Improving your ability to image in layers

Imagery is considered by most sport psychologists as an important technique for athletes and coaches to master.  So why are there so few established training methods to improve imagery ability?  Imagery ability is a skill, and like any other skill, can be improved by practice.  In this blog, I will summarize a study we conducted which shows how you can make this practice far more effective by using a simple training exercise (Williams, Cooley, & Cumming, 2013).  We call this exercise layered stimulus response training or LSRT for short.  

What is LSRT?

LSRT improves imagery ability by layering three types of information within a scenario:

  1. Stimulus propositions: characteristics of the imagery scenario (e.g., specific details about the competition venue or event).
  2. Response propositions: describe the physiological responses an athlete would experience when exposed to the real life stimulus (e.g., muscle tension, increased heart rate, postural changes).
  3. Meaning propositions: explain the relationship between the stimulus and response propositions to the athlete (e.g., “It makes me excited to compete”).

Step 1

Guided by the researcher, the first step is ask the individual to image a scene (e.g., tennis serve).

Step 2

After completing the image, the individual is then asked to evaluate their image and reflect on what aspects of the image they found particularly strong/clear/easy to image and which aspects they found vague/dim/more difficult to image.

Step 3

Next, the individual re-images the scene by attending towards only the specific details within the imaged scenario that they found relatively easy to image (e.g., seeing the ball toss and then your racket make contact with the ball during a tennis serve).  This is usually stimulus information about the scene.

Step 4

The individual again evaluates and reflects on the image.  The researcher then helps them to develop the image further by identify additional details in the form of response and meaning proposition that would also be experienced in the situation (e.g., feeling your arm raise, the ball leave your hand, and racket make contact, or feeling confident about the serve).

These additional response and meaning propositions are gradually introduced and added to the original image in separate layers. For each layer, the individual follows the same cycle of image, reflect, and then determine how it can be subsequently developed.

How have we used LSRT? 

Our research team developed LSRT based on Lang’s (1979) bioinformational theory (also see Lang, Kozak, Miller, Levin, & McLean, 1980), and have used it with participants in both lab-based experiments (Cumming, Olphin, & Law, 2007; Williams, Cumming, & Balanos, 2010) and field-based interventions (Weibull, Cumming, Cooley, Williams, & Burns, 2014).  In our past studies, LSRT had been confined to a single imagery session, with the intention of having the participant experience more immediate benefits to their imagery ability before receiving guided imagery as part of an experimental protocol or guided intervention.  It is also starting to be used by applied practitioners to help with a range of issues.

However, we had not yet systematically examined its effectiveness as a technique to improve movement imagery ability and its corresponding effect on performance. In other words, we did not know whether LSRT improved an individual’s imagery ability more effectively than just imagery rehearsal and, would these improvements in imagery ability have a benefit to performance?

To test these questions, we (Williams, Cooley, & Cumming, 2013focused on recruiting individuals who were both lower in movement imagery ability than what is found in most imagery studies/interventions AND had little or no experience in golf putting.  The 24 participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  1. Visual imagery group “imagine seeing the golf ball run along the green and
    gently roll into the hole”
  2. Movement imagery group “imagine yourself correctly and successfully performing the golf putting task”
  3. LSRT group “imagine yourself correctly and successfully performing the golf putting task”

The only difference between the movement imagery  and LSRT groups was the layering approach described above to help the LSRT group to build their image up and make it as realistic and lifelike as possible.

The intervention involved performing 5 images on 4 consecutive days.  Apart from assessing putting performance before and after the intervention, the participants undertook no physical practice.  Measures were also taken to assess both general as well as task-specific imagery ability.

Does LSRT work?

LSRT was the most the effective intervention in our study.  Participants in this group improved on the most number of indicators of their imagery ability AND were the only group to significantly improve their putting performance.

More specifically, the LSRT group improved their ability to see and feel images of golf putting (i.e., specific imagery ability) and this also translated to improvements in their general movement imagery ability.  Whereas the other groups mainly improved on the visual component, the LSRT group found it easier to see and feel simple and more complex movements after the intervention.

Our findings show that with only a few practice attempts, individuals with lower imagery ability can experience improvements in imagining both visual and kinesthetic components of an image with LSRT. Simply performing imagery does help to improve imagery ability, but is less effective than taking a systematic layering approach. From a practical standpoint, this evidence strongly supports the use of LSRT in imagery interventions particularly for individuals with lower imagery ability or who have limited experience with the task to be imaged.

The implications for sport psychology?

We also call for all imagery researchers to reconsider their inclusion criteria in studies to remove participants who do not meet arbitrary cut-off scores from studies.  Instead of excluding these participants, an alternative approach would be to train them with LSRT to improve their imagery ability.  Our study indicates that imagery ability can quickly improve in a matter of days with appropriate training.

A final point to make is that LSRT also appears to improve the effectiveness of imagery interventions for improving performance of a motor skill.  In this case, individuals with little or no experience improved their putting performance without any physical practice.  Not only does this finding have implications for enhancing sport performance, but also for the use of imagery in other settings.  As imagery becomes a more popular intervention for rehabilitation of stroke and spinal injuries, using LSRT will improve the benefits received from imagery.

Interested in learning how to use LSRT in your own research or practice? You can download the full academic paper here or register your interest for of one our Birmingham Research in Imagery and Observation (BRIO) group workshops.

Reference:

Williams, S. E., Cooley, S. J., & Cumming, J. (2013).  Layered stimulus response training improves motor imagery ability and movement execution.  Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 35, 60-71.

About the author: I am a Chartered Psychologist and a Senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Birmingham (UK).  I co-founded the Research in Imagery and Observation (RIO) and Birmingham Research in Imagery and Observation (BRIO) groups, and have been researching imagery use in sport, exercise, and dance for almost 20 years.  The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.