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 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
Published February 27, 2017
The Dual Role of Athlete and Activist
The arena of sport and performance is often regarded as a utopian space where, unlike other facets of society, equity and cultural acceptance are assumed to be the norm. However prevailing or idealistic this notion may be, in truth, this does not reflect the reality for some athletes. Throughout history and in recent times, athletes have faced social and cultural injustices within their sport while simultaneously navigating similar challenges within the larger society. Black athletes have frequently served in the dual roles of athlete and activist, balancing both the expectations to “just play” and attain performance excellence while also exercising their right to speak up about systems, policies, and unspoken practices that create an uneven playing field, or on a larger scale, a biased and unjust society. Therefore, in honor of Black History Month, we wanted to pause and reflect on the ways in which Black athletes have navigated the intersections between race, sport, and social justice, highlight some of the accomplishments they achieved while doing so, and provide steps we can take to follow in their footsteps
The Black Athlete-Activist
In order to better understand the nexus of Black athlete-activist, we should note a few athletes and historical incidents that helped to define it. After winning gold and bronze medals in the 200m race at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games, USA track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a gloved-fist to symbolize the struggle for human rights in a year marked tragically by the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. Both were ostracized and berated for their actions upon their return home. In 2010, Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell received the Medal of Freedom for his work on civil rights. Russell participated in the 1963 March on Washington, conducted integrated basketball clinics in Jackson, Mississippi, and was an outspoken critic of segregation. The death of Muhammad Ali in 2016 re-ignited a critical imagination of a time when Black men were expected to fight for country while being denied civility and civil rights at home. Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War became a defining historical moment for the Black athlete-advocate. Other athletes like Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, and Jackie Robinson faced racism and discrimination in sport and were silenced. Despite this, their courage and resilience opened doors for Black athletes to speak out against social injustice today. The photograph of the Miami Heat in hoodies, NBA players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts, and Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the national anthem represent some of the modern ways Black athletes have used their respective platforms in sport to draw attention to the cultural illusion of meritocracy in America.
Call to Action
As members of the sport and performance community, we have to do more than intellectualize the possibility of bringing about social justice. We have to work for sport to be(come) a space where equity and equality co-exist. The future of sport (and society) cannot afford for us to be paralyzed. Yet, we may wonder, “what can I do” or “where can I begin?” Collective advocacy always begins with us. It can have far reaching influence - even with small steps. Here are three simple strategies for moving towards social justice in sport:
Regardless of our own personal and social identities, we all benefit from better educating ourselves on historic and present-day racism in sport. Doing so provides us with the knowledge and language necessary for action. Consider reading the following:
- 40 Million Dollar Slaves: The rise, fall and redemption of the black athlete (2006)
- Days of Grace: A memoir (1994)
- Sport and the Color Line: Black athletes and race relations in 20th century America (2004)
- Sport, Racism and Social Media (2014)
- The Importance of Athlete Activists (2015)
- There's No Race on the Playing Field: Perceptions of racial discrimination among white and black athletes (2003)
Examine your personal values, prejudices, and biases about sport. Making sport more equitable means rethinking our daily practices. We might start by reflecting on how we view athletes of various races, genders, abilities, and socioeconomic statuses in the context of competition and performance. How might our values, biases, and prejudices lead to discriminatory or exclusionary practices that limit opportunity or access to sport?
3) Speak up.
Have you ever heard a derogatory comment directed towards an athlete of color or any marginalized member of society and not acknowledged it? Decide to say something, engage in difficult dialogues (Souza, 2012), and challenge inequality. Speak with athletes, coaches, colleagues, and clients about racism. Acknowledge that it exists and influences our daily experiences.
In honor of the courageous Black athletes who fought for the right to compete, overcame taunts and threats of violence, as well as risked their careers and lives for social issues and equality, commit yourself (at minimum) to reading, reflecting, and speaking up. Think of Arthur Ashe’s statement of “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” as calls to action, because whatever you do, know that each act (and inaction) matters to the future of sport and society.
