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Using motor imagery to learn tactical movements in basketball.

Motor imagery (MI) is a dynamic state during which an action is mentally simulated without any body movement. This technique is a multi-sensorial experience as images can include visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic components. Two of the principle imagery perspectives that athletes use, are internal and external visual imagery. These perspectives require the visualization of movement, using either a first- or a third-person perspective, whereas kinesthetic imagery requires to mentally perceiving muscle contractions and stretching, as well as joint amplitude. Although visual and kinesthetic imagery have been found to be significantly correlated (Callow & Hardy, 2004), specific characteristics of motor performance may be enhanced by various imagery modalities (White & Hardy, 1998). Experts have been differentiated from novices by their ability to use visual and kinesthetic imagery (Barr & Hall, 1992; Mahoney & Avener, 1977). Non-expert athletes have been found to have usually greater difficulty in feeling the movement (Guillot & Collet, 2005b; Guillot, Collet, & Dittmar, 2004), kinesthetic imagery being beneficial only with an adequate degree of expertise (Hardy & Callow, 1999). While there is ample evidence that MI contributes to enhance motor performance, self-confidence and motivation, it still remains unknown whether mental practice may help to improve game plans or strategies of play in open skills.

According to the symbolic learning theory (Sackett, 1934), MI gives the opportunity to rehearse the sequence of movements as symbolic components of the task. Consequently, MI would facilitate the cognitive requirements of the skill, such as movement timing, sequencing and planning. However, when examining the functions of MI, it is important to match the imagery used with the intended outcome with the aim to improve the benefits of MI (Guillot & Collet, 2008; Martin, Moritz, & Hall, 1999). The analytic framework for imagery effects proposed by Paivio (1985) has suggested that MI may serve distinct functions (cognitive and motivational) operating on general and specific levels. The motivational components of this theory refer to the use of goal-oriented responses and the management of arousal level, while the cognitive components tap into skill improvement and refer to the imagery of game strategies. Furthermore, Hall, Mack, Paivio and Hausenblas (1998) have identified two components of the motivational general imagery (arousal and mastery). The majority of the studies that have investigated the effects of an imagery program in sport, focused on the cognitive specific function of imagery leading to the acquisition and performance of a specific motor skill. Hence, coaches often encourage their athletes to use MI, which is often a key component in the mental training programs developed and implemented by sport psychologists (Fenker & Lambiotte, 1987; McIntyre & Moran, 1996; Munroe-Chandler, Hall, Fishburne, & Shannon, 2005).

The combination of mental and physical practice is thought to be more efficient than physical practice alone when there is no decrease in total physical training (Driskell et al., 1994; Feltz & Landers, 1983; Guillot & Collet, 2008). Along this line, muscle strength has been found to increase after mental practice (Yue & Cole, 1992), as MI increases the cortical output signal, which brings muscles to a higher activation level resulting in an increase in strength. More generally, MI has been found to be more beneficial for closed than for open skills, i.e. when the execution of the skill takes place in a similar and monitored environment, without the influence of an opponent (Denis, 1985). However, several studies have reported some positive effects of mental training in open skills, such as in football (Fenker & Lambiotte, 1987), soccer (Blair, Hall, & Leyshon, 1993; Munroe-Chandler et al., 2005), canoe-slalom performance (McIntyre & Moran, 1996), table tennis (Li-Wei, Qi-Wei, Orlick, & Zitzelsberger, 1992;) and basketball flee-throw performance, although the environment does not significantly change in the latter (Hall & Erffmeyer, 1983; Lerner, Ostrow, Yura, & Etzel, 1996; Onestak, 1997; Wrisberg & Anshel, 1989).

In these studies, however, most of the mental practice designs used multiple interventions (e.g., relaxation, self-talk, video, in association with MI), so it appears to be difficult to determine the specific effect of MI. Furthermore, athletes have been systematically instructed to imagine a specific movement that did not directly depend on the opponent that was free of any spatial or temporal uncertainty, and where the environment remained stable. When considering an opponent's action, the effect of MI on performance enhancement has been found to be more selective. In a volleyball task (serve reception and pass to a motionless target player), Roure et al. (1998) observed that MI enhanced motor performance, but that the benefit of MI was not transferred, even in a closed motor sequence, in which the target player moved laterally before serve reception. To be efficient, spatial and temporal characteristics of MI should thus match those of physical execution (Guillot & Collet, 2005a; Holmes & Collins, 2001).

