Q & A with Professor
Barbi Law

Question # 2:

There seems to be an increased focus on non-competitive/non-elimination games, and while I see the benefit of that, I also see benefit in using competition (with others or oneself) as a source of motivation. Do you distinguish competitive vs non-competitive activity in developing psychological skills in Phys Ed classes? -Bri


Hi Bri. Thanks for your question! There is certainly room for both cooperative and competitive activities in children’s physical activity experiences. I think the key is finding a balance between the two. With respect to imagery, research suggests that children use it both in competitive environments (e.g., sport) and in more cooperative environments (e.g., active play). I would suspect that this is true for other psychological skills as well. Our on-going research will tell us to what extent children are using it in physical education – stay tuned!

Our goal anytime we teach psychological skills to children is to help them identify ways in which they can use the skills to help them experience success – whether it is physically, mentally, or socially. Regardless of the type of environment, it is also important that children are encouraged to evaluate their success in terms of their own performance, not just by how they do in comparison to others. There is a strong body of research showing that a balance between self-referenced goals and social comparison goals is important for children to develop feelings of competence, self-esteem, and motivation to stick with challenging activities (For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into details on this topic but if you would like more information please let me know!).

When we teach imagery to children, we teach them to use it for a range of reasons and in a variety of situations. Some of the situations they choose to imagine might relate to competitive situations, but others may relate to non-competitive situations. For example, if we were teaching a group of children about using imagery in sport or physical education, we would encourage them to use it for the reason that best fits what they want to achieve. It might be using imagery to see the path they should follow through an obstacle course or to feel the movement in their different body parts as they set up and make a foul shot in basketball. We would also encourage them to use imagery to help them manage their thoughts and feelings. They might use imagery to imagine how it would feel to reach their goals – whether it is achieving a personal best or winning a game. They might imagine feeling confident during a game or controlling anxiety when they are in a new situation. Finally, we would encourage them to use imagery to deal with challenging situations – for example, staying mentally tough, positive, and focused when they fall behind the pack in a race but coming back to catch up and have a strong finish.

Anytime we teach imagery to kids, we work to help them identify situations where imagery can help them and to give them some experience using imagery so they can do it successfully on their own. If a child feels more anxiety and struggles more in competitive situations, then his/her imagery use may be focused on managing those feelings in competition. Another child may use imagery mainly to help him/her learn the technique involved in a new swimming skill, to remember the steps to a new gymnastics routine, or to feel confident before a dance recital performance. We encourage imagery use in all types of situations but ultimately how children use it is up to them!


Question # 1:

Very interesting research. Are you planning to include the impact on kids with learning disabilities into your study? Are we getting facts and numbers? Do you have enough feedback from previous studies? -Matt


Hi Matt. Great questions! Part of the reason that we wanted to do this research within the schools is that we wanted to capture how all children may use psychological skills, such as imagery, and how using those skills might impact their physical education experience. Since enjoyment and feeling competent are key factors associated with engaging in physical activity, we wanted to reach children who may struggle in physical education – perhaps because they don’t feel ‘athletic’ or confident in their ability to move. Children who use imagery in organized sport report using it to feel more confident, less anxious, and to help them learn new skills and strategies. We want to know how it works in a real school setting for both children who excel in movement and those who may face challenges.

To answer the first part of your question, all children in the classroom have the option to participate in our research – so this certainly includes children with learning disabilities. In our initial research we did not ask parents to report whether their child has a specific challenge; however, for our upcoming studies that is certainly a factor to consider! One of the major issues we will face is that many young children with a learning disability may be awaiting diagnosis. Similarly, many children with movement-related disorders, such as developmental coordination disorder (DCD), may also be awaiting diagnosis. In addition, movement disorders tend to be comorbid (i.e., occur in combination) with other challenges. This makes it very difficult to get accurate numbers for the prevalence of different challenges within our study samples and to then look at whether children with different types of challenges, or combinations of challenges, benefit from imagery use more, less, or to the same degree as other groups of children.

Your question about how much we know about children with disabilities, physical activity, and imagery use, is an important one. I should also highlight that I am by no means an expert on disabilities and my knowledge of this literature outside physical activity settings is limited. That said, there is a growing body of literature that examines the factors related to physical activity participation among children with movement disorders and physical challenges. However, there appears to be relatively little research on the role of learning disabilities in children’s physical activity participation. There is a definite need for more research on the challenges these children may face and the development of potential solutions to help them start and stick with physical activity.

Research on imagery use among children suggests that within a general classroom setting children with learning disabilities and/or movement disorders can benefit from using imagery; however, the size of the benefit may depend on the specific nature of the challenge. For example, some studies show that children with nonverbal learning disabilities may have more difficulty using imagery than children with other types of challenges. To date there is little or no research exploring imagery use in physical education settings among children in general, or that focuses on children dealing with specific challenges. So, to answer your question, there is certainly a lot we don’t know yet but I am optimistic we will start to see more research on this topic!

To our knowledge, our research is the first group of studies designed specifically to examine the impact of children’s imagery use as it relates to the physical education setting. We are very much at the exploratory stage. Once we have a good understanding of the range of ways in which children may already be using imagery in physical education, we certainly would like to examine the potential benefits of imagery use (and other psychological skills) for specific groups of children. I think the first step is just getting an idea of what children are already doing! If you have thoughts on how your children use imagery in physical education or how it might benefit them, I’d love to hear from you!