WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A 1996 STUDY ON ENVIRONMENTAL CUES.
When athletes talk about “controlling the controllables”, the pre-game ritual is one of the things they can be most in control of. Before the first whistle, athletes at all levels are working on getting their minds and bodies in the right place to perform optimally. Many athletes positively manipulate their environment by listening to music to get psyched up for their sport. However, a 1996 study (Bargh, Chen & Burrows) suggests that our visual environment (what we see) in the lead-up to games has way more of an effect on our performance than we even realize.
In 1996, social psychologists ran a test where two groups of individuals were shown a series of photos. Group 1 was shown a series of random and unrelated images, while Group 2 were shown a series of photos related to elderly people (ex. a walking cane, nursing home entrance, even pictures of Florida). After the photos were shown, each person was asked to walk down the hall for the next part of the study. The real test however, was to see how fast people would walk to the next room. The result … people who saw the “elderly” images walked significantly slower than the folks in Group 1. This means that their visual environment “conditioned” their action. The lesson here is clear; be careful what kind of content you are consuming before performing – you may not even be consciously aware of how what you’re taking in is impacting your mood and actions.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ATHLETES
Does this mean I need to tell grandma and grandpa that they can’t drive me to my games anymore? Definitely not … instead this study underscores the importance of purposefully injecting visualization into performance preparation. The first step for athletes is to do an audit of their current pre-game process and ask, are the things I am doing and watching positive contributors to performance? Athletes should consider their habits in the hours leading up to performing and avoid sneaky performance sapping activities like video games.
Athletes can override any negative environmental cues by developing pre-game or even pre-play routines that include visualization. Athletes like Braden Holtby (NHL) and Jason Day (PGA) project positive images into their mind’s eye, making it easier for their bodies to execute the actions they need. Russell Wilson (NFL) can be seen in his locker watching a highlight reel of his finest plays to remind himself what it looks like and feels like to perform optimally.
Just like the body needs sufficient nourishment to perform optimally, the mind needs to be fed great visuals in order to perform the way we intend it to. Look for ways to incorporate visualization into your pre-game ritual.
Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 230-244.