This is a wide-ranging examination of self talk (what we say to ourselves), covering such diverse subjects as: the significance of children’s imaginary friends; the ways in which authors perceive their characters; auditory hallucinations; and the relationships that schizophrenics have with the voices in their heads. It is a fascinating read from start to finish, but with a couple of passages which are especially interesting from a teaching point of view.
The first of these passages is about sports players and self talk. This is an area that has been studied quite extensively. The general findings of the research are that it is good to talk to yourself, although you need to be careful what you say. A study conducted on Canadian divers suggests that those who were too self-congratulatory were less likely to make the team. But being overly negative is also unhelpful – studies of amateur darts players show that those who tell themselves they can make a throw have greater success that those who tell themselves they can’t. The conclusion I drew from all this was that sports players need to be as constructive when talking to themselves as they would be when offering advice to somebody else. Overall, though, the findings are that self talk should be encouraged because ‘successful athletes seem to talk to themselves more’. Cricketers, who need to switch their attention from making a mental note of where the fielders are stood to concentrating solely on the bowler’s next delivery, make particularly extensive use of self talk. Watch Eoin Morgan carefully and you can see him directing himself to ‘watch the ball’ just prior to each delivery he faces. The fact that he mouths the words to himself may be unusual but that he gives himself this reminder is fairly typical. A detailed study of professional cricketers and self talk found them using it for a whole variety of purposes, including: to think ahead about where they might play the next ball; to refocus after a bad shot; to calm themselves when in the ‘nervous nineties’; and to chastise themselves when they got out. I know that we must not assume that what works for experts also works for novices, but it did make me wonder whether our young cricketers could be taught to use the same techniques. From the perspective of a school that has recently readopted cricket as its summer sport and is hoping for lots of success on the pitch, it is surely worth a try?
Another piece of research cited in the book, is a study that was conducted on children as they tackled a series of puzzles of increasing difficulty. It found that children ‘who used more self regulatory private speech’ achieved a greater level of success. This seems to point up the value of modelling our thought processes for those we teach, so that our students understand the kind of questions they should be asking themselves as they work through a task. Perhaps more than that – perhaps we should be explicitly encouraging students to ask themselves questions like: ‘Why am I stuck?’ or ‘What should I do next?’ when they hit a problem. An experiment conducted by Ibrahim Senay and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign would certainly seem to suggest that this can yield positive results. Senay’s experiment required children to solve anagrams. One group of children were told to prepare for the task ahead by ‘making statements about it’, whilst a second group were instructed to ‘[ask] themselves questions about what they were to do’. The children in the second group solved more anagrams than those in the first group, and the researchers concluded that ‘quizzing yourself in self talk can push you beyond what you might otherwise achieve’. I think that makes it official: talking to yourself is actually a sign of sanity.