Sports Special Issue Research article
PERCEPTIONS OF THE CONTRIBUTION OF PSYCHOLOGY TO SUCCESS IN ELITE
Sport, Performing Arts and Leisure, University of Wolverhampton, UK
Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2006) 5 (CSSI), 99
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|The study used semi-structured interviews to explore the views
of three high performance kickboxers regarding the contribution of
psychology to the development and maintenance of expert performance
within kickboxing. The results provide a useful insight into the experiences
of high performance kickboxers, identifying those mental skills and
psychological attributes that are perceived to contribute to success.
Participants identified seven mental skills that they believed to
be linked to success in kickboxing; 1) effective use of self-talk,
2) relaxation, 3) heightened concentration, 4) self-regulation of
arousal, 5) goal setting, 6) coping with being hit, and 7) imagery.
Three psychological characteristics were identified by all participants
as contributing to success, 1) high self-efficacy, 2) highly motivated
and 3) mental toughness. Although not specifically identified by participants,
it is suggested that a fourth psychological characteristic was also
apparent. Participants demonstrated varying degrees of emotional intelligence
thorough their ability to monitor and manipulate their emotional states
prior to and during competition. Martial artists used a number of
long and short-term psychological strategies in preparing for competition.
Furthermore, whilst mental skills were not systematically practiced,
all participants endeavored to integrate some form of mental training
within physical training. It is recommended that sport psychologists
help martial artists develop and refine individualized mental training
routines, assisting with the formal integration of psychological training
into physical training. Martial artists spend the majority of their
time practicing as opposed to competing. As such, the integration
of mental skills training within physical training may help ensure
quality practice, and facilitate the effective transfer of mental
skills into competition.
WORDS: Kickboxing, mental skills, psychological attributes,
| The application of mental skills in sports is linked with the
development and maintenance of expert performance in sport (Durand-Bush
and Salmela, 2002;
Research identifies a number of psychological variables that are linked
with enhanced performance in martial arts. These variables comprise
of psychological skills including: concentration (Williams and Elliott,
relaxation and controlling anxiety (Chapman et al., 1997;
Williams and Elliott, 1999),
goal setting (King and Williams, 1997),
visual search strategies (Williams and Elliott, 1999),
imagery (Weinberg et al., 1981)
and self-talk (Ferrari, 1999;
Williams and Leffingwell, 1996).
Other psychological variables comprise of those personal characteristics
that may impact upon performance including confidence (Chapman et
Durand-Bush and Salmela, 2002;
Williams and Leffingwell, 1996)
and motivation (Durand-Bush and Salmela, 2002).
The need to tailor mental skills training to the specific needs of
an individual is acknowledged by many sport psychologists (Seabourne
et al., 1984;
Given the growing body of evidence linking mental skills to enhanced
performance in martial arts (Chapman et al., 1997;
King and Williams, 1997;
Williams and Elliott, 1999),
an individualized mental skills training program should be part of
a martial artists training.
Weinberg and Comar, 1994
suggested that in order to develop mental skills, they must be systematically
practiced and integrated within physical skills training. Williams
and colleagues (Williams and Elliott, 1999;
Williams and Grant, 1999)
found that skilled martial artists (Karate) have better perceptual
and anticipatory skills when compared with novice martial artists.
They suggest that these skills are acquired through experience, a
finding consistent with the sentiments of Weinberg and Comar, 1994.
The development of these mental skills could be accelerated by appropriate
training, exposing performers to the same constraints as those experienced
during competition could develop a martial artist's ability to focus
on task relevant cues (Williams and Elliott, 1999).
Whilst there is an increasing body of research which identifies the
contribution of mental skills to success in martial arts, and the
need to integrate mental skills training within physical training,
research suggests that the mental skills applied by martial artists
may not be systematically taught (Williams and Elliott, 1999).
The majority of martial artists do not have access to sport psychologists
and as such, their first experiences concerning the psychology of
martial arts will come from their mentors/ instructors. The present
paper explores the views of high performance kickboxers regarding
the contribution of psychology to the development and maintenance
of expert performance within kickboxing, in particular the role of
mental training in the development of excellence.
