Imagery interventions with children: Top tips for researchers, parents, and coaches!

By Mary Quinton

For my first post for the BRIO group blog, I would like to share with you the top tips I learned from conducting an imagery intervention with a population that requires a different approach to that typically undertaken with most athletes – children.
I’ll summarize with some practical tips aimed at parents, coaches, and researchers for incorporating imagery into practice sessions for youth athletes. But first, let me tell you what we did in our intervention that allows me to give you advice!

What did we do?
We conducted a five week imagery intervention with a group of 36 young Futsal players to see whether imagery practiced twice a week could improve their:

  1. Ability to generate images (i.e., imagery ability)
  2. Performance on a dribbling and passing Futsal task.*

*Note: For a more detailed description of our methodology and results please see the full text article: Quinton, M. L., Cumming, J., Gray, R., Geeson, J. R., Cooper, A., Crowley, H., & Williams, S. E. (2014). A PETTLEP imagery intervention with young athletes. Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, 9, 47-59. doi:10.1515/jirspa-2014-0003

Watch Futsal in action with the top 10 goals from the 2008 FIFA Futsal World Cup in Brazil:


What’s the science behind it?

Our imagery intervention was based on the PETTLEP model (see Holmes & Collins, 2001 for further details). PETTLEP refers to seven elements to consider when designing an imagery intervention: Physical, Environment, Time, Task, Learning, Emotion, and Perspective.

Watch this example on how PETTLEP can be applied in golf:


For maximum benefits, all seven elements should be included in the imagery. Why? Simply put, imagery activates similar areas of the brain to physical practice (Jeannerod, 1997). The extent to which these areas overlap has been termed functional equivalence (or more recently behavioural matching; Wakefield, Smith, Moran, & Holmes, 2013) and is thought to be the reason why imagery has such a powerful effect on performance.

Therefore, including all seven PETTLEP elements in imagery more accurately reflects physical performance (i.e., greater functional equivalence) and can enhance the detail and vividness of the image.

How did we do it?
The imagery content included various dribbling and passing exercises, which related to the futsal skills the young athletes learned. We introduced PETTLEP elements gradually, starting with the most simple ones (e.g., physical – imaging dressed in their kit) and ending with the more complex elements (e.g., emotion – imaging feeling confident doing the skills).

We broke the imagery down into manageable size pieces for a number of reasons:

  1. Children learn skills more effectively when they are broken down, also known as “chaining” (Slocum & Tiger, 2011)
  2. We wanted to ensure the children were not “overloaded” with information at the start. Too much information may cause a lack of focus; an issue especially relevant with children!
  3. This layering approach, known as Layered Stimulus Response Training (LSRT), has been shown to improve imagery ability and performance (Williams, Cooley, & Cumming, 2013). If you want to learn more about LSRT, why not come to our workshop? Click here to find out more.

What did we find?
Although our intervention did not significantly improve performance, we did find age to be significantly related to certain types of imagery ability. In other words, older children found it easier to image certain perspectives in relation to younger children.

So what?
So…this finding has important implications for delivering imagery interventions with children. If older children find it easier to image than younger children, then interventions should be delivered according to age group. This approach would allow for the intervention to be delivered at the correct pace to those involved – in accordance with the learning element of the PETTLEP model.

The bit you’ve all been waiting for…
The tips! Sometimes non-significant results tell us more than significant ones and in the case of this study, that is very true. By no means is the below an extensive list, but from my experience these are what I think are the key points to address in future imagery interventions with children:

Tips for researchers 

  • Aim for small, similar intervention groups: As different people vary in imagery ability (e.g., age, experience level), this ensures the imagery is specific to the group you are working with.
  • Alter the imagery content/delivery to engage children: E.g., use pictures to demonstrate different ways for the children to see their images as in the Movement Imagery Questionnaire for Children (Carter, Yoxon, Ste-Marie, Cumming, & Martini, 2013).
  • Keep coaches and parents informed and involved: Informing parents and coaches about the intervention will help integrate imagery into other areas (e.g., training or practicing at home).
  • Don’t overload children with lots of imagery content: Use the LSRT approach to go at the right pace for youth athletes.

Tips for parents/coaches

  • Ask researchers about the imagery intervention: This will allow you to reinforce the concept and encourage the children to practice imagery outside of the intervention.
  • Encourage frequent imagery use: Research has shown improvements from imagery when practiced at least 3 times a week (Wakefield & Smith, 2009).
  • Use props and small movements: E.g., if the imagery is football based, have players image with a ball at their feet. This makes the imagery more interactive and also uses the Physical element of the PETTLEP model!

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. Have you had any experience with imagery and youth athletes? If so, we’d love to hear what works best for you! Please leave any comments in the box below. Don’t forget to check out our other blogs too!

References

  • Carter, M. J., Yoxon, E., Ste-Marie, D. M., Cumming, J., & Martini, R. (2013). The validation of a movement imagery questionnaire for children (MIQ-C). Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 35, S16–59.
  • Holmes, P. S., & Collins, D. J. (2001). The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: A functional equivalence model for sports psychologists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(1), 60–83. doi:10.1080/10413200109339004
  • Jeannerod, M. (1997). The cognitive neuroscience of action. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  • Slocum, S. K., & Tiger, J. H. (2011). An assessment of the efficiency of and child preference for forward and backward chaining. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44(4), 793–805. doi:10.1901/jaba.2011.44-793
  • Quinton, M. L., Cumming, J., Gray, R., Geeson, J. R., Cooper, A., Crowley, H., & Williams, S. E. (2014). A PETTLEP imagery intervention with young athletes. Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, 9, 47-59. doi:10.1515/jirspa-2014-0003
  • Wakefield, C. J., & Smith, D. (2009). Impact of differing frequencies of PETTLEP imagery on netball shooting performance. Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, 4(1), 1–11. doi:10.2202/1932-0191.1043
  • Wakefield, C., Smith, D., Moran, A. P., & Holmes, P. (2013). Functional equivalence or behavioural matching? A critical reflection on 15 years of research using the PETTLEP model of motor imagery. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6(1), 105–121. doi:10.1080/1750984X.2012.724437
  • Williams, S. E., Cooley, S. J., & Cumming, J. (2013). Layered stimulus response training improves motor imagery ability and movement execution. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 35, 60–71.

About the Author: Mary Quinton is a final year PhD student in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the School of Sport, Exercise, and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Birmingham. The views and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.

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