Published March 8, 2018
In a study with 200 martial artists, we found those who were trained to use a combination of cognitive specific imagery and motivational self-talk significantly reduced their reaction times almost instantly (Hanshaw & Sukal, 2016). In fact, some participants experienced a decrease in response time of over 20%, or going from striking a target in 0.737 seconds to 0.659 seconds on average. In the ring, this means seeing an opening and striking the open body part faster as well as increasing the likelihood of making contact. Many martial artists believe that response time, even hundredths of a second, is often the difference between victory and defeat.
In the study, the cognitive specific imagery, or “movie,” many of the participants created included seeing their foot strike the target at the exact moment the light on the researcher’s timer illuminated. Participants also selected motivational self-talk cues, such as fast, explode, and strike, and utilized them during their imagery.
Interestingly enough, many control group participants had slower response times when they were tested post-intervention. This means the group who did not receive any training or instruction on mental skills actually became slower. Additionally, the control group experienced a more anxiety, as evidenced by statements such as, “I actually felt nervous” and “I kept thinking about my kick needing to be faster.” These suggest that control group participants tried to excessively control their kick rather than just being in the moment and letting it happen.
Many athletes already use some type of imagery or self-talk, but often run a huge risk of degrading their performance because they leave the content or quality of these skills up to chance. With a better understanding of these tools, sport psychology professionals can match a specific type of imagery and self-talk to the needs or desires of the athlete to improve performance.
How to use cognitive specific imagery for faster response times
The key to imagery with this objective is for athletes to be in total control of the “movie” they play in their heads. They can make their movie more amazing than any Hollywood film by tailoring what they mentally experience to a specific situation and making it as realistic as possible. It’s also important for the movie to be individualized and meaningful to the athlete. For example, a soccer player could practice seeing himself taking a successful shot at the goal at the moment an opening appears.
Vividness and controllability of the imagery are two methods to help athletes become more successful with their practice. Think of vividness as how sharp and detailed the athlete experiences the imagery, which in turn creates more of an emotional connection to the imagined experience. This connection helps athletes to “feel” the scenario by incorporating all of their senses and to regulate their emotions prior to stepping into a competitive environment.
Controllability is the athlete’s capacity to control or make changes to the imagery as it is plays back in his/her mind. This component is useful in helping athletes practice overcoming mistakes and reacting to unexpected situations. These situations can be any adversity an athlete may face in competition, such as perceiving that a referee made a bad call. Athletes can see how they might naturally react and then practice controlling how they will respond in a game if this happens, such as pausing to recover, recognizing the call is out of their control, and focusing on the next play. By mentally making and practicing these choices, it helps athletes respond effectively in actual situations, faster.
How to use motivational self-talk for faster response times
Researchers (Edwards, Tod, & McGuigan, 2008; Masters & Maxwell, 2008) have found that to gain the maximum benefit from motivational self-talk, athletes should:
What we say to ourselves and experience in our minds matters in sport. We can leave this dialogue up to chance or we can take a more purposeful approach to improve our performance. I would advise any athlete or coach to take calculated steps to create their own “movie” and motivational thoughts. Think of imagery and self-talk as food for the mind. What type of food will fuel your mind and prepare you to perform at your best?
Edwards, C., Tod, D., & McGuigan, M. (2008). Self-talk influences vertical jump performance and kinematics in male rugby union players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 26(13), 1459-65.
Hanshaw, G., & Sukal, M. (2016). Effect of self-talk and imagery on the response time of trained martial artists. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 5(3), 259-265. Adapted from: http://psycnet.apa.org/permalink/a72d26eb-ad73-6bcd-08b3-b770876d1663/
Masters, R., & Maxwell, J. (2008). The theory of reinvestment. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1(2), 160-183.
Published May 17, 2017
When most people think of sports, they think of traditional sports such as baseball, basketball, American football, soccer, etc. When people think of sport psychology, they often think of these same sports plus Olympic disciplines such as gymnastics, track, and swimming, etc. For me however, when I think of sports, I think of auto racing. I grew up with my dad at the drag strips in Iowa and then married a drag racer. For the last twenty-five years my husband has driven a rear engine dragster in NHRA classes and I have been the pit crew. As a professor of psychology at McKendree University and an AASP certified consultant, I have been able to identify unique aspects of the sport psychology in auto racing. Many of these aspects are not completely unique to auto racing, and when I work with bowlers, equestrians, and gymnasts we are able to talk about some similarities.
