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:
- Use a cue that is both meaningful and functionally fits the task, which creates a connection and enables self-talk to be more useful and relevant. For example, in our study of martial artists, we chose the terms explode and fast. These terms match the explosive movement required to deliver a rear leg roundhouse quickly and effectively.
- Keep cues short. Decide on one or two words (e.g., drive, cut, sprint) that are most meaningful to the task and athlete. An added benefit of keeping it short is that it makes the cue easier to remember.
- Make the statement loud, whether it is in their head or verbalized. “Loud” self-talk cues help athletes move their focus away from their technical mechanics. This shift is needed for faster response times and more explosive movements.
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 February 8, 2018
Episode 21 of the Create An Athlete podcast sees co-hosts Stephen Edelson and Jerry Carino discussing the psychology of young athletes with 2017-2018 AASP President Amy Baltzell, author of "Whose Game Is It, Anyway?".
Click here to listen to the podcast.
About the Create an Athlete podcast
Real-life advice for parents and young athletes on emerging happy and healthy from shark-infested waters of youth, scholastic and – with a little luck – collegiate sports. Because in the quest for athletic success and maybe even college scholarships, the emotional and financial costs can be excessive.
Published October 10, 2017
Have you coached a high school sport program for many years? Have you volunteered to coach a youth sport team in a recreational league? Either way, team cohesion has a big impact on the success of your program and you as a coach.
What is team cohesion?
Cohesion is defined as a dynamic process of the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united to pursue instrumental objectives and satisfaction of member affective needs (Carron, Brawley, & Widmeyer, 1998). In a sport team, it can be viewed as the extent to which athletes are motivated to practice, compete as a team, and “hang together”. Cohesion is multidimensional, including:
- Task cohesion: the level of unity of a team in task performance (e.g., teamwork and task completion within sports such as working together to win a championship); and
- Social cohesion: the level of unity of a team in social aspects (e.g., social support and friendships outside of sports).
Why is team cohesion important?
Team cohesion positively predicts team performance, and team performance positively predicts team cohesion (Filho, Dobersek, Gershgoren, Becker, & Tenenbaum, 2014). In other words, if a team is more cohesive, it is more likely to perform well, which in turn will lead to a more cohesive team. This concept is especially important for youth athletes because it is also positively related to sport satisfaction, sport continuation, and youth development.
It is important to understand how task and social cohesion influence youth athletes in order to implement effective team building and coaching strategies. Some general considerations are:
- Task cohesion is more strongly related to optimal sport performance than social cohesion, demonstrating the importance of having congruent task-related goals such as making practice plans together
- Task cohesion is generally higher in teams that require working together during competition (e.g., track relays) than those that do not (e.g., cross country)
- High social cohesion could result in both functional and dysfunctional behavioral patterns such as enhancing motivation in a sport while creating difficulties for constructive criticism
- Motivational climates created by coaches are influential on task and social cohesion, thus highlighting the important role of coaches in creating optimal environments
Is team cohesion still important within an individual sport (e.g., golf)? Absolutely, because any sport team is a “team”! As soon as there is task or social interaction within a team, the concept of cohesion applies. As a coach, this answer should become clear when you ask youth athletes about why they play on your team — they will likely talk about their friendships and the fun that they experience within the sport (Visek et al., 2015).
As a coach, how can I improve team cohesion among my athletes?
A good starting point is to assess perceived cohesion from the athletes’ point of view. This can be done informally through individual or group conversations with your athletes. A sample question is: “How is your experience working with your teammates?” The key is to listen openly to their thoughts and feelings without judgment. Assessment can also be done more formally using existing validated questionnaires such as the Youth Sport Environment Questionnaire (YSEQ; Eys, Loughead, Bray, & Carron, 2009), which is designed for youth athletes.
After gaining an understanding of the current cohesiveness of your team, you may select some or all the following strategies to implement. In determining your next steps, it would be helpful to consider your sport, your athletes’ characteristics (e.g., age and gender), and your coaching philosophy.
- Team environment: Foster a strong sense of “we” instead “me” through team building activities, use of team slogans, and social interactions within and outside of the sport. One sample activity involves giving athletes a piece of paper and asking them to write down the word “me”. Then, have them flip the paper upside down so they see the word become “we”. During this process, facilitate a discussion of how the perspectives are different between “me” and “we”, and why the “we” perspective is important to adopt for better team performance and relationships. (Figure here.)
- Team structure: Instead of deciding roles for your athletes, offer them a chance to discuss their perceived roles and preferred responsibilities. This discussion can enhance teamwork and accountability, as well as empower athletes by giving them a choice in their team roles.
- Team processes: Focus on individual sacrifices and team cooperation to facilitate the process of building a strong team identity. Ask team captains to “take a new athlete under his/her wing”, involve all athletes in establishing task-related team goals beyond individual goals, and invite athletes of similar skill levels to discuss techniques and strategies to learn from each other.