Even though some motor imagery experimental studies have been conducted in open skills, very few looked at the learning of tactical movements, in which the cognitive general function of imagery is required (Paivio, 1985). The effect of MI on learning game strategies seems to be an area of research in sport that has received little attention and has shown inconsistent results. Therefore, it appears necessary that some experimental investigation be undertaken. Kendall, Hrycaiko, Martin and Kendall (1990) suggested that the combination of MI, relaxation and self-talk training was effective in enhancing the performance of a defensive basketball skill. However, Munroe-Chandler et al. (2005) reported that although a young elite female soccer team showed the potential to improve in the soccer strategies over the course of the season, no physical performance effects were found after the MI program. In basketball, the contribution of tactical knowledge has been highlighted in studies focusing on the information taught by expert basketball coaches in practice (Bloom, Crumpton, & Anderson, 1999; Tharp & Gallimore, 1976). Players and coaches may use MI either as a mean to develop or create new strategies to get the best out of their teams, or to develop a variety of game plans to combat specific opponents before the competition (Martens, 2004; Morris, Spittle, & Watt, 2005). They may also use MI to rehearse strategies before a competition to become familiar with the role of their team-mates and see how to temporally and spatially position themselves among the others.

Before undertaking mental training such as this, it is essential to model the motor skill, in order to identify with the main tactical schemas that are transferred from an earlier context to another (Guillot & Collet, 2003; McGarry & Franks, 1994). In open skills, athletes usually assign the probability of occurrence of an event before initiating an action, in association with the most probable area of attack or type of movement adopted by the opponent. The final aim is to anticipate an opponent's action and to prepare them to respond faster. For instance, they try to impose their tactical superiority, using pre-determined offensive game strategies to force the opponent to defend and therefore to anticipate the subsequent actions more easily (Guillot & Collet, 2003). Considering its positive effects on performance enhancement and learning facilitation, MI may thus be combined with physical training to facilitate acquisition and execution of pre-determined offensive game schema.

This study was therefore devised to evaluate the effect of cognitive general MI on acquisition and performance in an open-skilled configuration involving several movements of a basketball team. As soon as spatial, temporal and event-driven uncertainties were limited, MI was expected to facilitate the acquisition and to enhance performance of a pre-determined offensive game sequence. The combination of mental and physical practice was expected to be more efficient than physical activity alone in improving performance, both objectively and subjectively.


Participants Ten female basketball players, ranging in age from 17 to 30 (M = 22.7), consented to participate in experimental procedures approved by the local Research Ethics Board. All were semi-professionals and were competing at "national level". Based on their self-report, they were free of any recent injuries that could affect performance. They played basketball for at least 10 years and trained 4 times a week.

Instrumental design

Before the imagery intervention was implemented, athletes individually completed the Movement Imagery Questionnaire (MIQ, Hall & Pongrac, 1983) in a quiet room. The purpose of carrying out the MIQ, was to check that there was no difference in individual imagery abilities among the team, since one athlete may have trouble in forming the mental image of a movement, while another may generate a very accurate mental representation of the same action,. The MIQ is made up of 18 items known to evaluate individual differences in visual (9 items) and kinesthetic (9 items)movement imagery. Completing each item entails 4 steps. First, the starting position is described, and then a specific ann, leg or whole body movement is precisely described and the participant is required to perform it. Next, each individual is asked to resume the starting position and to imagine the movement, using visual or kinesthetic imagery alternatively (no actual movement is made). Finally, a score is assigned using a 7-point scale based on the difficulty of mentally representing oneself each movement. Hall, Pongrac and Buckholz (1985) reported a test-retest coefficient of .83 for a 1-week interval, and internal consistency coefficients of .87 and .91 for the visual and kinesthetic subscales respectively.