Below is a brief glimpse inside the helmet of auto racers, and specifically those who participate in drag racing. It is my hope that this brief summary will be beneficial to athletes involved in extreme sports and consultants who may work with these athletes.
For me, auto racing is a lifestyle. I enjoy the competition, setting goals, the friends, the commitment, learning new things, and having the motivation to participate over years. As a sport psychology consultant, working with auto racers is a rewarding adventure and there is a lot to learn inside the helmet.
Eggleston, T. J. (2015) Auto Racing Mental Skills Video. http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/blog/2015/02/auto-racing-mental-skills/
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. (1st ed.). New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Published April 19, 2017
“Can you teach them resilience? I need them to be mentally tough.”
How many of us have had this request from coaches, administrators, and parents? It is difficult to teach resilience, especially when it still lacks a formal definition. Luthar, Cicchetti, and Becker offer one understanding of resilience, as “a dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity” (2000).
I recently endured adversity while summiting my first 14er, otherwise known as a mountain over 14,000 feet. This experience helped me to find my own understanding of resilience, and has had a substantial impact on my work with athletes.
The trail to the top of Mt. Bierstadt was covered in snow. I stood at the trailhead, staring at the mountain in the distance. The summit and I were separated by miles of vast land, still green in some places despite the cold weather. Everything felt big. In that moment, my awe had reduced me to feeling very small, but also very mighty. I had never climbed a mountain of this magnitude before, but something inside of me felt ready to try. My sport is distance running, but moving from a state that was below sea level to a place where oxygen felt scarce had me interested in pursuing slower adventures. If I couldn’t run long, I could at least try to hike far.
In life, there are often many potential paths to success. In front of me now were multiple paths, created by dozens of footprints in the snow. During the summer, trails are much more defined, but because of the snow, others before me had attempted to make their own path. Normally, I would be excited at the prospect of forging my own path to success, but on a mountain in winter conditions, it is generally best to stick to the intended trail.
I fixed my eyes on the top of the mountain, and hoped that doing so would steer me in the right direction. Unfortunately, forgetting to watch my steps, I wound up off course a lot of the time. As I tried to maintain direction, I pressed on, my lungs burning from the lack of oxygen. My body began to ache due to the strain of ascension. Hours and miles later, I neared the summit. This final stretch of mountain looked very different from the landscape I had walked through to reach that point. There were no more trees, or bushes, or grass, and the path had been replaced with giant rocks. It looked like it was time to climb.
My adrenaline was wearing off and the voices of doubt started whispering to me that I was foolish for attempting this summit. I reminded myself how far I had already come and in doing so, continued to push forward.
The wind whipped against my face, the only part of my skin still exposed to the elements. The rocks were slick and it was extremely difficult to pull my stiff, half-frozen joints upwards. It would have been so much easier to just turn around, and trust me, I thought about it! Now that I was almost 14,000 feet up, the summit seemed much less obvious, but the thrill of being so close to my goal kept me going.
I reached the highest point, alone. There were no signs, no markers, and no other hikers. I stared out at the valleys and peaks below, waves of blue and white gently rolling into the horizon for miles. Standing above it all, I felt humbled to have made it this far.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in climbing a mountain is that the summit is only the halfway point. Feeling fatigue really set in, I scrambled back down to a flatter part of the trail to refuel. While I had made it through the toughest part of the hike, I still had miles to go before my journey was finished.
At that point of the day, the sun was shining, melting away the snow. The descending trail was more visible than before, though a bit more slick and muddy. I felt powerful, knowing that I had been to the mountaintop and that I had traversed this trail before. Compared to before my summit, this part of the hike was nothing! Despite my achy knees, I practically flew back to the start of the trail.
When you complete a race, crossing the finish line is an experience filled with grandeur: music, cheering, signs, and a medal. This finish line was an empty parking lot in the middle of nowhere, and I was the only one to congratulate myself. The only sound was my heavy breathing, finally beginning to slow down. I turned back to look at the mountain one more time, feeling grateful for the experience.
