Dr Dave Smith explores what we have learned about effective imagery use from a decade of research and applied practice utilising the PETTLEP model of imagery. Podium Sports Journal has featured a series on the subject with attention given to some of the specific research results discussed in the series. Please stay tuned to a follow-up article featuring the actual application of the technique with an athlete and how that sport psychologist employs the method – stay tuned.
Imagery is a key psychological skill, with an impressive array of published studies testifying to its efficacy in enhancing motor skill performance. Given the piecemeal nature of the imagery literature, which has been published in many different sport psychology, mainstream psychology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience journals, it has not been easy in the past for applied sport psychology practitioners, coaches and athletes to piece all this together and make use of it in their work. Realising the need for a theory and research-based model of imagery to help guide practitioners’ use of imagery, Holmes and Collins (2001) devised the PETTLEP model. This model is based on theory and research findings from sport psychology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience, and aims to provide practitioners with a set of practical guidelines to aid their imagery use. PETTLEP is an acronym, with each letter representing an important factor for practitioners to consider when implementing imagery interventions, as follows:
Table 1: the components of the PETTLEP model
P – Physical. This is arguably the most important PETTLEP component. Rather than conceptualising imagery as something entirely different from physical practice, here imagery is seen as a physical process with measurable physiological outcomes. For optimal benefits, imagery should be as physical an experience as possible. One obvious way of achieving this is to laden the imagery instructions with the performer’s physiological responses. Indeed, research has shown that response-laden imagery instructions are more effective than ones lacking kinaesthetic cues (Smith et al., 2001). Other ways of making the imagery more physical include wearing the same clothes as during performance, and holding any associated implements (e.g. tennis racquet, golf club).
E – Environment. This relates to the place where imagery is performed. According to PETTLEP this should be as similar as possible to the performance environment. Indeed, we have found imagery to be most effective when it is performed in the actual competitive arena (Smith et al., 2007). Of course, this is unlikely to be a practical option for most people’s regular imagery training, and therefore the use of video and audio may be useful in aiding mental simulation of the venue. . Be innovative, as improvisation can pay great dividends. For example, in one study (Smith, Wright & Cantwell, 2008) we had golfers image their bunker shots whilst standing in a tray of sand. The golfers liked the fact that they could feel their golf shoes contacting the sand and that their posture was identical to that adopted in the actual bunker. This was very effective in enhancing bunker shot performance.
T – Task. The content of the imagery should be appropriate to the skill level and the personal preferences of the athlete. For example, given that the attentional focus of athletes in different sports and at different performance levels may differ in a number of ways, the content of the imagery needs to be specific to the performer. Indeed, we have found it very useful to quiz the athlete regarding his or her attentional focus during performance when planning the imagery intervention.
T – Timing. This refers to the speed at which imagery is completed. Given that timing is often crucial when performing sports skills, the suggestion here is to have the athlete perform the imagery in ‘real time’ most of the time. We have found this approach effective with a wide range of athletes in various sports. However, more research is needed on the possible uses of slow motion imagery as there are some interesting questions that remain to be explored, such as whether slow motion imagery could be useful in correcting errors in form-based skills.
L – Learning. This emphasises that the content of the imagery should be adapted in response to learning, as the cognitions and feelings experienced during movement will change as an individual becomes more skilled. This PETTLEP component has not received a great deal of research attention to date. However, in a recently completed study examining the effects of imagery on muscle strength, we found that a longitudinal intervention involving the regular updating of imagery content to reflect the progress participants had made – was very successful in enhancing performance. Also, in consultancy work we have found that, without such updating, the imagery will very quickly cease to effectively replicate real life. For instance, changes in physical condition, skill level and physical fitness can all be incorporated into the imagery.
E – Emotion. Sports performance is a very emotion-laden experience, and therefore imagery needs to be too if it is to be realistic. Indeed, Smith et al. (2007) found the PETTLEP interventions in their study to be more effective than imagery that was preceeded by instructions to relax. The inclusion of realistic emotions in the imagery instructions makes the imagery much more evocative of the real-life scenario, and may therefore lead to a more vivid imagery experience. For example, Wilson, Smith, Holmes and Burden, (2010) found that personalised, emotion-laden imagery scripts led to greater muscle activity and higher self-rated imagery vividness compared to more generic interventions.