A qualified national level basketball coach with several years of experience coaching girls' basketball teams evaluated the effectiveness of the execution strategies and the efficacy of each athlete within the game plans. Although he was made aware of a MI intervention being used in the study, he was requested to rate the effectiveness of the three set play strategies used by the players by allotting an individual score to each athlete's performance, using a 6-point scale. Level 1 was considered the poorest performance, level 6 the best, 2, 3, 4 and 5 representing intermediate performance levels. Finally, in order to provide their self-estimation, players were requested to make individual rating assessments based on their own observation and the criteria provided by the coach, using the same 6-point scale.

This experimental design contains subsets with specific strengths and weaknesses. The best approach is to control as many confounding variables as possible in order to eliminate or reduce errors in the assumptions that they will be made. First, the present study did not include a control group, but the benefit of the experimental design is the inclusion of a pre-test to determine baseline scores. Second, the aim of the study was to examine the imagery use of athletes in an ecological valid way. Finally, this qualitative research design aimed to gather information on individual performance rather than on group performance like in many sport psychology researches (Munroe-Chandler et al., 2005; Shambrook & Bull, 1996).


In agreement with the requirements of the team coach, and taking into consideration the main objectives of the season, three attack movements were selected. All were performed with passive defenders. To evaluate the effect of mental training, the first movement was performed both mentally and physically; the second was only performed physically, and the third was taken as a reference, i.e. no mental or physical practice was done. However, to avoid any effect of practice time, athletes spent equivalent stretching time instead of mental work. The procedure for having three different tactical strategies in three different conditions may help to determine whether MI will contribute to enhance motor performance with regards to physical practice alone or no practice at all. Such a distinction required selecting three game strategies, each of the same difficulty as evaluated by the basketball rater. Each motor sequence thus contained the same number of players, displacements and interchanges with similar movement durations.

Week 1--Pre-test session. First, the basketball rater allotted an individual score for each athlete's performance, using the 6-point scale. Similarly, athletes self-evaluated their initial performance for each tactical schema, using the same 6-point scale. Ten trials were performed during each condition. Actual and imagined durations were recorded (in seconds) to be compared, as the ability to preserve the temporal characteristics of the movement during MI is an important aspect when investigating MI quality (Guillot & Collet, 2005a). During MI, upon mental initiation of the first body movement and at the end of the sequence, each athlete pressed a button to start and stop the timer.

Weeks 2 through 7--Mental and physical training. The attack movements were performed by all players. Only strategies 1 and 2 were practised either mentally and/or physically, in a reversed order, between weeks 2 and 7, while schema 3 was considered the baseline condition.

For the First movement ("Mental Practice - MP"), the tactical schema was mentally and physically performed 2 times a week (Figure 1). As athletes have usually been shown to have trouble in maintaining focused attention along successive MI trials (Guillot et al., 2004), only three series of three consecutive imagined trials were performed. Athletes were instructed to use either internal or external visual imagery, which supposed self-visualization of all successive action stages using a first- or a third-perspective respectively. Before the beginning of mental training, each player was required to indicate their preferential imagery perspective, and MI sessions were then conducted through an imagery script corresponding to either the internal or external perspective. As athletes are usually known to switch MI perspectives (Nordin & Cumming, 2005), they were instructed not to use the chosen perspective for the whole experiment. Furthermore, as the compliance of the subjects with instructions could not be controlled accurately, the participants were regularly requested to describe the nature of the images they attempted to form during the MI session and to score their effort using a 6-point rating scale based on the difficulty of mentally representing oneself each movement (1 = difficult to imagine and 6 = easy to imagine). The content of the scripts focused on visual representation of the game configuration but also included affective and physiological responses when players used the internal visual imagery perspective. Players were told to close their eyes and to visualize their own movement as well as their partners. MI was performed during physical training sessions, as it has been found to be more efficient than when it is performed in a neutral environment (Callow, Roberts, & Fawkes, 2006; Guillot, Collet, & Dittmar, 2005; Holmes & Collins, 2001). Indeed, environmental parameters, close to those of actual performance, are thought to help athletes to represent the situation. Hence, in the present study, three series of three mental simulations lasting 10-12 minutes total, were performed during physical training sessions. Athletes performed a total of 108 MI trials (9 trials per session during 12 physical practice sessions) on this first schema (MP). Finally, the athletes were requested to perform MI during specific training sessions only, and were not allowed to use it outside of the experimental setting, (e.g. at home), whatever the tactical schema.


