your mouth! Language primes performance


coaches corner

Bruce Lee was the shiz… we all know that. He is a cultural icon 4 decades after his passing. Beyond his mastery of the martial arts and making them mainstream, his wisdom was unparalleled. Reading quotes from him now shows that he also had a mastery of performance psychology before it was even a thing. For example:

Don’t speak negatively about yourself, even as a joke. Your body doesn’t know the difference. Words are energy and cast spells, that’s why it’s called spelling. Change the way you speak to yourself and you can change your life.

He nailed it! On a practical and scientific level. One of the main pillars of sport psychology is self-talk. What we tell ourselves affects what we think, feel, and do down to a neurological level.

Research showed that words prime the brain for action or inaction (Radel, Sarrazin, Jehu, & Pelletier, 2013). A list of low motivation words was shown to decrease motivation and performance when heard by an athlete.

These words were:

  1. annoying
  2. weak
  3. obligation
  4. tired
  5. asleep
  6. exhausted
  7. lassitude
  8. boring
  9. weariness
  10. constrained
  11. sleepy
  12. useless
  13. obliged
  14. spineless
  15. draining
  16. bother
  17. depleted
  18. resigned

On the contrary, a list of high-intensity words was shown to increase performance, they were:

  1. desire
  2. dynamic
  3. effort
  4. alive
  5. energetic
  6. active
  7. joy
  8. enthusiastic
  9. persist
  10. keen
  11. energy
  12. vigorous
  13. performance
  14. vitality
  15. perseverance
  16. improve
  17. motivated
  18. striving

These words were shown to increase an athlete’s motivation on the task at hand.

Motivation is key to performance.

For athletes, motivating language primes the brain for performance. If the language heard in their own head is positive, motivational and action-oriented, there will be a long-term increase in motivation and performance. External verbal messages have the same effect. Make sure the language chosen around performance is high intensity and action oriented. 

If you are an athlete, what are you telling yourself consistently. Does it help you or harm you? Would it fit better in the first list of the second?

For the coaches, same question about how you speak to your athletes.

For the parents, what is the language in the car and at the dinner table like? Which list would it fit into?

For everyone: What words come to mind for you to make a shift to high performance language? If you need help, use list 2 as a cheat sheet.

I am Dr J. I help folks get their “Mind Right” through my sport & performance psychology practice. I work face-to-face or through Zoom. I also offer comprehensive online sport psychology programs, one for athletes, and one for parents of athletes.
Check our my website, for more info, or email me at

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