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Effects of pre-competition positive imagery and self-instructions on accuracy of serving in tennis.

This multi-site experiment evaluated the effects of pre-competition positive imagery and self-instructions on serving accuracy in a tennis serving competition. One hundred and fifteen adult tennis players were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: positive imagery about serving, self-instructions relating to serving, or a serve-as-usual control condition. Participants in both the imagery and the self-instructions conditions served significantly more accurately than those in the control condition. The two experimental conditions had in common that each focused the thoughts of the server on how to complete the serve.

Positive imagery in sports involves imagining oneself doing the needed athletic performance. Imagery can be used as practice between competitions (see Feltz & Landers, 1983) or immediately before a performance as a cue and to increase self-efficacy (Murphy & Joudy, 1992). Self-instructions (sometimes called instructional self-talk), such as a baseball pitcher saying to himself, "Bend when you throw," can likewise be used during practice sessions to build a habit or immediately before a performance to serve as a cue. This article focuses on use of pre-competition positive imagery and self-instructions, that is, just before the performance.

Positive imagery and self-instructions share a cognitive focus on how to properly complete the task ahead (see e.g., Williams & Leffingwell, 2002). That focus may tend to exclude distracting or anxiety-provoking thoughts (see e.g., Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996) and to increase self-efficacy. Hence, positive imagery and self-instructions flow logically from selfefficacy and other cognitive components of social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986, 1997).

The value of positive imagery immediately before an athletic performance is at present unclear, with some studies showing positive effects and others not, according to reviews (Gould, Damarjian, & Greenleaf, 2002; Murphy & Jowdy, 1992). However, recent studies have not shown pre-competition positive imagery to aid performance. In one recent study involving a dart throwing task with novices, self-instructional imagery and imagery with positive outcomes did not lead to significantly better performance than a control condition that involved counting backwards by 7s from a specific large number (Nordin & Cumming, 2005). In a putting task with half novices, positive imagery led to no different scores from a putting-as-usual condition (Taylor & Shaw, 2002). In a putting task with beginners, imagery with self-instructional content and positive outcome appeared to lead to better performance than did a stretching control condition, but the difference, with a rather low N, apparently was nonsignificant (Short et al., 2002).

More consistent but still meagre evidence exists for the efficacy of self-instructions immediately before a performance. Theodorakis, Weinberg, Natsis, Douma, and Kazakis (2000) studied challenges involving soccer accuracy (with experienced players), badminton serving (with novices), sit ups, and knee extensions and found that self-instructions were more effective than positive self-talk for fine motor movements but not for strength or endurance tasks. The effective self-instructions for the two fine motor tasks, soccer passing and badminton serving, were "I see the target." Malouff and Murphy (2006) found that self-instructions chosen by golfers from a list led to better putting in a putting competition than putting as usual. The two most used self-instructions were "shoulders square to the planned path of the ball" and "body still."

Positive imagery and self-instructions immediately before a performance have been compared to each other and a control condition in some studies. In a putting task, the two methods were equivalent and both more effective than a practice control condition (Kornspan, Overby, & Lerner, 2004). In a tennis serving task with half beginners, neither imagery of the task (without any imagined outcome) nor focusing on how to do the whole serve (similar to a large set of self-instructions) was significantly more effective than a control condition of serve as usual (Weinberg, Gould, Jackson, & Barnes, 1980).

It thus is unclear whether pre-competition positive imagery and self-instructions, both cognitive strategies, lead to better athletic performance. Nonetheless, experts and sports organizations tend to recommend both methods (e.g., Ley, 2005; NCAA, undated; Weinberg, Grove, & Jackson, 1992), and athletes commonly use positive performance imagery and self-instructions as part of their routine just before an athletic performance in the hope of performing as well as possible (Cumming, Nordin, Horton & Reynolds, 2006; Defrancesco & Burke, 1997; Neck & Manz, 1992). Hence, it is important to evaluate further whether the methods aid performance. Some researchers have suggested that both methods are more likely to help if they are directed at a self-paced, complex motor activity (Bunker and Williams, 1993; Theodorakis et al., 2000). We therefore set out to test the methods in tennis serving, which is a self-paced complex motor activity (Zinsser, Bunker, & Williams, 2000).



One hundred and fifteen adults participated in the tennis serving competition in three Australian locations: Armidale, Sydney and Western Sydney. The participants include 61 men and 54 women, with a total mean age of 37.68, SD = 14.25. Potential participants were given an information sheet outlining the details of the competition and what was required of them as participants. Trophies were on offer for the male and female who achieved the highest score in each of the locations. After agreeing to take part they were asked to sign a consent form. Some of the competitors were under 18 and consent was obtained from their parents before they were allowed to participate. Attached to the consent form was a pre-serving questionnaire that gathered demographic and contact information. Participants were all volunteers.