For the second movement ("Physical Practice - PP"), the tactical schema was physically performed twice a week, but was not mentally practiced (Figure 2). The time spent training for this sequence was equivalent to the training done with the first movement, i.e. 12 physical practice sessions. To avoid the potential effect of practice time, athletes spent equivalent stretching time instead of mental work during 10-12 minutes periods per training session.


For the third movement ("Control-CONT"), the tactical schema is illustrated by Figure 3. Individual performance was evaluated at the beginning and at the end of the training session, but athletes did not receive any mental or actual training for this scheme. It was thus considered the control condition. However, this tactical schema was not a totally novel movement as it had been performed and memorized during the previous season.


Week 8--Post-test session. Athletes took part to a post-test similar to the pre-test. During week 8, the basketball coach awarded an individual score for each player, as he had done during the first week. Players also self-evaluated their final performance for each tactical schema, using the same 6-point scale. Finally, data from both actual and imagined executions recorded during the pre-test (week 1) were compared to those recorded during the post-test (week 8).

Data analysis

Taking the sample size into consideration, and because the distribution was not gaussian, result processing was based on non-parametric statistics only. Both objective and subjective measures were undertaken as dependent variables. Durations of actual and imagined movements, as well as rating assessments (indicating whether or not the MI was thought to work in the particular strategy) were thus compared using the Friedman test. Two-by-two comparisons were then carried out using the Wilcoxon test for paired groups. The alpha level was set at 0.05.


MIQ scores

Mean MIQ scores (SD) were 18.8 (5.26) and 32.6 (2.17) in the visual and kinesthetic modalities respectively. Only one athlete obtained a score at least 1 SD below the mean, no one being 1 SD above the mean.

Assessment of imagery use

During the debriefing following the MI sessions, players reported using the imagery outlined in the scripts. All used the internal visual imagery perspective without switching between the two MI perspectives. None reported changing the imagery script to suit individual needs, but rehearsed the motor sequence as they were requested to. Indeed, they were able to report each game plan, including an explicit knowledge of each key-component of the physical execution.

Performance evaluation

A significant difference was found between the pre- and post-test scores awarded by the coach for both "MP" and "PP" (Z = - 2.65, p < .01 and Z = - 3, p <.01), mean pre-test scores being 3.8 (0.79) and 3.5 (0.85) and mean post-test scores being 4.5 (0.71) and 4.4 (0.84) respectively. However, the score for the "CONT" condition did not change between pre- and post-tests.

Similar results were found with the self-evaluation done by the players. Scores significantly increased from the pre- to the post-test sessions. "MP" and "PP" evolved from 4.3 (0.8) to 4.7 (0.85) and from 3.8 (0.7) to 4.5 (0.8) respectively (Z = - 2,p < .05 and Z= - 2.33,p < .05) but the "CONT" condition did not change. These results are summarized in figure 4.


No significant difference was found when comparing "MP" and "PP" scores awarded by the coach after training. Conversely, MP was significantly more efficient than "no practice" (Z = -2.45, p < .01), mean values being 4.5 (0.8) and 3.9 (0.8) respectively. A significant effect was also observed when comparing "PP" to "CONT" (Z = -2.24,p < .05), mean values being 4.4 (0.5) and 3.9 (0.8) respectively.

