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last updated: Sunday, October 29, 20009:16:05 PM

The Use of Psychological Skills by Female Collegiate Swimmers

by Kaia E. Thiese and Sharon Huddleston

Journal of Sport Behavior, Dec99, Vol. 22 Issue 4, p602, 9p, 1 chart

Abstract: This article presents research on 147 female collegiate swimmers, approximately 50% of whom use psychological "skills" to enhance performance, such as autohypnosis, autogenic training, blank meditation, bracing, color, cue words, mantra meditation, and Transcendental Meditation. Of interest to TranceNet readers are the results that Transcendental Meditation had no significant effect, although techniques ridiculed by the Maharishi, such as positive self-talk, showed some indication of value.

The majority of research on athletes' use of psychological skills for competition has been limited to imagery, self talk, and relaxation. Also lacking is information related to athletes' use of psychological skills within sport. The main purpose of the present study was to investigate the use of psychological skills by female collegiate swimmers. A secondary purpose was to investigate use differences between athletes specializing in different swim events. Female collegiate swimmers (N = 147) from ten Midwestern universities were surveyed with a researcher-generated questionnaire, the Athlete's Mental Survey. The means indicated that goal setting, positive selftalk, and music for psych-up were the skills found to be utilized "almost always" by the subjects. Also, more than 50% of the sample reported "never" using autohypnosis, autogenic training, blank meditation, bracing, color, cue words, mantra meditation, and Transcendental Meditation Copyright. The sample was split into two groups including sprinters (n = 105) and long distance swimmers (n = 42). MANOVA showed no significant differences between the skills used by the swimmers and the distance swam by the athletes. Results are discussed in relation to the need for coaches to educate and encourage athletes' use of psychological skills for performance enhancement.

The effects of psychological skills on the enhancement of athletic performance has been studied extensively, especially in the areas of goal setting, relaxation, and imagery/visualization (Cox & Yoo, 1995; Hughes, 1990; Weinberg, 1994). Defrancesco and Burke (1997) have indicated that the effective use of psychological skills may depend on specific individual and task factors, such as the skill level of the athlete and the sport skill performed. However, one area that has not been thoroughly investigated is the extent to which athletes utilize psychological skills.

The scant number of research studies designed to investigate the use of certain psychological skills for performance enhancement at different levels of sport have produced inconsistent results. For example, Heishman and Bunker (1989) reported that 49% of the 55 female athletes surveyed at the 1986 Lacrosse World Cup Tournament used imagery before competition. Also, 56% of the sample reported the use of self talk and 33% reported using relaxation before competition. Barr and Hall (1992) found that elite male and female rowers had a significantly higher use of imagery, focusing, relaxation, and other mental skills than did novice rowers. More recently Salmon, Hall, and Haslam (1994) found similar results with a sample of male and female soccer players participating at a wide range of competitive levels from recreational league to national/international level. Even though the three studies indicate possible differences in use between levels of competition, there is one departure in the literature. Hall, Rodgers, and Barr (1990) tested athletes from six sports and reported no significant differences in their use of imagery (either internal or external) between the recreational/house league, the local or regional league, the provincial or state level, or the national/international level.

An area that has received insufficient attention in the psychological skill use literature concerns differences between and within sports. One notable exception was a study by Ungerleider and Golding (1991) designed to investigate track and field Olympic Trial athletes' use of imagery. Overall, track event athletes were found to use imagery 81.5% of the time and field event athletes reported use 92.7% of the time. Further analysis indicated that race walkers used imagery 76.2% of the time, compared to 78.3% for the sprinters (races up to 400 meters), 79.8% for the marathoner; 86.1% for the middle distance (over 400 meters) runners; and, 97.2% for the throwers.

