Getting to know the BRIO group: What led you to imagery as a research area?

Dr Jennifer Cumming

I became interested in sport psychology as a career path after spending summers as a competitive ice skater involved in an intensive summer school in Montreal, Canada.  At the time, I training 30-40 hours/week, mainly on-ice, but I also had the opportunity to take dance and sport psychology classes.  It was my first exposure to working with a sport psychologist and I really enjoyed writing down daily goals and completing the workbook that was provided (I still have it!).  I had been using imagery to preview my performances since the age of 8 or 9, but I started to refine my imagery during this training and became interested in how I could help other skaters benefit from using it.

This experience eventually led me to do a BSc in Fitness Education (now called Kinesiology) at McGill University, a programme that allowed me the flexibility to take classes from both the Psychology as well as Physical Education departments.  I still remember learning the basics of motor control and sport psychology from great professors, like the late Dr Dan Marisi, which gave me a strong grounding for do a Masters with Dr Diane Ste-Marie at the University of Ottawa and then a PhD with Dr Craig Hall at the Western Ontario. I have always been grateful to the excellent training and opportunities I received from these supervisors, which has led me to a position at the University of Birmingham and over 15 years of imagery research. I now have the pleasure of co-running the BRIO group with Dr Sarah Williams and working with an excellent group of students, both past and present.

Dr Sarah Williams

I was always really interested in sport psychology from my own participation in sport. I first learnt about imagery during my A levels although it was branded as “mental rehearsal”. I had experienced first-hand how beneficial it could be so I became really excited when I found out that it was an official “thing” that could be used and studied. When I got to university I discovered that imagery can be used for things beyond improving movements, skills, and strategies. This unlocked a new word for me in terms of not only how I could use imagery, but also the different research questions that remained unanswered. It was then I started asking myself whether imagery could do this or do that, and whether anyone had tested these ideas. I started trying to use imagery in different ways when playing sport and thought about how this may or may not have worked – some might have called me a self-experimenter.

I then completed my undergraduate dissertation and gained my first bit of “real” imagery research. This is definitely when my love affair with imagery intensified. I loved everything about the research process and at the end I had more research questions than when I had started (I’ve since come to realise that this usually happens after every study you conduct!). I then applied for a PhD to continue answering these research questions and was fortunate enough to be awarded the studentship. The rest as they say is history!

Fredrik Weibull, 4th year PhD student

I was fascinated by imagery and I used it in my tennis. As an undergrad at the university I focused on imagery as a research topic and since then I have been really hooked.

Maria Kostelli, 3rd year PhD student

The first time I heard about imagery was during my Master’s as a mental skill for student-athletes. I got more interested in imagery when I saw athletes using it in their everyday practice. The majority of athletes shared their experience with me and persuaded me that imagery is an acquired skill that helps them overcome their fear of failing and at the same time helps them get better. I find imagery a very stimulating topic. I like the fact that imagery can be applied in every aspect of our lives. It is a good strategy and technique that can be used to help people improve in every sector of life. It can be used as a performance enhancement technique, to overcome a phobia, to recover faster from an injury, to motivate yourself do something that you are having a hard time doing and so on.

Mary Quinton, 3rd year PhD student

I first became interested in imagery when Jenn introduced it to me as a second year undergraduate student in our sport psychology module. This led me to choosing to study imagery in my final year dissertation. After reading more literature and conducting an imagery intervention with young futsal players, I decided that I wanted to pursue imagery research further, which led me to where I am right now – in the final year of my PhD!

Gale, 2nd year PhD student

I have been passionate about imagery since working with stroke patients as a physiotherapist. A after I have studied imagery in my MSc degree course I have came across imagery’s whole distinct concept and advantages that could be applied in rehabilitation field. Since then I have decided to do continue my PhD degree into exploring the full depth and dimensions of imagery and how beneficial it can be in my area of physiotherapy rehabilitation.

RIO meeting 2015

The RIO group
The Research in Imagery and Observation (RIO) Group was formed in 2006 and aims to provide a forum to meet and discuss research in imagery and observation. The purposes of the meetings are to give members a chance to present their research findings and ideas and to facilitate group discussions. The RIO group organizes one meeting a year at different locations across Europe. There is a useful range of expertise within the group and the research carried out by the members varies from applied sport science to cognitive-neuroscience (including for example research within exercise and rehabilitation). Find out more about group and the annual meetings here.

The RIO meeting 2015

Day one
Mary Quinton and Fredrik Weibull from our BRIO group attended the 9th Research in Imagery and Observation (RIO) meeting at the University of Stirling, Scotland on the 14th-15th May 2015.

