Leon Robinson may not be an actor whose name is on the tip of many tongues these days but in the 1990's he provided two of the more memorable examples of performance imagery on film. Imagery defined as the using all the senses to create or recreate an experience in the mind is featured in two of Robinson's most prominent roles; Cool Runnings and Above the Rim. Audiences were left with the conclusion that his characters' use of kinesthetic imagery enhanced both performance outcomes. Research has shown that mental rehearsal is not just a Hollywood creation but a very real and effective strategy to increase performance.
The first way imagery influences athletes is through a psychoneuromuscular response often referred to as muscle memory. You have experienced this psychoneuromuscular response if you have ever woken up from a nightmare sweating, out of breath, or with a pounding heart. The contents of your nightmare were isolated in your mind, yet your brain and body responded as if the dream was real. This idea that the body does not know the difference between highly vivid real or imagined events is a great benefit to athletes. In 1980 researchers tested the electrical activity of a downhill skiers' legs as he imagined a downhill run. The data revealed that the muscle firings mirrored the terrain of the ski run and that the contractions peaked at the specific times during the course when the skier would be turning or maneuvering through rough snow. Although imagery is not a replacement for physical practice it is a wonderful supplement to training, especially for athletes who do not have extended access to training like skiers.
The second manner in which imagery contributes to performance enhancement is that in involves images or pictures. We all think in images. We will default to an image in our heads over words or language. If someone asks you what comes to mind when they say the word "football" odds are you think of a ball, player, team, or experience over the the letters f-o-o-t-b-a-l-l. From an evolutionary perspective our ability to see predated written language (this is a highly debated topic but hundreds of thousands of years appears a safe estimate) which provides the basis for our brains to default to pictures under stress. The military leverages this by utilizing sand tables prior to missions and coaches draw up plays for their athletes during timeouts. When Sully Sullenburger was deciding whether to land US Airlines Flight 1549 n the Hudson he used a simple heuristic which simplified his decision making. If the tower, representing a visual cure, rose in his cockpit window he would bail if it lowered he would continue to return to the runway. This is an example of how under stress decision making is made easier by relying on pictures.
Enhancing Learning and Performance
We can use imagery to execute more decisive under pressure and increase memory and recall. A 1987 study looked at people learning CPR. Specifically the study focused on two primary concerns the first is a person hesitancy to use skills and the second being their retention of the correct skills. Two groups, standard CPR (S-CPR) and imagery enhanced CPR (IE-CPR) received CPR training. The only difference between the two groups was that the IE-CPR group had an emphasis on imagery. Six and 12 months later both groups of subjects were put into a situation that would require them to administer CPR. They were evaluated on their speed to initiate and their accuracy in proper delivery of CPR. The results are below:
6 Months 12 Months
S-CPR 18.7 50.1
Response Time (seconds) IE-CPR 6.5 19.0
S-CPR 75.5 53.3
Correct Responses (%) IE-CPR 93.3 88.0
Adding imagery to the training not only significantly improved response time but also the accuracy of response for up to a year after training.
Making It Vivid
There are three distinct areas that contribute to successful imagery: vividness, perspective and controllability. We will focus on vividness in this post. To successfully image a performance we need to have a vivid integration of our senses. An athlete who is only thinking in pictures is missing out on making stronger connections. Imagine that you are in you are trying to make a trail in the woods. The first day you walk through and push down some grass and maybe break some branches. If you kept walking down this path every day for a year you would eventually a well groomed path suitable for one person. That is what practicing imagery with only what you can see does. Now imagine that instead of just you setting out individually, you are joined by four friends. After walking side by side through the woods for a year you have a path more comparable to a road. The more senses we can incorporate into our imagery the bigger and stronger we can make the neuromuscluar pathways in our bodies, which will promote learning and execution.
The four friends from above would be the additional senses of taste, touch, hearing, and smell. My favorite example of a person adding senses to an imagery practice came from my work with Soldiers preparing for Jumpmaster School. Jumpmaster School is an intense training that prepares Jumpmasters to properly ensure proper rigging and safety for Soldiers prior to parachuting. Most Soldiers when choosing a smell would pick the smell of the equipment, but one Soldier stood out for using the smell of "burning flesh". He pointed to the time requirement and his need to be close enough to see what he could touch and touch what he saw. Moving his fingers quickly over the equipment that close to his face allowed for him to smell his skin burning. That specific and powerful smell added to the vividness and made his imagery more powerful. All the Soldiers in that group also used kinesthetic or physical movement to it which further grooves those pathways and helps to sync the body and mind. Both video examples above are examples. The key to improving vividness is to mentally put yourself in the action. Think about what do you most vividly experience which may differ from your peers.
More specific uses and training examples in our next post.