All athletes provided informed consent before participating in the
present study. Participants were 3 volunteer kickboxers; participant
numbers have been used in order to maintain anonymity. Participant#1
is 50 years of age and has now retired having competed in full and
semi-contact kickboxing for over twenty years. His best result was
third place in the world full contact championships. He has won
numerous British titles, has been British full contact champion
and winner of the FSK and MAI masters division. He prides himself
on having beaten a number of World champions during his kickboxing
career. His coaching accomplishments are also well recognized having
been awarded instructor of the year by Martial Arts illustrated.
Participant#2 is 34 years of age; she has fought in semi, light
and full contact kickboxing. She has won over 20 British titles
and held the European title in 1997 and 2003. She successfully defended
her World title in full contact kickboxing from 1996 through to
2000 when she had to relinquish it due to pregnancy. Participant#1
and #2 have been married for 13 years and between them have trained
several fighters to become World champion. Participant#1 and #2
were interviewed together in the dual interview. Participant#3 completed
an individual interview. He is 27 years old and competes in semi-contact
Kickboxing. He was World silver medalist in 2001, World champion
in 2003, European champion in 1999, and has numerous British titles.
Exploring the experiences of small number of participants is an
acknowledged limitation of the present study, and as such, the findings
presented are not representative of the general kickboxing population.
However, given their accomplishments, their views regarding the
contribution of psychology to success in elite kickboxing serve
to highlight those areas that could, and arguably should be subject
to further empirical scrutiny.
One individual and one dual interview were used to ascertain and
explore those psychological attributes that were identified by elite
kickboxers as contributing to excellence. The same question schedule
was used for the individual interview and dual interview. This was
to ensure each interview was as consistent as possible in terms
of depth and complexity. This semi-structured interview allowed
participants to talk about their experiences in an informal way
thus providing the opportunity and freedom to express their views
and develop unexpected themes (Burgess, 1984).
Examples of questions included 'What would you say are the mental
or psychological aspects of kickboxing that are important for success?'
and 'Have your views on the psychology of kickboxing changed as
you have become more experienced?' Prompts were used to explore
the responses offered in greater depth, as they are an effective
technique to elicit additional information from participants (Krueger,
A dual interview was used for participant#1 and #2 because of their
shared experiences. Participant#1 has been participant#2's coach
since she was eleven years of age and has been the only coach she
has ever worked with. Together they have established, and manage
one of the largest worldwide Kickboxing organizations, and have
trained a number of fighters to become World champions. As such
a dual interview would provide a greater insight into the success
of their kickboxing partnership. Cox and Thompson, 2000
found dual interviews to be the most satisfactory way of eliciting
information as it gave each participant the opportunity to speak,
but they also 'sparked off' conversation with each other and tended
to 'keep each other honest' (2000, p.5).
All interviews were transcribed verbatim. In order to check the
interview transcripts for accuracy of representation and content,
all athletes were provided with a copy of their interview transcripts
to modify, add or omit comments as necessary. Consistent with previous
qualitative investigations, an inductive- deductive approach to
data analysis was used in the present study (Charmaz, 2000;
An inductive analysis of interview data ensured an accurate representation
of the contribution of psychology to success discussed by participants.
Deductive procedures were utilized in that prior knowledge concerning
the contribution of psychology to success helped interpret the data.
Reliability criteria were met through continued discussions between
the author and participants to ensure continued accuracy of representation.
Results are presented in the form of direct quotations in an attempt
to accurately reflect the views and experiences of participants.
|RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
review of those studies exploring the psychological factors linked
to success in martial arts identifies seven mental skills and two
psychological characteristics linked to excellence. These mental
skills include; 1) visual search strategies, 2) effective use of
self-talk, 3) relaxation, 4) heightened concentration, 5) self-regulation
of arousal, 6) goal setting, and 7) imagery. The psychological characteristics
linked to success include high self-efficacy and motivation. Within
the present study, partial support is offered for the findings of
past research, with the exception of visual search strategies participants
identified the same mental skills as contributing to success. Due
to the specific demands of the sport, this study also suggests that
coping with being hit and hitting is a mental skill associated with
kickboxing success. Coping with this unique stressor was evidenced
in the psychological characteristics identified by participants
as contributing to success. In addition to high self-efficacy and
motivation, all participants believed that mental toughness was
a requirement for success. Despite agreement concerning the mental
skills and psychological characteristics contributing to success,
all participants emphasized the importance of developing an individualized
style of fighting and mental preparation. In presenting the key
findings of the present study data will be presented as pre-competition,
competition and post-competition strategies.