The competition took place on standard-sized tennis courts. A target triangle was marked to the server's right hand side in each of the two service boxes. The target triangle ran from the net down the right edge of the service box to the backline of the service box and then in five feet where it then returned to the intersection of the net and the right hand edge of the service box.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: self-instruction (self-instruction is used in this study as a term synonymous with instructional self-talk), positive imagery and a control group. A random numbers table was used to determine which condition started first at each of the locations and what serial order the assignment would follow for all participants after the first. All participants were given the same written instructions outlining the rules and scoring of the competition. The instructions made clear that (a) the goal was to score as many points as possible ("Please look at the target zones marked on the research court. Your goal in this competition is to earn as many points as possible."), (b) one point was scored by hitting a serve in the correct service box, with an additional point scored if the serve hit in the target triangle (which would be to the backhand, usually the weaker side, for a right handed player receiving the serve), (c) trophies would be awarded to the man and woman locally who scored the most points, (d) the local study coordinator would call the points earned after each serve, (e) participants would receive two practice serves on the study court, and (f) participants ought to be warmed up and ready to serve before they take their practice serves on the study court. We used the scoring of 0, 1, and 2 to model the consequences in competition of serving to the three different locations. Participants had a possible score range of 0 to 40. After the common written instructions, participants in each condition were given different instructions specific to their condition. The scripts for each condition are set out below.

Self-Instruction condition:
 Before you serve each time, please give yourself
 a silent self-instruction. You may use
 one of the following self-instructions or use
 ones of your own. The key thing is to tell
 yourself (in your thoughts) what to do to hit
 the serve in the target zone. Choose
 something that you expect will help you serve
 accurately. You may vary the self-instruction
 from serve to serve. We will ask you when you
 finish which self-instructions you

The list of self-instructions was: see the target zone; line up toes; toss the ball to contact height; straight toss; bend (coil); see the ball; see where to contact the ball; reach up (uncoil); contact the ball (where you want), other self-instruction of your choice.

Imagery condition:
 Before you serve each time, please imagine
 the whole serve, from beginning to end,
 including seeing the ball go into the
 target zone. Imagine what you would see, how you
 would move, and what you would feel.

Control group:

Please serve as you usually do.

The local experiment coordinator reminded participants after 10 serves to follow the instructions. After the two practice serves, each participant had 10 test serves to the deuce court (the left hand service box) and 10 test serves to the advantage court (the right hand service box). The local coordinator called the number of points earned after each serve. If the server disagreed with any call, the coordinator applied judgment in whether to allow a re-serve or simply agree with the server. Directly after their 20 serves, participants completed the postserving questionnaire. One question answered by all participants asked "To what extent did you follow the instructions you were given for serving?" The available responses were: 1. Completely, 2. Mostly; 3. Somewhat; 4. Not at all. Participants in the control group were only asked this question.

Participants in the self-instruction group were then asked to place a checkmark on each self-instruction from the list they used and/or write down the self-instruction of their own they used. Another question for the imagery group asked "Overall, how vivid were the images you formed before the serves?" The available responses were 1. Extremely; 2.Very; 3. Moderately; 4. Somewhat; 5. Not at all.

At the end of their participation, the study coordinator thanked the participants and asked them not to discuss with anyone the instructions that they had been given.


Table 1 shows the demographic characteristics of participants in the three conditions. The three conditions had no significant differences in proportion of men, chi squared = 2.01 p =.35, or in age, F(2, 110) = 0.07, p = .93. The ANOVA assumptions of normality and homogeneity of variances were met for all of the ANOVAs mentioned below.

There was no significant difference across conditions in serving accuracy between men (M= 17.41, SD = 5.25) and women (M= 18.43, SD = 5.76), F(1, 113) = 0.98,p = .32; however, there was a significant association between age and higher serving scores, r(111) = .20, p = .03.

Table 1 provides the instruction-compliance means for each condition. The means show that on average the control participants followed the instructions between "mostly" and "completely," while on the average the other participants followed the instructions "mostly." An ANOVA showed that the differences among conditions in self-rated compliance were significant, F(2,112) = 6.95, p = .001. Comparisons using t tests showed that participants in the control condition reported significantly more compliance than self-instructions, t(72) = 2.77, p = .007, or imagery, t(75) = 3.53, p = .001. The difference between the two experimental conditions was nonsignificant, t(77) = .058,p = .56.

On our question about vividness of imagery, the imagery participants rated their images on average at 2.90, SD = 0.83, indicating that the images were moderately vivid. Most selfinstruction participants indicated that they used multiple self-instructions. The self-instruction most often used was "See the target zone," by 26 of 37 participants in the self-instruction condition. Next most used was "Toss the ball to contact height" (23 of 37) and then "Toss the ball straight up" (20 of 37). All nine specific instructions were used by at least nine individuals. In addition, 17 individuals used a self-instruction of their own, such as "Look up" or "Reach forward."

