Monday, February 26, 2007

Defense, Offense and.....Cognitive Intervention?: The New Game Plan

Are you a high school athlete hoping to play at the collegiate level? Do you think you have the skills necessary but struggle in a specific area? Would improving this area of your game put you over the hump and in the eye of a scout? If so, you may be able to overcome your free throw, batting or other struggles with cognitive intervention; a process of image association that is helping numerous athletes overcome mental blockades to physical potential.

So you’ve already counted this out because the words “cognitive” and “intervention” scare you. Not so fast, this is just a scientific term meaning “word/image association.” Athletes struggling with a specific area of their sports were able to associate words with pictures relating to exact moments in their respective troubled areas. Because some intended actions we perform throughout an athletic event may have unintended and negative consequences, consciously engaging in actions that we associate with positive outcomes has been tested to find positive correlations.

So how does this program actually work? There are a number of stages necessary for the evolution of the program. In order to clearly illustrate this process, a documented case study will accompany the explanation. The first is the identification phase. Here the athlete methodically describes the area that he or she wishes to improve. This includes the event’s starting point to its end point. In the case study, the athlete was concerned about his foul shot performance. Specifically identifying the action’s start (perhaps the blown whistle indicating a foul) and end (perhaps when the ball leaves the athlete’s hands) point is important because the researcher deals with a precise set of emotions. To big a time period encompasses more emotions, complicating the process. Simplicity and clarity are key in image association. One wants to be as clear headed as possible.

The second part of phase one involves the subject’s identification of emotions experienced and verbalized throughout the event. Here the researcher can identify possible pressures and other factors the athlete faces during the event. The athlete is then asked to pay attention to his actions during this event in subsequent days and record, in detail, what he experiences. This record helps the researcher identify recurring emotions that may be detrimental to the athlete’s performance (unknown to the athlete). In the particular case study, the athlete identified that he was having concentration problems at the free throw line. The athlete said that he repeated the word “concentrate” at the line. The researcher decided that this added extra pressure to the shooter rather than relieved pressure. In an attempt to calm himself, the subject was actually pressuring himself to relieve pressure. A window of time from the moment the referee passed the ball to the shooter until he shot the ball was deemed an appropriate time frame that left little time for the shooter to experience added pressure. For example, if given a bigger time frame, concentration could be interrupted by the opposing team’s calling a timeout. Eliminating this possibility ensures that the player is focused only on making the foul shot.

The second phase is the cognitive restructuring phase. In this phase, a conscious effort is made to associate specific words with still images of the event. An important aspect of this phase is that the athlete must believe that the therapy will work. Any doubts about the program’s effectiveness prevent the athlete from fully embracing the program, thus the program’s usefulness cannot be measured. As the study puts it, a belief in the system “entails a performance expectancy,” and this is usually reflected in time dedicated to the program.

The next phase is the pairing phase. Here the athlete pairs a word or phrase with specific images. After weeks of study, the athlete will instinctively pair these words with the scenes. They are asked to study the pairings before bed, at halftime of games and before games. In our case, the nervous basketball player associated foul shot images with the words “relax” and “practice” after successfully making 18 of 20 foul shots in practice. He said that he felt no pressure in practice to make the shots, thus the specific words were chosen. As a result, during games, the athlete is supposed to say the key words that will trigger a relaxed feeling, similar to the one experienced in the gym when the pressure is off. During this phase, athletes are asked to speak with the researcher for a number of hours per week to express satisfaction/dissatisfaction with the program which could inhibit the effectiveness of the process. This interaction between subject and researcher is important so that the researcher can identify any covert tendencies that may cause setbacks.

In the specific case study, the player showed a significant increase in foul shot efficiency, rising from roughly 54% in the first 7 games (prior to study) of the season and roughly 75% during the last 16 games (after study). A transition period of fourteen days was implemented so that the athlete could become familiar with the program.

Although some studies have illustrated the program’s potential effectiveness, a study like this is not conclusive. While the author uses numerous sources and case studies that seem to validate the process, there will always be doubt because the potential influence of outside factors, such as extra practice and attention from coaches, remains a critical factor. None-the-less, the program does force athletes to spend more time developing mental focus, and mental clarity in sports (such as at the free throw line where the athlete is basically competing against himself) is absolutely crucial. Other studies in the article show improvements in penalty minutes and total fouls (basketball) after the athletes participated in the program. So if you are struggling to stay out of foul trouble, hit a curve ball or even make a greater percentage of foul shots, this method may be beneficial. One is inclined to believe the program is beneficial considering it is similar to other training methods. My roommate used to bite his nails but after he bought No Bite paste that tastes horribly, he no longer bites them. Not to mention a professor at UNC compiled the research for the article, making it inherently correct.

Competitive Sport Environments: Performance Enhancement Through Cognitive Intervention

John M. Silva, III
Behavior Modification, 10 1982; vol. 6: pp. 443 - 463.

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