When exploring the psychology of kickboxing, a number of pre-competition
factors emerged. These will be discussed in a time to event manner.
Long-term strategies will be explored first, followed by the consideration
of short-term strategies.
All three participants identified appropriate training as extremely
important. Appropriate training was determined by the intensity
of training, the skills addressed in the training and the adaptation
of training. The integration of goal setting within training was
also considered to be important by all participants. This included
short and long-term goals and the careful consideration of goal
attainment. Participant#1 talked about the need to set training
goals for upcoming fights, and adapt training to accomplish these
goals: "You restructure your training like even hitting
a punch bag is different because you're doing it for an aim, when
participant#2 used to fight for full contact the one time I even
stuck a picture of the person she was fighting on the bag and wouldn't
let her go home till she completely blasted that picture off".
Research indicates that athletes set goals for competition and training
(Munroe-Chandler, et al., 2004;
Weinberg et al., 2000),
and that these have motivational and performance enhancing effects
(Kyllo and Landers, 1995;
Weinberg et al., 2000).
Meta-analyses in sport and general goal-setting research strongly
supports the contention that specific, challenging goals lead to
greater performance gains than do-your-best goals, easy goals, or
no goals (Klein et al., 1999;
Kyllo and Landers, 1995;
Locke and Latham, 1990a;
Klein et al., 1999
suggest that specific goals direct effort and attention towards
those behaviors deemed necessary for successful performance.
The relationship between performance accomplishments in training
and increased self-efficacy was also identified by all participants.
identified a link between performance accomplishments and self-efficacy,
and there is evidence supporting this relationship in the boxing
environment (Lane, 2002).
Although a number of strategies were identified by participants
as developing self-efficacy, training accomplishments were deemed
to be the most important long-term strategy. This was discussed
by participant#3, "by training you get better, the more
you train the better you get, the better you get the more confident
you get and that's, it's actually easy but it's the hardest thing
to do, that's for me the biggest thing to get you're confidence
and this up here (taps head) is the most important". Bandura
suggests that the most effective way to strengthen self-efficacy
is to provide individuals with the opportunity to succeed at a task.
Performance accomplishments provide new and relevant information
concerning personal ability that is integrated into existing self-efficacy
perceptions (Bandura, 1997).
Becoming desensitized to being hit was also considered by all participants
to be an important objective of long-term training. The dialogue
between participant#1 and #2 offered an interesting insight into
the psychology of being hit.
Participant#1: "Many a person we send out even for a semi-contact
fight, the first time they get a smack in the gob they always look
round open mouthed".
Participant#2: It's the shock, the more you take one the more
you get used to taking one, full contact fighters used to say to
me, this sounds really mad I think it's the same probably with any
contact sport, you actually get a bit of a thrill out of it, you
get hit with quite a good shot sometimes you actually start to laugh
and actually start to enjoy, not if you got dropped or something,
but half of you is like 'I took that', so it feels good that that
you took it, you do, you have to get used to it."
The psychology of being hit, and hitting an opponent is clearly
an important aspect of combat sports and as such warrants further
Developing a pre-competition routine was identified as a key component
of the short-term preparation for a fight. The content of the pre-competition
routine varied considerably between fighters and they acknowledged
the idiosyncrasies that influenced the process of developing a preferred
routine. The pre-competition routines described by participants
included elements of strategy development, self-talk/ verbal persuasion,
imagery, observations/planning, emotional control, physical preparation,
arousal management, body language/ posturing and in some instances
Participant#3 described his pre-performance routine that typified
the combination of physical and mental preparation. "In
the hours leading up I'm scoping the place seeing whose about, I'm
picturing what I'm going to do on the mat, my favored techniques,
how I'm going to apply it you know, I speak to a lot of other really
good martial artists and they do the same you know, but I'll be
doing physical stuff as well I'll be loosening up a little bit,
sharpness work just to get you ready for it you can't go
in there stale it's important that you're ready and again get the
pressure going just for a couple of seconds bang, and then pull
off a little bit then again so you're in that rhythm when you're
getting into the ring". A pre-performance routine should
utilize strategies so that they complement each other and comprise
the totality of the pre-performance routine (Singer, 2002).
Pre-performance routines enable an athlete to control and direct
emotions, thoughts, and attention immediately prior to and during
performance (Crews et al., 2001).