Table 1 shows the service scoring means for the three conditions. Analysis of the group scores using an ANOVA showed a significant difference among conditions, F(2,112) = 4.59, p= .012. The first research hypothesis was supported in that the self-instructions group had significantly higher scores than the control group, t(69) = 2.19, p = .032. The second research hypothesis was supported in that the positive imagery group had significantly higher scores than the control group, t(59) = 2.68, p = .01 (df based on equal variances not being assumed). The self-instructions group and imagery group had serving scores that were not significantly different from each other, t(77) = 0.31, p = .76. The effect size for self-instructions compared to serving as usual was Cohen's d = 0.51; the effect size for positive imagery compared to serving as usual was Cohen's d = 0.60.

In order to examine how the scoring differed between conditions, we compared the conditions on the total number of 0 scores (faults - balls hit outside the service court), total number of scores of 1 (balls hit into the service court but not the triangular target zone), and total number of scores of 2 (balls hit into the target zone). The mean number of 0 scores for the three conditions was: control 10.00 (SD = 3.73), imagery 7.95 (SD = 2.91), and self-instructions 8.23 (SD = 3.06). The differences were significant, F(2, 112)) = 4.45, p = .014. The mean number of scores of 1 was: control 4.33 (SD = 2.54), imagery 5.05 (SD = 3.30), and sell-instructions 4.83 (SD = 2.80). The differences were nonsignificant, F(2, 112)) = 0.60, p = .55. The mean number of scores of 2 was: control 5.67 (SD = 3.19), imagery 7.00 (SD = 2.53), and self-instructions 6.94 (SD = 2.81). The differences did not quite reach significance, F(2, 112)) = 2.64, p = .076. Hence, the two intervention groups showed lower numbers of 0 scores and higher numbers of scores of 1 and 2, with larger group differences for 0, then 2, then 1.

The four research sites had n's of 14, 37, 27, and 37. All four research sites showed higher scores for imagery and self-instruction than for serve-as-usual, except that one site showed higher scores for serve-as-usual than for self-instructions. A4 (sites) X 2 (conditions) factorial ANOVA showed that the results did not differ significantly by research site, F(6, 103) = 0.87,p = .52 for the interaction of city and condition.

A 3 X 2 factorial ANOVA tested whether gender played a part in the effects of the intervention on serving accuracy. The gender by condition interaction was nonsignificant, F(2, 109) = 0.73, p = .49, suggesting that the interventions had similar effects across genders.

Because the two intervention groups were equivalent in effect, we combined them (n = 79) for the purpose of assessing the association between level of compliance and serving accuracy. For this analysis, n = 79 because two participants did not respond to the question about compliance. The correlation was significant, r = .25, p = .025.


The results provide evidence in support of the hypotheses that positive imagery just before serving and using a self-instruction just before serving would lead to greater serving accuracy. The effect sizes for both self-instructions (d = 0.51) and positive imagery (d = 0. 60) compared to serving as usual were medium in terms of the standards suggested by Cohen (1988). There was no significant difference in serving accuracy between self-instructions and positive imagery. Participants in both experimental groups scored at a mean of about 19 points, three points (19%) higher than control-group participants. In actual play, that difference could lead to fewer points lost to double faults or more points won due to placing the serve to the backhand (usually the weaker side) of a right-handed player receiving serve.

The equivalence in effect of positive imagery and self-instructions found in the present study is similar to the results of the study of Kornspan et al. (2004) involving putting. The present findings that positive imagery and sell-instructions had similar effects fit well with the common finding of equivalence in different bona fide treatments for psychological disorders (see Wampold, Mondin, Moody, Stich, Benson, & Ahn, 1997). One possible explanation for the equivalence of treatment types may apply also to the similar effects of the two interventions in the present study: common components. In the case of positive imagery and selfinstructions, one common component is a focus on appropriately completing the upcoming performance. This component has a corollary in that focusing on how to perform the task may tend to exclude distracting or anxiety-provoking thoughts such as how the task might be poorly performed and the negative consequences of poor performance. An anxiety-reduction effect could explain why the greatest difference between the two experimental conditions and the control condition involved number of serves hit outside the service box (earning 0 points). One might interpret these 0-point faults as the best indicator in the study of over-arousal, trying too hard, or anxiety. Alternatively, some type of placebo effect might explain the equivalence of the two experimental conditions, with servers who try some new method of preparing to serve as part of an experiment experiencing an increase in self-efficacy not shared by those in the serve-as-usual condition (see Bandura, 1997). Further research, using some type of credible intervention that is likely to create placebo effects without focusing attention on how to do the needed performance, might help clarify this issue. For instance, asking players to take a deep breath before serving might create placebo effects (and possibly other positive effects) without focusing their attention on how to perform the behavior.