The first day started with an invited lecture from Professor Ferdinand Binkofski who talked about the implementation of action observation in neurorehabilitation. Any students would be happy to know that this research area suggests naps are beneficial to consolidate learning to remember things better, a tip for upcoming exam revision perhaps?

The theme of rehabilitation then continued into the first symposium – “Imagery and Observation in Clinical Science”. These presentations included research from the Body Eyes and Movement (BEAM) lab at Manchester University who have been investigating different gesture viewpoints during action description and the effects of visual cues on hand movements in Parkinson’s disease.

Ling Choo and colleagues based at the University of Glasgow then presented results from their systematic review on the neural correlates of bilateral upper limb training after stroke. Surprisingly there have been no imagery interventions in this area of research – an invitation for someone reading this blog?

Tadhg MacIntyre’s research group then talked about motor imagery use for injured athletes during recovery and the topic of cognitive dissonance between simulation and execution – a really interesting topic which I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about in the near future. In symposium two (“Imagery and Observation in Sport and Exercise Science”), MacIntyre’s research group spoke about their upcoming research investigating depression through motor simulation and motor imagery performance and injured athletes’ imagery use in recovery using a mixed methods approach. Does this sound interesting to you? Want to hear more? Look out for our interview from the conference with Tadhg MacIntyre (coming soon on the BRIO group blog).

Tadhg MacIntyre

Adam Bruton (University of Roehampton) then presented some of his PhD work on the effect of observation interventions on collective efficacy in elite youth rugby union players. Even though the rugby team didn’t have the best season overall, watching video highlights of their matches at the start of each week helped improve their collective efficacy – it truly is the taking part that counts?

Last but by no means least, BRIO members Mary Quinton and Fredrik Weibull presented their PhD research. Mary discussed how who you are can influence your perception of your imagery experience, as her research shows that skill level influences how an individual interprets their imagery (i.e., as facilitative or debilitative). Whereas Fredrik discussed how exercise imagery mediates the relationship between exercise behaviour and affective outcomes, showing that enjoyment imagery can partially explain why people enjoy their exercise experience and experience positive outcomes from their exercise behaviour, like revitalization.

Fredrik Weibull
In the end of the first day we experienced a fantastic whisky tasting at the venue which included a lot of laughs. This was followed by a lovely dinner.

Day two
Stéphane Grade (University of Louvain) was the first presenter during the symposium of day 2 (“Imagery and Observation in Action Cognition”). He gave an informative talk about exploring action simulation embodied cognition using distance estimation and reachability perception judgment. This was followed by Daniel Eaves (Lancaster University) who presented research by himself and colleagues on “The effects of physical practice on automatic imitation effects in rhythmical actions”.

Bretherton presented work by himself and Watt (University of Sterling) on music, motion and emotion. We listened to a piece of music while Bretherton showed us how music affects Heart Rate (HR). Predictable parts of the music lowered HR while unpredictable parts caused an increase in HR. Bretherton also described why music could be seen as a person in motion.

This was followed by interesting talks from Ellen Poliakoff (University of Manchester) on “Exploring the effects of attention and motor imagery on the kinematics of imitated hand actions” and Clément Letesson (University of Louvain) on “Action prediction from action observation and contextual cues”. Bruce and Ietswaart also presented fascinating work with parrots and how they can learn from observing different human actions.

The conference ended with an invited lecture from Scott Glover who talked about his ideas of a unified model of imagery and about the factors influencing the timing of real and imagined actions. He gave an interesting talk in which among other things he criticized the use of the term functional equivalence. Instead he proposed to use the term functional overlap. He presented a model of the neural and behavior processes of motor imagery and how they relate to the processes of real action. He also presented research that supported some of the tenets of the model.

It was a great conference with its usual mix of researchers from cognitive, clinical and sport science backgrounds. The presentations and meetings stimulated great discussions on both theoretical and practical issues. We want to thank the organizers for a great experience. Next year we the RIO group will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Check the RIO group website for updates.

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.

Introducing the BRIO Group Blog

By Dr Jennifer Cumming CPsychol CSci AFBPsS

Welcome to the first ever BRIO group blog post! We are a group of academic staff and post graduate students from the University of Birmingham (UK) who are avid about researching what helps make imagery and observation effective for sport, exercise, dance, and rehabilitation.  We are often asked to give advice on how to put this research into practice so that it can be more easily used by coaches, fitness instructors, dance teachers, and physiotherapists.  To share these ideas more widely, we have decided to start this blog to offer practical tips, summarise recent developments by us and others, as well as to make suggestions for both research and application. We will also be welcoming your comments and feedback too.

BRIO group

To kick start our blog, we decided to each take on the challenge of writing a post about something about imagery that strikes our curiosity.  But, in this first post, I give a bit of background about imagery and explain how it is commonly used by athletes.