Mental imagery was a key component of participants' pre-performance
routine and was also utilized for longer term preparation and reflecting
on performances. Participant#1 described his use of imagery as a
fighter. "I used to picture myself fighting them in ten
minutes thinking 'oh the moment he tries that bugger on me I'm going
to do this' and I actually go through the fight, actually fight
them in my mind". Participant's descriptions of their imagery
experiences indicate a multi-sensory experience with an emphasis
on dynamic kinesthetic imagery. This concurs with the recommendations
of Gould and Damarjian, 1996
who suggested this type of imagery offered the greatest benefits
Emotional control was deemed to be critical for success during a
fight, in particular the control of aggression, fear and anxiety.
Participant#3 outlined the consequences of poor emotional control,
"if you can't control you're anger or you're aggression
everything goes out the window
you tense up, body tenses up
and then the whole fight goes out the window, as soon as you tense
up you lose, especially in what I do because it's so fast and technical
and precise, it's so fast that you only have to be off the ball
just a little, half a degree and that's it you get caught".
Participant#2 shared similar experiences, "I'd say I
lost that here (taps head) I didn't lose that from nothing else,
I was scared of her and you know being scared is one thing, usually
I'm not scared of a person, I'm scared of losing,
I was more scared of her because I just didn't believe I could beat
her which is why I didn't". The experiences of these athletes
can be empirically supported, for example, using the Profile of
Mood States and the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 with 208
brown and black belts (Karate), Terry and Slade, 1995
found that 93.5% of winners could be predicted on the basis of mood
and anxiety. Chapman et al., 1997
also found that anxiety scores (CSAI-2) could predict 63% of winners
and losers amongst Tae Kwon Do novices. The winners were lower on
both somatic anxiety and cognitive anxiety.
With regards to emotional control, participant#3 described a technique
he had developed and found to be effective, specifically for controlling
his nerves, "it can be to do with your breathing aspect
as well and people don't realize how important breathing is, how
you control you're emotions which is all done by your breathing
like you're nervousness, if you're nervous and agitated
I tend to breathe nice and deep, I mean I've never been taught this,
this is how I deal with it yeah, you know breathe in through the
nose take a big deep breath through to the stomach okay, and out
through the mouth and just let it all go and take it from there
really". Focused breathing and muscle relaxation such as
this, has been found to regulate anxiety amongst martial artists
Weinberg et al., 1981).
A pre-requisite for effectively coping with those negative emotions
elicited by stressful events is emotional intelligence. Salovey
and Mayer (1990,
p. 189) define emotional intelligence as 'the ability to monitor
one's own and other's emotions, to discriminate among them, and
to guide one's thinking and actions'. Salovey et al. (1999,
p.161) suggest that more emotionally intelligent individuals cope
more successfully because they 'accurately perceive and appraise
their emotional states, know how and when to express their feelings,
and can effectively regulate their mood states'. Participant#3 demonstrates
an ability to monitor his emotional state prior to and during competition
and manipulate this using appropriate coping strategies, as such
he demonstrates emotional intelligence.
Each participant described the intense concentration that they experienced
when they performed well, and that this was the performance state
they tried to attain when fighting. This state once attained is
known as a flow state. Flow is an optimal psychological state characterized
by a state of concentration so focused that there is absolute absorption
in the activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
There is evidence to suggest that flow is a peak performance state
(Jackson and Roberts, 1992;
McInman and Grove, 1991).
When exploring the way in which flow states were achieved, participants
suggested that over learning was necessary so that kickboxing skills
could be produced during a fight without conscious processing. Participant#2
explained, "I think that's part of being a good fighter
it's being able to bring something out without thinking about it".
Participant#3 concurred, "you're in the zone where the techniques
that you've practiced, you've learned, you've drilled
doing not thinking". These findings highlight the potential
importance of repetition and over learning for aspiring kickboxers.
Self-talk was a strategy used by participants for instructional,
motivational and emotional control. In the following excerpt, participant#3
described how being hit was an emotive experience "no-one
really likes getting hit, if I look at every one of my students
the main thing is they don't want to get hit, no-one likes to get
hit in the face or in the nose or whatever". Participant#3
had developed his use of self-talk to control his emotions when
fighting. "I just think 'oh I'm going to get scored on there',
not hit, 'I'm going to get scored on', and that's what you want
to try and get, the right positiveness make yourself positive that's
so important the positive aspect is the biggest psychological thing
you can have because you know if your heads not right and you don't
believe it no-one else will". The findings of this study
support the work of Williams and Leffingwell, 1996
who suggest that self-talk can be used to correct bad habits, to
focus attention, to modify intensity level, and increase self-efficacy.