Although the use of imagery has received considerable research attention, athletes' use of other mental skills has not been thoroughly examined. Kirkby (1991) attempted to fill the void by investigating the use of a variety of psychological skills by 22 male members of an Australian football league. Results indicated that 100% of the subjects reported using some form of cognitive rehearsal and self talk prior to competition and 78% reported using relaxation at least some of the time. Kirkby's findings, however, should be viewed with caution due to a small sample size. More recently Defrancesco and Burke (1997) tested 115 professional tennis players participating in the 1992 Lipton Tennis Tournament. Results showed that the most commonly utilized psychological skills were imagery, a pre-service routine, relaxation, goal setting and self- talk. Defrancesco and Burke's study is the first to investigate a broad range of psychological skills within a specific sport.

Although the effects of psychological skills training on performance has received considerable attention, as has athletes' use of imagery, research on the use of other skills is marginal or completely nonexistent. A few researchers have investigated the use of other skills such as self talk and relaxation (Bart & Hail, 1992; Defrancesco & Burke, 1997; Heishman & Bunker, 1989; Kirkby, 1991; Ungerleider et al., 1989). Also, only the Ungerleider and Golding (1991) study has addressed differences within sport. If the effective use of psychological skills depends on task and individual factors, as proposed by Defrancesco and Burke (1997), the skills that athletes actually use within sports needs to be examined. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to extend the work of Defrancesco and Burke by investigating the overall use of various psychological skills by collegiate females within the sport of swimming. A secondary purpose was to test for use differences between swim events.



Female swimmers (N = 147) from ten mid-western university teams volunteered to participate in the study. Subjects ranged in age from 18 to 22 years (M = 19.5, SD 1.17).

Participants were assigned to a group based on the distances they typically swam in competition. Therefore, subjects were classified as either sprinters (n = 105) or long distance swimmers (n = 42). Sprinters typically swam 50, 100, or 200 yard races. Long distance swimmers typically competed in 400, 500, 1000, or 1650 yard races.


The Athlete's Mental Survey utilized in the present study was developed by the experimenters expressly for this investigation. Demographic information related to age, school, and specific distances swam in competition was requested from each subject on the first section of the survey. The main body of the questionnaire was comprised of twenty different psychological skills that could be utilized by athletes. Options for the extent of use included "never", "almost never", "almost always", and "always". Subjects were directed to indicate their current extent of use for each psychological skill listed. Interval level data was obtained by assigning a score of 0 for an answer of "never", I point for "almost never", 2 points for "almost always", and 3 points for "always". The possible range of scores was 0 - 60 points for each subject.

The psychological skills included on the survey were gleaned from relevant sport psychology literature. Revisions of the survey were based on the suggestions of a panel of experts who were asked to review the instrument. The four experts from the areas of sport psychology and swimming (head coach), confirmed the face validity of the instrument and its appropriateness for testing the college level athlete.


In order to obtain a large sample of highly skilled female swimmers, three testing sites were used for data collection. The three sites were all locations of intercollegiate swim meets held in December of 1996 and January of 1997.

Prior to the conference championship swim meet (first testing site) held in December 1996, a letter explaining the purpose of the research was mailed to the head coaches of the four participating teams. Coaches received a description of the survey, information related to date and location the survey would be administered, and the amount of time required to complete the survey. The coaches were informed that participation would be completely voluntary and confidentiality of the athlete's responses was guaranteed. Permission for the researcher to meet with the athletes was granted by all four coaches.

At the first testing site the researcher met with each team at their respective hotels following the evening session on either the first or second day of the competition. Using a written script, the researcher explained the purpose of the study. Subjects were told that no identifying information would be requested and that individual responses would remain confidential. After volunteers provided their informed consent, instructions for responding to the survey were presented verbally from a written script. Subjects were directed to indicate a response of "never" for any technique with which they were unfamiliar. Surveys were then distributed and completed on an individual basis. Following the completion of the survey, subjects were thanked for their participation.