Actual and imagined durations

Actual and imagined durations were equivalent both during the pre-test for "MP" (8.53 s [+ or -] .86 and 9.19 s [+ or -] 1.32) and "PP" (11.65 s [+ or -] .67 and 11.44 s [+ or -] 1.25). Similar durations were also recorded during the post-test (8.83 s [+ or -] .46 and 8.94 s [+ or -] .95 for "MP", and 11.41 s [+ or -] .46 and 11.51 s [+ or -] 1.05 for "PP"). Duration of tactical schema 3 ("CONT") was underestimated during the pre-test imagery session (6.45 s [+ or -] .87 vs. 7.46 s [+ or -] .34, Z. = -2.19,p < .05). Such an underestimation was also observed during the post-test, although it only approached significance (7. 19 s [+ or -] .79 vs. 7.8 s [+ or -] .27, Z = - 1.9, p. = .06).

Absolute mean difference durations between actual and imagined movements were compared for each condition. The mean "MP" condition difference decreased by 36.7% (Z = - 2.5, p < .01). The mean "PP" condition was also found to decrease, by 44.2% (Z = - 2.8, p < .001). Conversely, it did not change between the pre- and the post-test for the "CONT" condition. These results are reported in Figure 5.



Numerous behavioral studies have provided evidence of the positive effects of mental practice on basketball performance (Gray & Fernandez, 1989; Hall & Erffmeyer, 1983; Onestak, 1997; Wrisberg & Anshel, 1989). However, none of these studies have specifically looked at the learning of strategies and game plans involving the whole basketball team. The present results show that the combination of cognitive general MI with physical practice is the most efficient training condition for the acquisition of a new basketball tactical skill. MI was not found to be significantly more efficient than physical practice alone, however, hence suggesting that MI should rather be considered an alternative technique to reduce physical training or prevent overtraining.

The mean MIQ scores provided evidence that basketball players have higher visual imagery ability than kinesthetic imagery ability. These results correlate with many studies, but sports such as figure skating or diving are the exception as they require a highly developed kinesthetic sense (Goss, Hall, Buckholz, & Fishburne, 1986; Mumford & Hall, 1985). While basketball players use kinesthetic information to control movement and regulate posture, visual search strategies (especially the internal perspective) appear more influential than kinesthetic information to improve the learning of tactical movements. Elite basketball coaches often give instructions dealing with tactical learning (Bloom et al., 1999; Tharp & Gallimore, 1976). The system of coaching basketball with the UCLA basketball coach John Wooden specifically focused on teaching drilling skills. The present results provide evidence that MI is an effective means for enhancing performance in learning basketball tactical movements. Players were thus found to improve their performance between the pre- and the post-test following mental and/or drilling skills. Performance was both objectively (imagined vs. actual duration) and subjectively (self-estimation and scores rated by the basketball specialist) improved. These results are consistent with previous experimental data (Driskell et al., 1994; Feltz & Landers, 1983) and suggest that MI may enhance performance, not only in closed skills, but also in open skills (Kendall et al., 1990; Li-Wei et al., 1992; McIntyre & Moran, 1996; Roure et al., 1998).

The increased score allotted by the basketball rater suggests that the combination of mental and physical practice is more efficient than physical practice alone, while no significant difference was found between "MP" and "PP" conditions. These results could be caused by the duration of the training session, which was suspected of being too short. Little guidance is provided by the literature about the length of imagery sessions, although Etnier and Landers (1996) reported that a shorter bout of imagery (1-3 min) was more beneficial for basketball performance than a slightly longer bout (5-7 min). By contrast, in other mental experiments, the most noticeable effects were reported after 20 rain periods (Driskell et al., 1994; Feltz & Landers, 1983). Hinshaw (1991) also argued that sessions between 10 and 15 minutes produced the largest effects on performance. Altogether, as in the recent study by Munroe-Chandler et al. (2005), current findings failed to show that motor performance was significantly enhanced with the implementation of a cognitive general imagery intervention, when compared to physical training only. In addition, although players have been instructed to perform MI during the experimental setting only, it can not be excluded that some participants also mentally practised the second schema outside of the MI training sessions.