Abdul-Jabar, K. (2015). The Importance of Athlete Activists. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4114002/kareem-abdul-jabbar-athlete-activists/.
Ashe, A. and Rampersad, A. (1994). Days of Grace: A memoir. New York: Random House, Inc.
Brown, T.N., Jackson, J.S., Brown, K.T., Sellers, R.M., Keiper, S. and Manuel, W.J. (2003). There's no race on the playing field: Perceptions of racial discrimination among white and black athletes. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 27(2), 162-183.
Farrington, N., Hall, L., Kilvington, D., Price, J. and Saeed, A. (2014). Sport, racism and social media. New York: Routledge.
Miller, P., and Wiggins, D. (2004). Sport and the color line: Black athletes and race relations in twentieth-century America. New York: Routledge.
Rhoden, W. (2006). Forty million dollar slaves: The rise, fall and redemption of the black athlete. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Souza, T.J. (2012).Facilitating difficult dialogues in the classroom [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://www2.humboldt.edu/diversity/sites/default/files/Difficult_Dialogues_Souza_Presentation_Slides.pdf.
For more information about AASP’s diversity initiatives and resources, please check out our website.
Published January 31, 2017
High-performing teams are high in cohesiveness, shared understanding, and a sense of team confidence or collective efficacy. In other words, even teams full of star players (e.g., national teams, all-star teams such as the NFL Pro Bowl) need to bond, establish coordination mechanisms and develop a collective belief of the unit’s potential to be successful. Results from research conducted with college soccer teams showed that high-performance in team settings starts with the establishment of task cohesion and positive social relations (social cohesion) among teammates (Filho, Gershgoren, Basevitch, & Tenenbaum, 2014; Filho, Tenenbaum, & Yang, 2015). After establishing a sound foundation, activities promoting team mental models and a belief in the team’s capability to accomplish outcomes are necessary to further the development of performance. In a nutshell, cohesion, team mental models, and team confidence are inter-related processes (see Figure 1), similar to what social psychologist Albert Bandura (1997) described as “reciprocal determinism”. That is, improving any of these team processes will likely influence the other team processes as well as team performance in sports.
Here are some general guidelines for those interested in learning how sport psychology concepts can be applied to the development of expertise in team sports.
Task Cohesion. Working groups only become teams when they share a sense of purpose and clearly defined collective goals. Accordingly, the first step towards developing team excellence pertains to the establishment of quality (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) team goals. In addition, coaches and practitioners must assign specific task responsibilities to each team member so that all players feel motivated to contribute to the team.
Social Cohesion. The establishment of social bonds is essential to develop a sense of trust and mutual support necessary for high-performing teams. Teammates should offer genuine support and complement the positive aspects of one’s persona and performance to foster the development of social cohesion. Coaches and team leaders should also promote social activities outside the sport environment (e.g., team building activities), thus offering teammates a chance to connect at a personal level and limiting the likelihood of social cliques.
Once cohesiveness is established, other team processes discussed below can be developed.
Improving Coordination Links. Coordination links represent synchronized actions or efforts among teammates and may be either explicit or implicit in nature. Explicit coordination refers to verbal communication aimed at facilitating performance within the team. Research with successful sport teams has suggested that communication exchanges between players should carry instructional content and be framed in a positive tone (Lausic, Tennebaum, Eccles, Jeong, & Johnson, 2009). Implicit coordination pertains to the ability of teammates to articulate team-level actions without the need for verbal communication. These implicit heuristics, crucial elements in team sports (e.g., hand signals in volleyball, set pieces in soccer), should be extensively rehearsed until conducted automatically by all team members.
