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Visualization may sound like a good idea and there is an impressive list of studies that testify to its effectiveness, but how exactly do you teach it to your players?

Drawing from research in sports psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience, researchers Paul Holmes and David Collins devised the PETTLEP model. This model aims to provide coaches and athletes with a set of practical guidelines to aid their practice of imagery.

PETTLEP is an acronym, with each letter representing an important factor to consider when coaching and performing visualization. The following is a description of each letter:

1. P – Physical
Perhaps the most important of the guidelines, the idea is to encourage your players to make their visualization experience as physically similar to playing as you can. When giving instructions, coaches should include directions that include physiological responses. Research shows kinesthetic cues (i.e., cues that elicit the sensation of movement or strain in muscles). Other suggestions include encourage athletes to get their heart rate up and even wearing their game uniform.

2. E – Environment
According to PETTLEP this should be as similar as possible to the competitive location. Research has found imagery to be most effective when it is performed in the actual competitive environment. For example, golfers have found that when visualizing bunker shots, standing in sand is helpful. Golfers like the fact that they can feel their golf shoes contacting the sand and that their posture is identical to that adopted in the actual bunker. This has proven to be very effective in enhancing bunker shot performance.

3. T – Task
Task relates to the actual content of what your players are visualizing. This will vary from player to player and considers each players skill level. The more specific imagery is to the player practicing it the more effective it will be. Help players narrow their imagery to a specific skill they will be performing in competition. Ask your players what skill they would most like to concentrate on and stay focused on that skill.

4. T – Timing
Ideally, the closer to ‘game speed’ a player can visualize their performance the better. However, it is appropriate to start in slow motion to begin with until a player feels more comfortable speeding their movements up. Once a player is confident enough to ramp up the speed, encourage them to do so. Just like physically practicing at game speed is more effective than a walk-through – visualization is best performed in ‘real time’.

5. L – Learning
As players become more skilled both in their visualizing techniques and physical performance, imagery should be adapted accordingly. Once a player is more comfortable with fundamental skills encourage them to concentrate on more subtle details and refinements. For example, a football receiver may progress from just catching a pass to feeling the sensation of the ball hitting their fingers, softening their hands and securing the ball – perhaps even absorbing a tackle and maintaining a tight grasp on the football. The more specific details a player can add to the task they are performing the more effective imagery will be. Be careful, however, to stay focused on just one task at a time.

6. E – Emotion
Sports involve a lot of emotion; therefore, it should be as realistic as possible. Instructing players to relax before visualizing has proven to be most effective. Once a player is relaxed guide them through the realistic emotions they will experience in competition. Scripts that include emotions will lead to greater muscle activity, improved vividness and learning to relax under these conditions in a player’s mind will help them relax in a game.

7. P – Perspective
Perspective refers to the viewpoint a player takes during imagery. An internal perspective is where players experience themselves playing through their own eyes. An external perspective is where players see themselves if they were sitting in the audience, looking at themselves through another person’s eyes. In the lesson video we explained the external approach as if a player is watching themselves on video.
Some researchers believe the internal perspective is most effective; however, we have found players to experience success using either approach. It is always best to let the player choose which perspective he/she prefers using.

It’s Not All or Nothing
That might seem like an awful lot to think about at first. But don’t worry. If you’re new to visualization, take it in small steps. Guide your players to focus on one area first, and then as that begins to feel more natural, begin incorporating other elements as players become increasingly comfortable with the process.

Think of the PETTLEP model as a set of guidelines or a roadmap to a destination (one you may not get to in just one season of practice), for effective visualization. Ideally, the closer you can get to recreating the experience of physical practice the more effective visualization will be.

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