Anthony Watt is a senior lecturer at Victoria University’s College of Education in Melbourne, where he primarily develops assessment instruments and ties sport psychology principles to youth education programs… but his real forté is in imagery. So much so, in fact, that he literally wrote the book on the subject. His background is largely in education, though over the course of his career he has found himself applying this knowledge to sports settings more and more. What makes Tony really cool in my eyes, however, is his strong professional links to the Baltic countries and that he loves Anchorman almost as much as me.
Imagery — also known as visualization or mental rehearsal — was a topic I didn’t fully grasp until reading up on it after this lecture. I mistakenly thought it was simply any visual thought process that occurred relating to performance. Not so! Imagery is defined as any mental experience that resembles a perceptual one, only occurring in the absence of the usually required stimuli. It occurs when you go through an action sequence in your head without any real physical investment, be it long and comprehensive like a marathon or short and sweet like dart throwing.
Have you ever gone over what you could have done differently after a big competition? Or when preparing for an event, do you mentally live out the upcoming experience from different angles and with different outcomes? If so, then you, my friend, have just used imagery. Here’s a great example of one of the world’s leading rock-climbers, Adam Ondra from the Czech Republic, using this very skill to tackle one of the hardest routes on Earth (9:35-55):
Adam talks of muscle memory, which is a gripping concept in itself. This is the process of automatizing tasks so they can be performed with minimal conscious effort. It is the reason judoka perform thousands of uchikomi over the course of their careers, why basketball players shoot dozens of free throw hoops during practice, and why soldiers march to a rhythm on the parade square. It is also the reason you can type or ride a bike without a hitch. Muscle memory can be developed in two ways: through physical task repetition and through imagery1. Both make the task more familiar, therefore requiring less attention for successful performance.
But back to imagery. It is important to underline that this technique is not purely visual; imagery is much more effective when you involve as many senses as possible:
“You smell the fresh detergent of your towel as you wipe your face in preparation; you see the blue water in front of you and the audience watching your heat; you feel the grip of the diving board leave your feet as you propel forward into the cool water; you hear the resounding splash that becomes a muffled swish as you enter the water; you taste the hint of chlorine in the pool as you pull forward into the race, leaving your opponents far behind.”
The PETTLEP model has been used to help athletes develop their imagery sequences: your image ought to be physically accurate, taking place in the environment where you will perform, and should revolve around details relevant to your task in real-time (though slow motion can be used to emphasize or perfect something specific). It should be re-learned and revised as demands change and be packed with the same emotions you feel as when performing the task. Lastly, it can take one of two perspectives depending on the nature of the task: first-person is recommended for open-skilled tasks with a focus on timing (eg: karate) while third-person is recommended for aesthetic tasks where form and positioning is important (eg: surfing). England’s Brian Mackenzie has two great, brief articles that dive much deeper into this topic, one on imagery and a second on developing it.
Imagery has many uses in sport competition, training, injury prevention and rehabilitation2, and in performance outside the arena. Pre-performance imagery can be used to familiarize a person with upcoming demands, raise their self-confidence, and refine their skills. Imagery during an event can help an athlete reframe negative thoughts into positive ones as well as manage anxiety and regain lost focus or control. Post-performance imagery can further polish skills through analyzing what could have been performed better, and then imagining it so. These techniques help athletes squeeze the most out of their training sessions, compete more effectively, speed up progress and stay motivated throughout the process, and stay in the game when training is impossible (eg: when injuries or other responsibilities arise).3
An interesting tidbit before I wrap this section up: Radiolab had a great episode a few years back where they talked of self-deception and how it, paradoxically, leads to happier lives. A case study used to arrive at this conclusion was sport psychology research in swimming. A strange link was found correlating swimmers that had better performance scores as the same swimmers who were best able to lie to themselves. It seemed that in this case a strong belief that you will win served as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and imagery no doubt had a large role to play in this phenomenon. It is difficult to think of a better way of arriving at the conclusion that you are destined for greatness than through imagining yourself destroying the competition and taking your rightful spot on that podium.