What is imagery?
Imagery involves using some or all of your senses to create a mental image.  It not just about what you see through your mind’s eye. You can also experience an image as a sound, smell, and taste.  In sport, one of the most common senses during imagery involves feeling sensations and emotions. England Cricketer James Anderson has revealed how imaging the feel of the ball coming out of his hand helped him to overcome problems with his swing.  Now when he bowls a good ball, he will “just try to think about everything I did during that ball, how it came out of my fingers, how it felt and just try to recreate that over and over again”.

Athletes will also combine different senses to create a vivid and realistic image.  For example, a tennis player might view themselves tossing the ball upwards and then see the downward motion of the racket when mentally rehearsing his serve.  He might also feel the racket in his hands, the force of the racket connecting with the ball, as well as the muscular effort involved in this swing. These physical sensations can also be combined with positive and helpful emotions such as feeling determined and confident that his serve will be successful.

Because imagery can and, more often than not, involve multiple sense, I prefer the term “imagery” over “visualisation”.  The latter is probably how imagery is most commonly known to athletes and coaches.  But, I think it then limits how imagery is defined and used. Three time Olympian and US Freestyle Aerialist Emily Cook agrees, “Visualization, for me, doesn’t take in all the senses. You have to smell it. You have to hear it. You have to feel it, everything.” Using the different senses not only helps to create more effective images, but also ensures that these images will be more meaningful and relevant to the athlete.

Where does an image come from?
Images can be based on past experiences drawn from your memory or triggered by something that you have seen, felt, read, smelt or heard.  You can get your inspiration from images from almost anything, but listening to music used to be an excellent sources for me.  As a former figure skater and professional coach in Canada, music help to develop new ideas for choreographing a skater’s routine.  I would start to image what kinds of movements and skills would work with the music and this gave me a chance to work out a plan before even stepping on the ice.

It is also possible for you to generate a completely new images by combing details from your memories with new information that you get elsewhere. Take the case of a gymnast who might preview themselves competing at an event for the first time after viewing YouTube clips of past competitions held at that location.  After watching the video, she might mentally transport herself into the scene, incorporating key details of what she saw to help create the atmosphere of the event and then recreate an image of a recent best performance.  Mentally preparing in this way gives the athlete an important boost of confidence even without any real experience at this particular venue.  When she arrives at the event, she will have an immediate sense of familiarity from having already experienced her routines many times over in her head.

How and why is imagery used by athletes?
The best athletes will apply the same principles that make their physical training effective to how they use imagery.  That is, they will approach imagery practice in a deliberate and systematic way.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for top athletes to plan what they will image and for how long.  They will also use imagery as part of their regular training programme.

By doing so, the best athletes will reap the many benefits of imagery including learning new skills, memorising game plans/strategies, motivating themselves to achieve goals, managing their emotions, as well as keeping their confidence high.  For example, professional golfer Jerry Kelly described rehearsed the course in his mind each night before going to sleep and again in the morning for the month and a half before winning his first PGA tournament at the 2002 Sony Open.

By comparison, less successful athletes use imagery more sporadically, less often, and without much thought or planning.  As a result, their imagery is probably more like day dreaming.  However, athletes of any level can be taught how to use imagery more effectively.  In this blog, the BRIO group will explore some of the techniques we and others have developed over the years to help even those athletes who don’t think they can image to benefit from this technique.

Imagery as a marker of success?

How often an athlete uses imagery is a factor that separates those who are successful from those who are not.  In his autobiography, Olympic gold medallist Sir Bradley Wiggins, CBE describes how imagery has been a part of his training for most of his career. He explains that “The routine for this time trial is the same one I’ve built and perfected over fifteen years; as I go through it thoughts and images flash through my mind…I always pick a power to ride at. If it’s 460, 470 watts, I’m imagining being there, at that power. In my head it’s feeling strong, flowing, everything’s working. It’s easy, I’m floating along, I’m gliding, it’s feeling great. I can sustain this feeling for up to an hour.”

In some of the first research I carried out as part of my PhD at the University of Western Ontario, I explored how much time athletes spent imaging over different years of their career. It was surprising to find that more successful athletes will start to accumulate more hours of imagery practice as early as 5 to 6 years into their career. This result has reinforced to me how important it is for athletes to develop imagery as a skill and use it as part of their long term development.  Regular and effective use of imagery will likely speed up an athlete’s journey to the top, as well as help to pave a smoother road by being better able to handle the natural bumps along the way.

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About the author: Dr Jennifer Cumming is a Chartered Psychologist and a Senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Birmingham. The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.