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.

You have been using imagery your entire life but you did not even realize it!

By Nurwina Anuar

Have you ever lost your car key? To find them, you might have thought back to the last place and time you held them in your hands, mentally retracing your steps.  Without even realizing it, you were using mental imagery. Following on from Fernanda’s post explaining why imagery is a skill for life, I will explore this theme further by giving you lots more reasons how it can benefit you.

What is imagery?

Imagery is a mental activity.  Using your mind’s eye, you can recreate experiences you have had before or picture new experiences before they even happen.  In a classic study by Harvard University’s Prof Stephen Kosslyn and his colleagues (1990), they discovered that most spontaneous images experienced in every day life are visual in nature.  However, you may also use your mind’s ear to hear imaged sounds, your mind’s noise to experience imaged smells, and so on for the other senses.  Helping to make the images even more realistic, it is also possible to experience feelings and emotions during imagery.

Although imagery is most often considered to be a technique used by top sports people, it can be applied to almost every type of profession.  For example, imagery is used by writers, dancers, actors, musicians, psychologists, entrepreneurs, and surgeons.  Because most of everyday images are spontaneously created, we probably do not realize how often we use imagery to help us through our daily lives.

By becoming more aware of imagery and optimizing your ability to image, you will be able to use this technique to benefit in many ways.  In Kosslyn et al.’s (1990) study, they found that everyday images were used to:

  1. Solve problems (e.g., decide what to eat)
  2. Rehearse future encounters (e.g., asking your boss for a raise)
  3. Jogging your memory (e.g., putting a face to remember a forgotten name)
  4. Producing descriptions (e.g., giving directions to your house)
  5. Understanding descriptions (e.g., picturing a character in a book)
  6. Emotional/motivational (e.g., imaging a calm lake to relax)

Imagery can also have no particular purpose, such as when we are day dreaming.  However, to benefit most from imagery we need to be aware of inner experiences and focus the mind on what we are creating/recreating.  Like other mental techniques, you can improve your ability to image by practicing it regularly and deliberately.

Still not convinced why you should start to use imagery more often in your life? Here are five more reasons.

1. It is free

Imagery is a tool that does not require a single penny in order to use it. You don’t need an ap or a CD – just the power of your mind.

2. It can be used any time/any place

You can use it at any point of the day (or night!), whether it is first thing in the morning, during a break in work, or just before trying to fall asleep.  You can also use it anywhere you like. For example, athletes have reported using imagery at school, at home, as well as on the training pitch.

3. There is a scientific explanation for its benefits

Dr Aymeric Guillot, a professor at the Centre of Research and Innovation in Sport at University Claude Bernard Lyon in France has explained that experiences in real and imaginary worlds produces similar responses in the central nervous system.   During a “mental workout”, your sympathetic nervous system which governs our fight-or-flight response will react with increases in heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. He further said, “Whether we walk on a mountain trail or only picture it, we activate many of the same neural networks—paths of interconnected nerve cells that link what your body does to the brain impulses that control it. You can use this to your advantage in different ways.”

4 You get to preview experiences before you take the action.

You don’t just relive old experiences through imagery but also can preview new experiences before they happen.  Why is this helpful? Imaging the situation before you experience for real can give you a sense of having done it before and build your confidence that the actual situation will go well.  Also, this mental rehearsal can help you to gain information on how to handle the situation, giving you the opportunity to try out different scenarios, changing your tactics, and reviewing possible outcomes.  This kind of imaged planning may even save time and money, allowing you to consider creative solutions to problems.

5. Imagery have been used for healing and medicine.

Imagery can help you to reduce pain and promote healing from injury and illness.  Pain can be reduced by using imagery to distract yourself, relaxing your muscles, and holding less tension.  You could image the sensation of getting massage, sitting on warm beach, taking hot bath, the muscles relaxing, or imagining the pain being released from the body.  As for healing, athletes will image image the fractured bone stick back together and other types images. This gives them a sense of control over their rehabilitation and perhaps confidence that it is working. Interested to know more about using imagery for pain and healing? Check out this resource.

In sum, imagery can be used in every day life to achieve many benefits. I would love to hear how you use imagery in your life by leaving a comment below.

About the author: Nurwina Anuar is a final year PhD student at the University of Birmingham.