BRIO imagery workshop: Reflections on applied practice

Many sport and exercise psychology students learn in the classroom about the potential uses and benefits of imagery, and the underpinning theory and evidence. I wonder if other students-turned-practitioners can resonate with my experience that actually putting theory into practice in the applied field is a whole different ball game! What about athletes who can’t control their image or who indicate that they “can’t ‘do’ imagery” at all? How should imagery scripts come together: What content, wording, format, timing, is best? These practical challenges of using imagery with clients are not necessarily covered in training or textbooks; yet are situations and questions that I have encountered or pondered over as an early career sport psychology practitioner.

Last September I went back to the University of Birmingham (where I studied my undergraduate degree) to attend an imagery workshop run by the BRIO group. Aside from checking out if Joe’s (the student bar) still looked the same, I was keen to learn about current imagery research and its applied implications from field leaders. The workshop promised an applied focus and did not disappoint, with practical tasks and discussions throughout the day. I left feeling inspired and equipped with knowledge and tools that addressed my afore-mentioned practitioner challenges; and that would ultimately enhance my consultancy work. I hope to share a few personal reflections on my key learning points, accompanied by applied examples.

Reflection 1: Piecing imagery together gradually, incorporating the scenario as well as the athlete’s responses

One main focus of the workshop was using layered stimulus response training, or LSRT. This approach advocates building the complexity of an image gradually with clients, by starting with a simple image and progressively adding ‘layers’ (or details). These layers should include characteristics about the imaged scenario (e.g., the race start line), as well as the athlete’s sensory response (e.g., quickened heart beat) and the meaning this holds for them (e.g., feeling prepared and energised).

I have found the step-by-step approach of LSRT and its emphasis on ‘starting simple’ extremely helpful with athletes who doubt their imagery ability. Through a cycle of ‘image, reflect, develop’, athletes can continually evaluate and build the vividness and controllability of their imagery. I have also had success using LSRT with athletes who fear the situation they are trying to image; that is, when the purpose of imagery is to reduce anxiety and develop confidence. For instance, I worked with an equestrian rider who feared jumping certain fences. At first, this rider could not contemplate mentally jumping the feared fence from a first person perspective (through the ‘rider’s eyes’), which evoked unhelpful responses including thoughts (e.g., “That looks big”), emotions (e.g., scared) and physiological reactions (e.g., freeze). Through progressive steps of using imagery to first experience jumping easier fences and then harder fences (initially in third person perspective, followed by first person perspective), this rider was eventually able to mentally experience jumping harder fences comfortably; and crucially, to physically jump these fences on her horse. The ‘response’ and ‘meaning’ elements of the imagery were important to monitor and regulate here, in order to dispute the rider’s unhelpful thoughts about harder fences, and create more helpful responses/meanings to the harder fences in her imagery.

Reflection 2: Broadening the ‘Why’ of imagery – a tool for self-awareness?

The workshop covered five ‘W’s of imagery, which should all be considered when working with athletes: ‘Who’, ‘When’, ‘Where’, and ‘Why’, which informs the ‘What’. Prior to the workshop, I had used imagery largely as a tool to improve confidence, focus, and skill acquisition. More recently, using a LSRT approach I have been amazed by the capacity of imagery to develop athletes’ self-awareness. One session that stands out was working with a darts player to uncover the differences in thoughts, focus, emotions, and physiology when he took shots he was most comfortable with (his favourite numbers) versus least comfortable (shots he avoided). By progressively building detailed imagery examples of both scenarios, it dawned on the player that he focused on the whole number when taking ‘uncomfortable’ shots, yet on a tiny dot when taking ‘comfortable’ shots. Astonishingly, this difference was something the player had been unaware of in ten years of competing; and this awareness helped us to develop an intervention. Increasingly, I am using structured imagery (rather than solely asking athletes to recall performances) in my practice, to develop a richer self-awareness within the client and to get a clearer picture of presenting issues as a practitioner.