Imagery in sport counselling
Tony had some great advice to offer when it came to introducing imagery to athletes. It is often difficult to come up with a proper imagery script, he said, so get the athletes talking about what imagery is to them with questions about how performing a particular task feels (initial forays into imagery tend to be connected to emotion much more than resolution or control; these elements come later). The most effective imagery scripts are those to which an athlete can relate; it is important, therefore, to base them on what the athlete believes he should work on rather than on what we, his coaches, believe needs polishing. This ties into the overarching concept that many sport psychology techniques only work when people believe they will.
Feelings and priorities set, you can then ask your athlete if they are able to control their images from beginning to end, or if their thoughts fizzle out or maybe unravel by themselves into irrelevant directions. It is important to move into controlled imagery quickly as this is what allows for implementing the next stage of imagery training: manipulation. Once you can control your image (and not just describe it), you can play it out according to your needs.
Imagery needn’t always be used for direct performance enhancement, Tony points out. It has many other uses. It can be used, for example, to get people (especially children) excited and engaged in an activity. When introducing basketball you might ask a group to imagine a nice, bright red basketball — what does it feel like? Like a crocodile skin? A snakeskin? Lace the image with as many salient bits as possible so the group can really sense it, encouraging them to help describe the scene with you. Use this to bring them on board with the activity before you even put any equipment in their hands. A good exercise is to challenge the group to think of as many elements of the image as they can.
Lastly, Tony told us of two interesting findings in his research: first, that elite athletes tend to use imagery for skill development in training rather than as a mental preparation for competition. I wonder if this is an issue of perceived or actual uselessness? Secondly, the only finding in imagery research that has been consistently confirmed is that elite athletes use imagery much more than non-elite athletes. However, from personal experience I believe imagery to be a very effective technique in most every realm of athletic training.
As we wrapped up our seminar, Tony gave us some invaluable advice for writing our theses these next few months. He recommended picking a topic which, in conjunction with existing evidence, would allow for the development of a model. Models are too complex to be completely disproved, he said, and are a great starting point for generating discussion. They hang around for a long time as people return to test out singular elements, leading to further refinement. This is research according to Tony: taking something that already exists and then testing a small part of it well.
As a starting point, Tony advocated replicating a simple piece of research you really like, but with a tweak (eg: with a different sample). Your goal is just to get your thesis done, he says — your best research is what happens after graduate school. “Don’t try to run a marathon,” advises Tony, “If you just need to run a kilometre.” He underlined that replicating studies is a good thing, that this is actually a necessary component of advancing any body of knowledge. He also highlighted the importance of reading about your field to pick out a handful of strong articles to contextualize yourself, and to note any pitfalls encountered in the past with your topic.
Q & A:
- What is your biggest career-related regret? Not directly diving into sport psychology, but rather spending time outside the field first. If you want to be a top researcher, Tony recommends generating expertise in a niche area early. However, he never felt this need, preferring flirting with new skills to spending time in just one domain. “It’s hard to demonstrate being a jack of all trades as valuable academically,” says Tony, “Because it doesn’t lead to a spot on the podium. Like in golf, if you consistently come in 37th in world rankings you are still an exceptional golfer… but it is not the top.” However, Tony’s most valuable point to this question happened just as we were about to move on to the next one: “It is also important not to specialize forever. Do that one thing you like until it gets you to where you want to be, then go and do other stuff.”
- What is your most useful consulting technique? Imagery. Letting people tell their own story. Not trying to apply too many preexisting frameworks, but rather tailoring each experience to the individual (especially when working with teams where members might be at different levels and have different needs — the same framework will not work for all!). When working with developing athletes — 12-20 years old — the most important item on the menu is to clarify how their future career fits in with what they are doing now. Tony applies a holistic approach to his work: it is not important how much pressure there is on competition right now, but rather in making your life fit well around your sport. Lastly, if someone doesn’t feel they have time for sport psychology, or if they have doubts as to its efficacy, there is no point in forcing them. In the end, as with physical training, the athlete will only get out from her sessions as much as she puts in.
- What is a book you would recommend? Monkey Grip, Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Doing Sport Psychology, and Imagery in Sport.
- A movie? Groundhog Day.