Motivational techniques can improve performance

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African American sprinter crossing the finish line and breaking the tap. Horizontally framed shot.

African American sprinter crossing the finish line and breaking the tap. Horizontally framed shot.

Psychological skill interventions really can help to improve competitive performance, a 44,000-person BBC Lab UK study has found.

In conjunction with BBC Lab UK, Professor Andrew Lane and his colleagues tested which psychological skill interventions would help people improve their scores in an online game.

This complex study examined if one motivational method would be more effective for any specific aspect of a task. The methods tested were self-talk, imagery, and if-then planning. Each of these psychological skills was applied to one of four parts of a competitive task: process, outcome, arousal-control, and instruction. People using self-talk, for example telling yourself “I can do better next time” – performed better than the control group in every portion of the task.

The greatest improvements were seen in self-talk-outcome (telling yourself, “I can beat my best score”), self-talk-process (telling yourself, “I can react quicker this time”), imagery-outcome (imagining yourself playing the game and beating your best score), and imagery-process (imagining yourself playing and reacting quicker than last time).

They also found a short motivational video could improve performance. Participants watched a short video before playing the online game. The coach for these videos was four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson, an athlete known for advocating mental preparedness in addition to physical training.

If-then planning was found to be one of the least successful of this study, despite being an effective tool in weight management and other real life challenges.

Lane said: “Working on, ‘Can You Compete?’ was inspirational and educational; since we have been developing online interventions to help people manage their emotions and doing this across a range of specific contexts from delivering a speech to fighting in a boxing ring, from taking an exam to going into dangerous places.”

Over 44,000 people participated in the study, an astounding number considering that the majority of psychological experiments have fewer than 300 participants. The participants were divided into 12 experimental groups and one control group, also impressive, because most studies have two or three experimental groups.

Summary
In conjunction with BBC Lab UK, the present study developed 12 brief psychological skill interventions for online delivery. A protocol was designed that captured data via self-report measures, used video recordings to deliver interventions, involved a competitive concentration task against an individually matched computer opponent, and provided feedback on the effects of the interventions. Three psychological skills were used; imagery, self-talk, and if-then planning, with each skill directed to one of four different foci: outcome goal, process goal, instruction, or arousal-control. This resulted in 12 different intervention participant groups (randomly assigned) with a 13th group acting as a control. Participants (n = 44,742) completed a competitive task four times—practice, baseline, following an intervention, and again after repeating the intervention. Results revealed performance improved following practice with incremental effects for imagery-outcome, imagery-process, and self-talk-outcome and self-talk-process over the control group, with the same interventions increasing the intensity of effort invested, arousal and pleasant emotion. Arousal-control interventions associated with pleasant emotions, low arousal, and low effort invested in performance. Instructional interventions were not effective. Results offer support for the utility of online interventions in teaching psychological skills and suggest brief interventions that focus on increasing motivation, increased arousal, effort invested, and pleasant emotions were the most effective.

Authors
Andrew M Lane, Peter Totterdell, Ian MacDonald, Tracey J Devonport, Andrew P Friesen, Christopher J Beedie, Damian Stanley, Alan Nevill

Frontiers material
Frontiers in Psychology abstract


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