Enhancing Resource Sharing. Resource sharing seems to be a characteristic of high-performing teams across domains of human activity. For instance, team building exercises help to create a positive working atmosphere that allows for learning conversations and productive knowledge exchange. Likewise, coaches should strive to establish a positive motivational climate wherein personal improvement, effort, and learning are encouraged, and thereby teammates feel safe to discuss their roles within the team, and the team’s strategy as a whole. Where available, coaches should also incorporate resources from other domains (e.g., biomechanics, physiotherapy) in their practice and performance analysis, as such additional knowledge might be the difference maker in high-stakes competition.
Skill Mastery. Both self-confidence and team confidence are primarily based on skill mastery and successful experiences. For instance, Barcelona, a premier European soccer team, exudes confidence in every match because of its highly skilled players, such as Iniesta and Messi, and past accomplishments, such as winning the UEFA Champions League. Consequently, coaches should recruit the most skilled players available (or ensure that each team member has the skills required for his/her position). However, it is rare to find a team that possesses all required skills needed to succeed at the early and middle stages of development. Accordingly, coaches and practitioners should be able to identify what skills need to be developed to meet the team’s goals for the season, while promoting a mastery involving climate by recognizing each teammate’s unique contributions, effort and personal improvement.
Team Preparation. For any athlete worried about an upcoming competition, proper training periodization is essential to diminish anxiety, instill confidence, and decrease the likelihood of overtraining. Likewise, successful teams need sufficient time to prepare to ensure superior performance. Coaches must encourage the players on their team to work together, discuss team strategies and tactics, and brainstorm new ideas in order to evolve a strong sense of collective competence. As Aristotle famously stated, “excellence is not an act but a habit”.
High-performing teams depend on many interdependent components. As is often said, a “chain is only as strong as its weakest links”. As such, to develop high-performing teams, coaches and practitioners should view team dynamics in a systemic fashion, by considering the interrelationship among different team processes, including cohesion, team mental models and team confidence.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman.
Filho, E., Gershgoren, L., Basevitch, I., & Tenenbaum, G. (2014). Profile of high-performing college soccer teams: An exploratory multi-level analysis. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15, 559-568.
Filho, E., Tenenbaum, G., & Yang, Y. (2015). Cohesion, team mental models, and collective efficacy: Towards an integrated model of team dynamics in sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 33, 641-653.
Lausic, D., Tennebaum, G., Eccles, D., Jeong, A., & Johnson, T. (2009). Intrateam communication and performance in doubles tennis. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 80, 281-290.
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:
- Situation Selection: An athlete can modify their emotions by selecting which situation to engage in. For example, a skier who is nervous about re-aggravating an injury might choose to skip a race in order to calm themselves. Goal-setting can act as a type of “situation selection” in that it can help ensure the athlete remains in desired and intended situations.
- Situation Modification: Once dedicated to the situation, the athlete can change some aspect of it to manage their emotions. For example, a figure skater who is nervous about a specific element might perform a modified version of the element at a lower difficulty in order to feel more confident about the whole performance. Consistently doing performance debriefs can help an athlete reflect on what potential tactics are available based on anticipated situations.
- Attentional Deployment: An athlete can also choose what aspect of the situation to focus on (and/or ignore). For example, a volleyball player worried about the impending outcome of the game might choose to focus on specific aspects of the next serve-receive to shut out distracting thoughts about the outcome. Focus strategies that have primed the athlete about what is in, and out of, the athlete’s control can be an effective tool here.
- Cognitive Change: An athlete can choose what meaning or perspective to have about any situation. For example, a basketball player who is happy with her performance in the first half of a game might remind herself that “there’s still another half to play” in order to maintain a high and focused intensity. Given the strong link between appraisals and emotions, self-talk (that is, the things we say to ourselves either out loud or in our head) is an essential tool for effective cognitive change.
- Response Modulation (Suppression): After an athlete has experienced an emotion, he or she can try to alter the emotional response (behavioral, physical, or physiological). For example, a baseball player who strikes out can hide feelings of frustration by resisting the urge to curse or toss the bat. Having visualized potential “if-then” plans to employ based on anticipated emotional responses can be an effective tool in this circumstance.
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.