When compared to the control condition, MI (associated with physical training) was found to improve performance on a new basketball movement that had never been previously performed by the athletes. Mulder, Zijlstra, Zijlstra and Hochstenhach (2004) argued that MI may be efficient only when athletes trained movements they had already performed. According to their results, the learning of a new movement might not be possible through MI training, because no representation can be made in the absence of any earlier physical execution. However, in the current study we may hypothesize a transfer across the tactical systems that are close to one another. Tactical schema may be considered a cognitive skill which does not require the actual experimentation to be learned. The mentally trained skill is a combination of several successive motor actions that are commonly performed by players in other tactical systems, and should probably be memorized before being performed accurately. In fact, the new basketball movements or tactics are typically types or combinations of previously learned movements. For example, players are likely to already know how to hold the ball, pass it, throw it, dribble with it, and block opponents, which means that these new schema are not truly novel movements as such. Moreover, athletes are likely to have observed a similar schema/strategy, which the modelling literature can provide the only required template for movement execution and/or imagery. Several athletes may thus allude to the use of MI to rehearse ideal game plans as part of a routine and for creative purposes. Although the movement had never been performed by the players, it can be suggested that they were able to mentally represent such a motor sequence, including the action they would take and its possible consequences. This may explain the positive effects of MI on performance and supports the recent findings suggesting that cognitive general imagery is the most-commonly reported type of mental practice used during performance routines (McIntyre & Moran, 2007).

Although the combination of physical and imagined practice was found to improve basketball performance when compared to the control condition, the spatial, temporal and event-driven uncertainties still remained limited and were only partially considered during MI. Such variables should be taken into consideration in further research. While MI is an effective way to enhance performance in a game configuration without defenders, it remains unclear whether MI could also help players to improve motor performance when opponents do not react exactly as they were expected to. In open skills, athletes assign a probability of occurrence of an event before initiating a defensive response, associated with the most probable attack area. They choose from total, partial or neutral preparation (Alain & Sarrazin, 1990). Therefore, when the probability of an event is high, anticipation of the opponent's move may lead athletes to prepare themselves to respond faster. As soon as the probability of an attack reached 70%, athletes were found to initiate defensive responses closer to the most probable area of attack (Proteau & Alain, 1983). The following events may be anticipated as soon as a behavioral invariability has been identified with a high probability (Guillot & Collet, 2003). Therefore, mental practice is thought to lead to improvement of performance when the anticipation is correct. However, the question of whether such an advantage would compensate for the risk of poor or erroneous anticipation remains unclear.

A critical issue of this study is related to the subjective performance evaluations (self-estimations) and the compliance of the subjects with instructions that could not be controlled accurately. The latter is important as subjects may encounter difficulty in performing MI, even though they receive specific instructions. However, to verify that they performed MI as instructed to, participants were requested to describe the nature of the images they attempted to form after the MI session and to score their effort using a 6-point rating scale. Another limit of this work is the small sample size, although all participants perform at national level.

Further research is therefore necessary to investigate the effects of cognitive general MI in open skills, to check whether a combination of mental and physical practice may be more efficient than physical practice only, and whether MI is useful in sporting situations involving high uncertainties including the action of the opponents. Additional research should also be conducted to reach clearer conclusions that will have practical implications in the learning of game strategies in open skills. Moreover, MI may be considered an effective training alternative, to reduce physical training and to prevent overtraining. Indeed, rehearsal of a skill with MI may help to keep the motor program active, thus priming and facilitating the future execution of specific movements (e.g., Pascual-Leone, Nguyet, Cohen, Brasil-Neto, Cammarota, & Hallett, 1995). Similarly, injured athletes may also use MI while remaining inactive.


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Aymeric Guiliot, Edyta Nadrowska and Christian Collet Universite Claude Bernard Lyon I, France

Address correspondence to: Aymeric Guillot, Centre de Recherche et d'Innovation sur le Sport, Universite Claude Bernard Lyon I, 27-29 Boulevard du 11 Novembre 1918, 69622 Villeurbanne cedex, France. Phone: 33-4-72-43-16-25 Fax: 33-4-72-43-28-46, E-mail:
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Author:Guillot, Aymeric; Nadrowska, Edyta; Collet, Christian
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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