It was not initially known which mid-western university swim teams would be attending the swim meets at the second testing site or the third testing site, therefore, it was not possible to notify coaches prior to the competition date. At both sites, the researcher approached the coach of each team individually to request permission to talk with the athletes about participating in the study. Coaches were provided with the same information that was included in the letters that were sent to coaches at the conference championship swim meet. If permission was granted to approach the athletes, arrangements to meet with the team were made with the coach.

Swimmers from two mid-western university teams were asked to participate in the study at the second testing site held December 28th through January 8th, 1997 in a southeastern state. Procedures for data collection were identical to those utilized at the conference championship swim meet (first testing site). Data were collected on the deck of the university pool facilities.

Athletes from four other mid-western teams were asked to participate in the study at a third testing site held January 17th through 18th, 1997 in a mid-western state. Procedures used for data collection were again identical to those utilized at the first and second testing sites. Data were collected on the deck of the university pool facilities.


Descriptive Data

The primary purpose of the present study was to examine the psychological skills that collegiate female swimmers utilize to prepare for competition. Table 1 presents the means and standard deviations for subjects' use of each technique. Overall, athletes reported high use of goal setting, positive selftalk, and music for psych-up (M = 2.04 -2.59, SD = .60 -.72). The proportion of subjects that reported "always" using the top three skills was 66.7%, 40.1%, and 27.9% respectively. Focusing internally, imagery/visualization, and music for relaxation also had relatively high use overall (M = 1.85 - 1.92, SD = .82 - .90)

Furthermore, analysis revealed that the majority of subjects reported "never" using autohypnosis, autogenic training, blank meditation, bracing, color, cue words, mantra meditation, and Transcendental Meditation Copyright for performance enhancement. The proportion of subjects reporting nonuse of the eight techniques ranged from 63.9% to 82.3%.

Multivariate Analysis

A secondary purpose of the present investigation was to examine differences in the use of psychological skills between subjects in the two swim groups. Based on the length of the event in which the athletes compete, 71.5% of all subjects identified themselves as sprinters (50 -200 yds.), and 28.5% of subjects identified themselves as long distance (400 - 1650 yds.) swimmers.

A one-way multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted to test for group (sprint vs. long distance) differences in athletes' use of each of the 20 psychological skills. The main effect for group was found to be nonsignificant, Wilks's lambda F(I, 20) = .84, p > .05. Subsequent univariate F-tests for autohypnosis, autogenic training, breath control relaxation, blank meditation, bracing, centering, color for mood altering, cue words, focusing externally, focusing internally, goal setting, imagery/visualization, mantra meditation, music for psych-up, music for relaxation, positive selftalk, progressive muscle relaxation, performance recall, Transcendental Meditation(D, and thought stoppage were nonsignificant with F (1, 145) .085 - 1.00, p > .05. Although nonsignificant, imagery/visualization and positive selftalk came close to significance with F (1,145) = 3.81, p = .053 and F(1, 145) = 3.63, p = .058 respectively.


The primary purpose of the present investigation was to examine the psychological skills athletes utilize to prepare for competition. The second purpose was to investigate possible within sport differences (sprint and long distance swimmers). From a descriptive level, findings revealed that the athletes sampled used goal setting, positive selftalk, and music for psych-up "almost always" to prepare for competition. Focusing internally, imagery/visualization, and music for relaxation also had relatively high use. In addition, the majority of subjects reported "never" using autohypnosis, autogenic training, blank meditation, bracing, color, cue words, mantra meditation, and Transcendental Meditation Copyright for performance enhancement. The within sport analysis yielded no significant differences between sprinters and long distance swimmers in the use of the psychological skills.

The data support previous work by Defrancesco and Burke (1997) and Ungerleider and Golding (1991). Defrancesco and Burke found that goal setting, self-talk and imagery were among the most commonly utilized psychological skills by a large sample of professional tennis players. Ungerleider and Golding discovered a high use of imagery for elite track and field athletes with percentage of use varying between athletes of different events. Also, Kirkby (1991) found that football league athletes utilized selftalk and some form of cognitive rehearsal 100% of the time. Even though the small sample size of Kirkby's study limits its application, results from the present study and the work of Defrancesco and Burke (1997) and Ungerleider and Golding (1991) suggest there are certain psychological skills that athletes utilize more than others.