This hike gave me the opportunity to prove that I could accomplish seemingly impossible goals, physically and mentally, even if they did not lead to obvious rewards in the end. While resilience may be a personality trait, from this experience, I believe that anyone can strive towards challenging goals. Since I have braved the mountaintop, I feel more able to encourage my athletes to do the same.
In teaching athletes to find resilience, encourage them to:
Resilience may not be easily taught, but it can be found on a mountaintop. Be that support for your clients, encourage them to reach personal summits, and allow them the space to share their stories.
Smith, B. W., Dalen, J., Wiggins, K., Tooley, E., Christopher, P., & Bernard, J. (2008). The brief resilience scale: Assessing the ability to bounce back. International journal of behavioral medicine, 15(3), 194-200.
Adapted from: http://bit.ly/2kGUX7e
Published January 17, 2017
You know you are in deep trouble; so you face the brutal facts of the challenge you’re facing. But at the same time you feel deeply that you will prevail.
This quote comes from James Stockdale, a prisoner of war for over seven years in Vietnam. Stockdale's perspective on acknowledging the reality of your adversity while still holding to the belief that things will work out became known as the Stockdale Paradox, a central takeaway from research done by Dr. Dennis Charney. Dr. Charney studied a variety of people who had survived adversity in its most extreme forms and yet somehow came out of it without the depression, PTSD, and harmful emotional scar tissue one would expect. He compiled a list of characteristics that set these people apart, and the #1 characteristic was a simple yet misunderstood quality - optimism.
To understand optimism, let's begin with what it's not. Optimism is not a naive assumption that everything is always going to be fine - the Pollyanna who views the world constantly through rose-colored glasses and never worries a day in their life.
Optimism is a mindset, characterized by maintaining positive expectations for important future outcomes. It is the stories you tell yourself, and the way you interpret the circumstances and events of your life. And optimism has some eye-opening benefits:
If that list doesn't win you over, you may have a dangerously pessimistic style of thinking, which ultimately shapes your mindset - but not to worry, let's finish with some practical takeaways.
Here are 3 ways you can grow your optimism:
How would you rate yourself when it comes to dealing with adversity? We all have a ton of growing still to do.
But the best is yet to come.
Published September 6, 2016
There is no construct of human psychology and functioning more prevalent in sport than emotion. Mood, emotions, and general affect can influence every movement in every sport. Consider a typical 45 second shift in ice hockey. Within those brief 45 seconds, the player might begin the shift with high confidence (“I’m going to have a strong shift!”), receive the puck and skate in on the opposing goal with high excitement (“I’m going to shoot high glove side and score!”), get poke-checked by an opposing player inducing feelings of frustration (“That was a missed opportunity”) and guilt (“I could have really helped out my team”), back-check and makes a good defensive play which raises the player’s pride (“I helped my team by showing hustle and foiling the opposition”), and finally, end in a scrum in front of the net where there is much shoving with opposing players where the player takes a spear to the midsection that the referee misses inducing anger (“I can’t stand that creep!”). Six different emotions within 45 seconds and each emotion will have the potential to help or hinder the player’s performance.
Effectively managing emotions then becomes an important skillset for every athlete. Emotion regulation means the use of strategies to initiate, maintain, modify, or display emotions (Gross & Thompson, 2007). This means that any attempt to change how long an emotion lasts, how intensely you feel the emotion, or what you are actually feeling is an attempt at emotion regulation. Further, emotion regulation isn’t just about changing how you feel, but can also involve changing the emotion’s action response (i.e., avoidance or confrontation) and physiological responses (e.g., facial expression or breathing patterns).
Emotion regulation: A family affair
There are literally hundreds of different emotion regulation strategies. James Gross (1998) has identified five families of emotion regulation. Each can be used in sport:
Each emotion has the potential to either help or hinder performance. Identifying which emotions do what in any given circumstance is the first step to learning how to manage emotions. Once this has been accomplished, athletes can begin to identify and practice emotion regulation strategies that are both effective and are likely to be employed based on the athlete’s ability and personality as well as the confines of the sport.
Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: an integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 271-299. doi:10.1037/1089-26188.8.131.521
Gross, J. J., & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp.3–24). New York, NY: Guilford Press.