Reflection 3: Broadening the ‘hoW’ of imagery – fully involving the athlete

The sixth ‘W’ discussed in the workshop was the ‘hoW’ of imagery, for instance the different senses that are experienced (e.g., visual, tactile), the perspective (e.g., first or third person), angle (e.g., in front, behind), and agency (e.g., self, other) of the image, and whether the imagery is deliberate. These considerations were an eye-opener for me: Images can be vastly different, yet still effective. I now encourage athletes to initially vary their ‘hoW’, for instance experiment with different perspectives and angles. In my experience, this can help to improve imagery detail and also athlete self-awareness, such that the athlete can make informed decisions about their preferences and be fully involved when we write a script together. Being flexible in the ‘hoW’ can also work very well. For example, one cross-country runner I worked with wanted to include in his script (created to improve confidence in his stamina): (1) The starting pens and first 100m (first person perspective); (2) Fighting to stay in front mid-race (through a camera lens, following him from the side); (3) Sprinting the final 200m (first person perspective).

Reflection 4: Being creative in using imagery

The various scenarios and scripts provided during the workshop inspired me to think outside the box more, whilst still guided by research. For example, I now use performance videos of athletes to help them create their imagery scripts. Or, we’ll go to their training ground or competition venue and use their reflections on physical performance to inform the imagery. I now more often integrate imagery with other tools/interventions. For example, one equestrian event rider I work with listens to a self-selected soundtrack whilst walking the cross-country course. The rider then uses this same soundtrack whilst mentally running through how she wants to ride the course, to enhance confidence, focus, and reach her ideal performance activation. Another rider I work with combines imagery of show-jumping with using cue words we have put in place; helping the automaticity of these words (since riders cannot physically practice as often as some other sports; the horse would become very tired, very quickly!).

This is by no means a ‘how to’ guide, but simply some examples of how I have extended my applied use of imagery following the BRIO workshop. I would love to hear any fellow practitioners’ input or examples! Further, the workshop is one that I would genuinely recommend for students, trainees, or established practitioners looking to expand or refresh their knowledge and implementation of imagery. My only regret was that Joe’s was closed for refurbishment.

Jo Davies bwAbout the author: Jo runs a private sport psychology consultancy, regularly working with athletes of many different sports, levels, and ages. She is also undertaking a PhD at the University of Hertfordshire on ‘Self-practice/self-reflection in sport psychology practitioners’. Contact Jo via http://www.jdpsychology.co.uk or @jdpsychology.

9 Questions for Dr Sanna Nordin-Bates

SNB jan 2013 bwDr Sanna-Nordin Bates completed her PhD on “Imagery in Dance” at the University of Birmingham in 2005 and is now a world-leading expert in the psychology of dance based at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences.  As Dr Jennifer Cumming’s first PhD student, who graduated before the BRIO group was “born”, we thought it was only right that she had the honor of being the first academic interviewed for our blog.  She describes her post-PhD journey and shares her thoughts about dance imagery.

1. What have you been doing since you completed your PhD in Dance Imagery?

I left Birmingham after finishing my PhD in September 2005, and took up my first post doc the following week. That was a manic weekend of moving house, city, and jobs! The new post was at the London Sport Institute at Middlesex University in London, where I worked for just over 2 years. The fact that I had a lot of freedom meant I could finish up papers from my PhD, start new collaborations, organize a conference (a one-day symposium on dance science), and help write the grant application which got me my second post doc. But before that came through, I was brave and became a freelance academic for 8 months! It sounds odd, but I sincerely recommend it. I lectured in a few places (on the BA programme at the Royal Academy of Dance, the diploma programme at Cambridge Performing Arts, and on the MSc in Dance Science at Wolverhampton University), and worked as an applied psychology consultant for English National Ballet. I also did freelance research, in the form of research-style evaluations of two performing arts projects: one for disadvantaged youth for the organization Leaps & Bounds, and one called Dance4Health for Warwickshire county council.