The present results regarding the value of positive imagery and self-instructions in tennis serving vary from those of Weinberg et al. (1980), who found no significant effect for either positive imagery without any imagined outcome and a large set of self-instructions. Some differences from the present study that might explain the differences: (1) The imagery in the present study had a positive outcome, and the self-instructions condition involved one instruction at a time rather than a large set of instructions. (2) Weinberg and colleagues put every participant into each of the conditions, so that all participants used one pre-serving method and then another and so on; this method might have led to crossover effects from one condition to another, e.g., from positive imagery to serve as usual. (3) The Weinberg study did not have any competitive aspects to it, while the present study took place as part of a serving competition, with trophies awarded to the highest scoring local man and woman; it could be that the pressure of the competition, intended to simulate the pressure of actual competitive tennis play, created more opportunity for cognitive-focus methods to lead to better performance. (4) The serving outcome measure in the Weinberg study involved both speed and accuracy; it may be that speed was related more to strength than coordination in the study, and self-instructions appear to have less value in strength tasks than complex motor tasks (Hatzigeorgiadis et al., 2004; Theodorakis et al., 2000). (5) The Weinberg study apparently included half beginners, while the present study included only individuals who had played in a competition or league; it could be that pre-serving performance-enhancement methods have less effect on beginners.

The present results extend to tennis serving prior findings that using self-instructions (e.g., Malouff & Murphy, 2006; Theodorakis et al., 2000) and positive imagery (e.g., Kornspan et al., 2004) just before a complex motor performance can lead to better performance. Future research into other types of complex motor performance where there is time just before to apply a performance-enhancement method could explore the possible extensions and limits of the methods. For instance, the present findings may or may not extend to serving accuracy while playing against an opponent. Further, the findings might not extend to other important aspects of serves, such as speed and bounce or kick (to the right or left or very high).

The correlation in the present study between level of compliance with applying the suggested experimental methods and serving accuracy is consistent with the conclusion that both self-instructions and positive imagery led to greater accuracy. The correlation between compliance and serving accuracy in the self-instructions and positive imagery conditions provides some reason to think that the more the servers apply the methods, the more accurately they will serve.

The participants in the serve-as-usual condition reported a higher level of compliance than participants in the intervention conditions. That may have occurred because serving as usual required little effort compared to using positive imagery or self-instructions before each serve. Participants in both performance-enhancement conditions reported on average a substantial, but not complete, level of compliance with instructions. One implication of the lack of complete compliance is that to create maximum compliance may take more than written suggestions. It may be necessary, as with the training of other psychological skills, for the player to practice the methods and be convinced that the method has potential value for him or her.

On average, the imagery participants rated their images as moderately vivid, a seemingly adequate level for the purposes of this study. The level might have been higher with instruction and practice in using imagery. We did not ask participants about (a) whether they took an internal or external perspective during their imagery or (b) to what extent they could make the images do what they wanted. Collecting these types of information might have provided insight into whether these aspects of imagery aid serving accuracy.

The self-instruction participants used a wide range of self-instructions, perhaps suggesting that they enjoyed the opportunity to choose. Their most used instruction, "See the target zone," was very similar to the "I see the target" used to lead to better performance in the soccer-passing and badminton-serving studies of Theodorakis (2002). However, the target zone instruction in the present study may have been used most because it was the first one on the list of self-instructions.

As one might expect, the interventions in the present study had similar effects across gender. Further, gender was not significantly associated with serving accuracy. Hence, the minor differences among conditions in proportions of men and women seem unlikely to have affected the tests of the hypotheses regarding self-instructions and positive imagery.

The correlation between age and serving accuracy was unexpected. It may have resulted from older players being in the habit of trying harder for accuracy, while younger players might usually focus more on speed or spin.

In sum, the results of the present study provide additional evidence in support of the efficacy of self-instructions and positive imagery in leading to better self-paced, complex sports performance.


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John M. Malouff

John A. McGee

Helen T. Halford


Sally E. Rooke

University of New England, Australia

Address Correspondence To: John Malouff, School of Psychology, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia. Email:
Table 1. Descriptive and outcome data

Conditions Male/Female Age Self-Rated
 n Mean (SD) Compliance with
 Serving Instructions
 Mean (SD)

Serve as Usual 19/17 37.54 (13.87) 3.61 (0.73)
Positive Imagery 25/16 38.32 (13.56) 3.07 (0.61)
Self-Instructions 17/21 37.13 (15.60) 3.16 (0.69)

Conditions Serving
 Mean (SD)

Serve as Usual 15.67 (6.46)
Positive Imagery 19.05 (4.35)
Self-Instructions 18.71 (5.16)
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Author:Malouff, John M.; McGee, John A.; Halford, Helen T.; Rooke, Sally E.
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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