- Team climate: Create an optimal motivational climate for your athletes to grow individually and as a team by utilizing the mastery approach to coaching (MAC; Smith, Smoll, & Cumming, 2007). For instance, when athletes make mistakes, you can encourage them to learn from those mistakes by praising their effort and giving them positive corrective instruction.
Improving team cohesion does not happen overnight. It is recommended that you reflect on your own coaching and team dynamics regularly in order to apply appropriate strategies to optimize both task and social cohesion. Starting to build your team early in the season and continuing your efforts throughout the season will likely make your team more cohesive and improve their performance.
Published in: Parents & Youth Sport
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.
- The first aspect that is essential for understanding auto racing psychology is the difference in practice time. Auto racing is expensive and auto racers have little practice opportunity. Unlike a sport such as basketball, auto racers don’t have the option for hours in the gym practicing their sport. Most racers don’t have the time, money, equipment, or location to practice very much, in fact, many will be allowed only a few time trials or practice laps and then have to be ready for competition. This means that auto racers must take their practices extremely seriously. The old adage of “practice like you play” is essential. In addition, racers may be more likely to need to use visualization or simulators. Many auto racers use various simulators (e.g., practice reaction time equipment) to help with their practice. If racers tried to adhere to the “10,000 hour rule” that states you need that many hours to be world-class in any field (Gladwell, 2008), then they would have to use visualization and simulators.
- In auto racing, like in sports such as gymnastics, there is very little room for error. In some sports there are chances to make a mistake and recover and move on, whereas in auto racing a small mistake will likely make you lose or even worse cause an accident. In drag racing, drivers have to react to a light at the start and a thousandth of a second can be the difference between winning and losing – consequently reaction times are critical. Losing by such small margins can also be difficult on an athlete and can lead to burnout, especially if they focus entirely on winning (Weinberg & Gould, 2011). Working with auto racers (and other athletes) who can win and lose by such small margins is something that simply must be acknowledged and accepted by consultants, and they should work with athletes to focus on the process as much as the outcome.
- In most sports, there is some degree of danger and risk of injury. In gymnasts, equestrians, and auto racers, the risk of injury is almost always present. Once again, this risk needs to clearly be identified and discussed. Most athletes are keenly aware of this potential for injury. Discussions about safety precautions, avoiding unnecessary risks, handling emergency situations, mentally preparing for injury, and simply acknowledging that the rewards of the sport outweigh the potentially negative outcomes are essential for racers.
- In auto racing, there is a partnership between the car and the driver. For those who are not “car people” this anthropomorphism of the car may seem unusual. I recently posted this question on a sport psychology list serve and this anthropomorphism does happen in other sports such as sailing and even with some golfers and their special clubs. However, there is a particularly strong bond between most racers and their cars; they may talk about their car in terms of their partner, and will say things such as “She (the car) was perfect tonight” or “The Old Nova really got it done today!” Auto racers rightfully understand that they have a mechanical partner who will help them to win or lead them to lose. This partnership may seem odd to those outside of the sport, but the feeling toward a car may seem similar to that of the love equestrians have to their horse or the respect tennis players have with their doubles partner. An athlete and consultant may want to be aware of what they can control or can’t control with this mechanical partner and ensure that proper attributions are being made. It is doubtful that a car “has a mind of her own” and intentionally wants to lose (although it sure feels like it sometimes!).
- Finally, some fascinating things about auto racing are the family dynamic, age and gender desegregation, and the lifelong participation aspect of the sport. Some of the best auto racers come from a long line of auto racing, while many of the pit crew are dads, brothers, wives, children, family, and friends. This is particularly true at the non-professional level. At race tracks, entire families attend the events together. Additionally, in auto racing, men and women compete directly with one another, meaning there is no separation in competition by gender. Finally, racers can start in different classes as young as 8 years old and very successful drivers can race to 70 years old. In auto racing, it is not unusual to find people who have been participating in the sport over 50 years! Once again, most classes do not separate by age. Therefore men, women, young, and old all race in the same classes together. Auto racing is truly a lifestyle and athletes need to develop ways to stay motivated over what may be a very long career in the sport. Topics such as balancing work, family, and racing are important considerations for these racers. Consultants may also need to help these racers think about very long term goals (where do you want your racing to be in 5 or more years?).
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:
- Engage in appropriately challenging activities. You don’t necessarily have to have your clients hike a 14er, but having them identify and successfully overcome self-determined obstacles can help develop resilience.
- Dedicate time for reflection. I spent most of the hike and weeks after it thinking about what that day meant to me and how it would help me move forward in various aspects of my life. Start by having them think and/or write about: How did this experience challenge me? How was I able to push through, even when the odds were against me? What does this experience mean for future challenges I may face?
- Seek support. Having a community that supports me in my challenging moments also helps me summit metaphorical mountains in my daily life. Help your clients determine who is or could be in their support network.
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