In 2008 I started my second post doc, at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. This was on a large-scale project investigating a wide range of dance science topics under the umbrella of a talent development scheme known as Centres for Advanced Training (click here to download the report from this project).  I headed up the psychology side, and co-supervised Imogen Aujla who completed her PhD within the project. On the side of this post doc, I continued consulting for English National Ballet and started doing so also for the Royal Ballet School.

At the end of 2011, the project was finished and it was time to move again. This time, I went a bit further – though closer to home! – and started a lectureship at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences in Stockholm. Now, I have been there for just over three years and keep busy with the “normal combination” of lecturing, research and admin. My consulting has been on hold since I moved to Sweden, though I am ¾ way through Stage 1 of training in psychotherapy (a course in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for elite sport run by our national sports federation). I also teach a bit of psychology at the Swedish Royal Ballet School, and have started a research collaboration with them.

2. How do you use imagery?
I firmly believe that imagery is in almost everything we do, though most of the time we are not particularly deliberate about it. So while I am no longer an athlete and do not mentally train for sport, I imagine very frequently. In particular, it is helpful when planning and goal setting for work.

3. Do you have a favourite imagery quote to share with us?
There are lots, and especially from quote-master Einstein… but here is one very good one:
“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” – Albert Einstein

4. What is a myth or misconception about imagery that you think should be corrected?
That it is something new, and unknown that needs to be taught to athletes from scratch. Because imagery is part of basic thinking, I believe that it is mostly about helping the athlete become more aware of what they imagine, what works for them, broaden their repertoire somewhat, and – in particular – how to make it more systematic and effective.

5. What is the study or project you are most proud of?
That is a hard question! I am not sure there is a particular study or project that stands out. However, I am proud that I did a mixture of quantitative (experimental and questionnaire-based) and qualitative (interview) studies during my PhD. This has put me in good stead for later studies, and I really like using mixed methods.

6. Who has been the biggest influence on your career to date?
Ok that is a far easier question! Jennifer Cumming, certainly.

7. What role do you think dance teachers could play in encouraging imagery to be used by dancers?
I think they often do play a pretty big role in generating and encouraging the use of metaphorical imagery, in order to help dancers with movement quality, choreography and the like. However, I think they could play a far greater role than is typically the case when it comes to imagery as mental practice. For instance, they could encourage (or initiate) imagery practice in short bursts when dancers wait their turn, or end classes with a guided imagery rehearsal of what has been learnt. They can also encourage imagery outside of class for dancers who want more training time, to help them reinforce their learning, and to exercise their creativity.

8. What could researchers do to help bring more attention to imagery in the dance world?
I think we need to use many different forums and communicate broadly – scientific papers are not enough. The International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) have several which can be useful including their Day for Teachers (in connection with annual conferences), their Bulletin for Dancers and Teachers. They also make posters on several dance science subjects – perhaps we should encourage them to make one on imagery?!

9. What advice would you give to those who would like to do research in the area of dance psychology?
To go for it! We need more research across the whole spectrum of dance psychology topics, and it is a very rewarding area to be involved in. The dance science community is very collaborative and enthusiastic and so great fun to be involved with. At the same time, there is a great deal to be learnt from sport science, as the state of dance research is rather far behind. Altogether, this means a nice combination of feeling that there is much to be done, but a supportive community to do it in.

To download some of Sanna’s recent papers:

Nordin-Bates, S. M., Hill, A. P., Cumming, J., Aujla, I. J., & Redding, E. (2014). A longitudinal examination of the relationship between perfectionism and motivational climate in dance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 36, 382-391.

Nordin-Bates, S. M., Quested, E., Walker, I. J., & Redding, E. (2012). Climate change in the dance studio: Findings from the UK Centres for Advanced Training. Sport, Exercise, & Performance Psychology, 1(1), 3-16.

Nordin-Bates, S. M., Cumming, J., Sharp, L., &. Aways, D. (2011). Imagining yourself dancing to perfection? Correlates of perfectionism in ballet and contemporary dance. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 5, 58-76. ( )

Nordin-Bates, S. M. (2014). Resource paper: Perfectionism.