P – Perspective. This refers to the viewpoint of the performer during imagery. This can be internal (first person, i.e., through the eyes of the performer) or external (third person, i.e., seeing oneself performing as if watching on tv). Holmes and Collins recommend an internal perspective for the most part as it mimics the visual perspective experienced during performance, but recognise also that for some form-based skills, such as gymnastics, the external perspective can be very effective. Also, the issue of individual preference is absolutely crucial for successful interventions. Whilst it may be theoretically desirable, for instance, to adopt an internal visual perspective in many cases, some athletes may find internal imagery difficult or just prefer external imagery. In such cases, it is always preferable to accommodate the athlete’s wishes as far as possible so that the athlete is comfortable with what he or she is being asked to do.
So what are the key take-home messages for practitioners from the last decade of PETTLEP research? The most obvious one is that PETTLEP imagery can be a potent means of enhancing sports performance. We have found it to work well with novices and experts, children and adults, and in other contexts too such as in helping student nurses perfect their nursing skills. Our research also strongly suggests that PETTLEP works best when used as an integrated whole rather than when only some components are used. Our findings also show the clear importance of personalising imagery interventions, and of incorporating all the senses into the imagery experience. Current lines of research include trying to answer the questions of how much imagery is needed, and how often it needs to be performed, to produce optimal performance benefits.
In Table 2, we summarise our key practical recommendations based on the PETTLEP model, the research testing it and our experiences applying it in the field. Some of the ideas discussed might seem rather ‘way out’ and, indeed, when first trying out some of these things my co-authors and I were slightly sceptical regarding the potential benefits of some of the PETTLEP recommendations. However, our experiences in research and applied practice have convinced us that the approach has strong merit, especially when compared to the traditional ‘lie down and visualise’ approach that some practitioners advocate. Perhaps most interesting, and in keeping with the importance of personalising the imagery intervention, some of the most innovative ways we have found of employing PETTLEP have been suggested by the athletes themselves. For example, in the bunker shot study mentioned above, the idea of using the tray of sand came originally from one of the participants in the study. Be innovative and creative, and involve the client very much as a partner in your endeavour to produce a useful and exciting imagery intervention, and you will find it well worth the effort.
|PHYSICAL||The athlete should stand in the correct stance, wearing the same clothes, and holding any implements that would be used during performance.|
|ENVIRONMENT||If possible, the athlete should complete the imagery in the same environment where the performance or task will take place. Where this is not possible, videos, photographs, or a similar environment can be used as a substitute, e.g., a rugby player standing on grass in his or her back garden.|
|TASK||The task being imaged should be identical in nature to the task actually being performed, and this should be altered as the skill level of the athlete changes.|
|TIMING||The imagery should be completed in ‘real time’ and should take the same length of time to complete as physically performing the task.|
|LEARNING||As the athlete becomes proficient and autonomous at the task, the imagery should be updated in order to reflect this and remain equivalent to the physical level of the athlete.|
|EMOTION||Any emotions associated with performance should be incorporated into the imagery. This can be aided by the use of stimulus and response training.|
|PERSPECTIVE||The imagery should usually be completed from an internal perspective (i.e., through the athlete’s own eyes). This can be controlled by the use of a video to aid the imagery. However, external imagery may be useful for some form-based tasks and personal preference should also be taken into account.|
Holmes, P. S., & Collins, D. J. (2001). The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: A functional equivalence model for sport psychologists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(1) 60-83.
Smith, D., Holmes, P., Whitemore, L., Collins, D., & Devonport, T. (2001). The effect of theoretically-based imagery scripts on field hockey performance. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 24, 408-419.
Smith, D., Wright, C. J., Allsopp, A. & Westhead, H. (2007). It’s all in the mind: PETTLEP-based imagery and sports performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19, 80-92.
Smith, D., Wright, C.J. & Cantwell, C. (2008). Beating the bunker: The effect of PETTLEP imagery on golf bunker shot performance. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 79(3), 1-7.
Wilson, C., Smith, D., Holmes, P., & Burden, A. (2010). Participant-generated imagery scripts produce greater EMG activity and imagery ability. European Journal of Sport Sciences, 10, 417-425.
About the Author Dave Smith :
Dave Smith is Senior Lecturer in Sport Psychology in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. e is accredited by the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) as a sport scientist and is Associate Editor of The Sport Psychologist. He is also a member of the Health and Exercise Committee of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), and is the co-chair of the AASP Special Interest Group on Exercise and Wellness. He has published many articles in both scientific journals and popular magazines, and has appeared on television and radio all over the world to discuss his work. Recent publications include articles in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology and the British Journal of Sports Medicine.