Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cutting Edge Research: Imagery and Playing with Confidence

Michael Emenalo, Chief Scout of Chelsea, stresses the importance of confidence, balance and organization for success on the pitch. Confident players, for the most part, have a better touch on the ball, execute more precise passes and shoot the ball with more accuracy. Confident players are also willing to take calculated chances such as taking a difficult shot, or aggressively pressuring an opponent. On the other hand, less confident players have difficulty with technical execution and tend to play a less aggressive, more conservative style. In many cases it, it the confident player and confident team that wins the match.

So, how does one gain confidence? A new study soon to be released in the Journal of Sports Sciences argues that confidence in youth players might be enhanced by using mental imagery techniques.

Before getting into the details of the study, it is important to describe the different type of confidence as well as different types of imagery. Confidence comes from two sources. First, self-confidence is the athlete’s perception that he/she has the ability to compete at a given level. Second, self-efficacy is the athlete’s perception that he can be successful at a certain task, in a specific situation. For example, to be completely confident, an athlete should be confident that he belongs on the field with the other team and that he has the necessary to compete (self-confidence). He must also be sure that he can beat the opponent in specific situations, such as one-on-one defending, winning 50/50 balls or placing the shot in the corner of the goal (self-efficacy). Research shows that confidence, including both self-confidence and self-efficacy, is one of the most consistent factors shaping successful teams and players. More confidence often translates into better performance.

There are two major types of imagery that can be used. The first has to do with learning skills or strategies. This is referred to as cognitive which involves learning and includes cognitive general (CG) and cognitive specific (CS). CG imaging requires the athlete to image things like successful strategies or game plans. One might imagine how to successfully execute zone defending or a successful overlap. In CS imaging, the player images herself executing a specific skill correctly, perhaps correctly striking a penalty kick.

The second type of imaging is called motivational and includes motivational specific (MS) and motivational general (MG). Both are designed to psych the player up prior to the match. MS involves imaging specific events that will arouse motivation, such as standing on a victory stand or carrying a trophy. MS imagery includes both physiological and emotional arousal. For MG-arousal (MG-A) imagery, the athlete imagines herself responding to the environment such as remaining calm in front of a hostile crowd. MS-mastery (MG-M) is related to confidence and mental toughness. It involves images of the athlete overcoming adversity such as beating an opponent in a certain situation.

The authors of the paper have a long history investigating the use of imagery in sports. In their study, the authors examined 125 male and female soccer players, ages 11-14. Approximately one-third were considered competitive players and the remainder was from a local recreational program. They asked the kids a series of questions related to their level of self-confidence and self-efficacy. They also asked them about imagery. For this, they asked them how often they imagined themselves playing well, if they thought up game strategies in their head, saw themselves receiving a winner’s trophy. Using this information, the authors determined what types of imagery contributed to the various levels of confidence.

There were no differences between the competitive and recreational players or between the male a female players in terms of the types of imagery used or their levels of confidence. Players used the MG-M form of imagery more often and this strategy was most closely associated with both self-confidence and self-efficacy. The other forms of imagery were seen as important but were not nearly as closely associated with confidence. Thus, the MG-M form of imagery seems to be a significant predictor of self-confidence and self-efficacy.

Previous studies document that many adult athletes use MG-M imagery prior to competition to reduce anxiety and gain confidence. They often rehearse images of themselves overcoming adversity, specifically overcoming an opponent. Other forms of imagery are used but MG-M is the most prevalent in terms of building confidence. The idea is that by imagining yourself in a difficult situation, remaining mentally tough, in control and overcoming the opponent builds confidence, and, as a result, improves performance on the field. In a small group of adult badminton players, it was found that an intervention program of MG-M imagery increased athlete confidence. Thus, it seems that using imagery to increase mental toughness and overcome adversity may boost confidence and improve play on the field. It is important to note, however, that more research is needed to fully clarify this issue, particularly in youth players.

Overall, this study links one form of imagery, MG-M to both self-confidence and self-efficacy in a group of youth soccer players. More confident players use this type of imagery. Despite a lack of research into modifying the way in which players image themselves, it does seem reasonable to encourage young players to routinely think of themselves overcoming difficult match situations.


Munroe-Chandler K, Hall C, Fishburne G (2008) Playing with confidence: The relationship between imagery use and self-confidence in youth soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences, DOI: 10.1080/02640410802315419 (in press)