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 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 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 February 5, 2015
Published February 5, 2015
Sean McCann, senior sport psychologist for the United States Olympic Committee, and former president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, on the role that sport psychology plays in Olympic performance and winter sports.