The use of music either for psych-up and/or relaxation was also very high among the athletes in the present investigation. Music is unique in that it allows athletes to individualize their psychological preparation. According to Defrancesco and Burke (1997), personal attributes are important factors to consider in the selection of appropriate psychological skills. More specifically, music permits the athlete to choose the selections that are best suited to their personality and the desired purpose (e.g., distraction, psych-up, or relaxation).

Interestingly, there were eight psychological skills that the majority of the sample reported "never" using. The possibility that some of these eight skills were completely unknown to subjects cannot be dismissed since subjects were instructed to indicate a use of "never" for any psychological skill they did not recognize. It is also possible that some of the athletes who responded "never" for use are aware of the existence of a certain skill but uninformed concerning its positive effect on performance. It is to the advantage of every coach to educate athletes regarding the availability, use, and performance effects of a broad range of psychological skills. When the difference between winning and losing can be by the narrowest of margins, it is critically important that athletes use all available psychological skills in order to gain control over their competitive environment.

There were no significant differences in skill use between the sprinters and long distance swimmers. However, imagery/visualization and positive selftalk came very close to significance. With both skills, the means for sprinters were slightly higher than for the long distance swimmers. Due to the nonsignificant findings, however, the possibility that the slight differences between the means were due to chance cannot be discounted. As the present study is the first to investigate differences in the use of psychological skills between events or tasks within sport, further testing is warranted. It may be that the task demands within swimming do not differ as much as they might in a sport where athletes performs different skills (e.g., track and field).

While the findings of the present study do shed light on the use of a broad range of specific psychological techniques, further study is recommended in order to clarify remaining questions. Issues yet unaddressed concern the relationship between the type of task athletes perform and the specific psychological skills employed (within sport differences), as well as the factors that determine use (e.g., knowledge of technique). Additional information would allow coaches (a) to identify psychological skills commonly utilized by athletes in a given sport and those which would need to be taught, and (b) to help athletes tailor the use of psychological skills to the specific competitive situation and the competitive tasks performed by the athlete for the desired outcome.

Address Correspondence To: Sharon Huddleston, School of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0241. Voice: (319) 273-2730; Fax: (319) 273-5958. e-mail: Huddleston@uni.edu.

Table 1 Psychological Skill Use by Group

Legend for Chart:

A - Skill
B - Group Sprinters (n = 105) M
C - Group Sprinters (n = 105) SD
D - Long Distance (n = 42) M
E - Long Distance (n = 42) SD
F - Overall (N = 147) M
G - Overall (N = 147) SD

Autogenic training0.41(.70)0.36(.73)0.38(.69)
Breath relaxation1.44(.92)1.33(.93)1.40(.91)
Blank meditation0.52(.81)0.55(.92)0.50(.81)
Color for mood altering0.33(.65)0.29(.55)0.32(.61)
Cue words0.67(.93)0.67(.90)0.63(.89)
Focusing externally1.51(1.07)1.52(1.13)1.49(1.07)
Focusing internally2.05(.86)1.76(l.01)1.92(.90)
Goal setting2.64(.57)2.57(.67)2.59(.60)
Mantra meditation0.38(.71)0.48(.94)0.39(.76)
Music for psych up2.01(.71)2.21(.75)2.04(.72)
Music for relaxation1.78(.91)2.05(.79)1.85(.87)
Progressive muscle relaxation1.14(.85)1.19(.97)1.13(.87)
Performance recall1.7(.96)1.43(.86)1.60(.93)
Positive selftalk2.34(.62)2.10(.91)2.23(.75)
Transcendental Meditation Copryright0.34(.59)0.43(.77)0.36(.62)
Thought stoppage1.11(.97)1.14(l.00)1.10(.97)


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