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.

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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.