Controlling body language was clearly identified by participants
as a short-term pre-competition strategy, and was also perceived
to be an important competition strategy. This typically involved
elements of gamesmanship. For example, participant#2 explained,
"whenever I go to touch gloves I always bang gloves and
glare into their face and I always stare them out
always stare them out all day and the time when they do this (looks
away), they look away I know I've beaten them".
Post-competition, reflection was considered to be a natural and
important element of a fighter's routine. Participant#3 suggested
"always reflect on your fight take the good things, throw
away the bad things but still look at it, you know don't dwell on
situations which I used to do because it doesn't work, it doesn't
make any difference the fights gone
take the good bits make
them better, take the bad bits make them better, you've got to be
able to learn from you're mistakes and learn from the things that
you did good". During self-reflection individuals self-evaluate,
attribute causation, experience satisfaction, and adapt their performance
(Kitsantas and Zimmerman, 2002).
characteristics linked to success
When describing the psychological attributes of a good fighter,
three attributes were consistently identified by all participants.
These were high self-efficacy, motivated and mental toughness. Self-efficacy
was identified by all participants as the main psychological attribute
leading to success. Participant#2 believed that developing self-efficacy
was the turning point in her kickboxing career. "Because
it took me a long time to believe in myself, when I did believe
in myself I realized that that was the ticket, I try and put that
across to them (students) I don't believe that anyone is better
than anyone until they prove it, but you can make somebody better
than you just by believing they're better than you, you know so
I try and put a strong mental attitude across". Motivation
was also considered by all participants to be necessary for success.
Participant#2 explained: "as you fight more and more you
need to look for new things, I mean I was fighting week after week
after week, winning week after week after week, and one day I just
stopped, because I wasn't getting that buzz,
I stopped for
five years and I came back out and I won the Europeans, so they
said, you still got it there and I said 'I know I got it there but
I want it again'".
Finally, all participants agreed that a fighter could be an excellent
technical fighter, but if they did not posses psychological hardiness
they would not be a successful tournament fighter. Mental toughness
is arguably one of the most important psychological attributes in
achieving performance excellence (Gould et al., 1987;
Jones et al., 2002;
suggested, "mental toughness may have more to do with winning
than do such physical attributes as speed and power" (p. 60).
The characteristics of mentally tough performers proposed in the
literature have been wide ranging and include: high levels of optimism,
self-efficacy, self-belief, self-esteem, desire, determination,
commitment, focus and concentration, willpower, control, motivation,
and courage (Bull et al., 1996;
Graham and Yocom, 1990;
Despite these differences of opinion a number of researchers agree
that mental toughness is reflected in an athlete's ability to cope
with stress and resultant anxiety associated with high-pressure
competitive situations (Goldberg, 1998;
Gould et al., 1987;
OF MENTAL SKILLS TRAINING
martial artist considered it important to incorporate mental skills
training within physical training. However their personal understanding
of the psychology of fighting and the subsequent development of
mental skills was developed over a long period of time. This process
was influenced by instructors and other martial artists with whom
they shared experiences, and was refined by experiential learning.
As such their application of mental skills training was unsystematic
and unstructured. All participants described an initial skepticism
concerning the role of psychology in kickboxing, for example participant#1
suggested "I'd probably have thought twenty-five years ago
about the psychology of fighting I'd have thought what a load of
s**t, you just smack them". Furthermore, all believed that
as they became more experienced their appreciation of the contribution
of psychology to the success of a martial artist increased. This
was perhaps best summarized by participant#3 who stated "when
I first started I didn't think about it I just wanted to do a technique,
and then you realize that you've got to be positive that's
what my instructor always said to me, now I understand it, it's
the most important thing, be positive believe you can achieve it
and that's it, as long as you believe in it you'll get there".
The results of the present study offer clear implications for applied
sport psychologists. Firstly, sport psychologists must carefully
consider the way in which they offer support. It would appear unwise
to emphasize the benefits of mental skills training at the cost
of describing their application. According to theories of behavioral
change, advice giving and focusing exclusively on the benefits of
change may only result in counterarguments against change (Rollnick
et al., 1999).
Applied sport psychologists should consider behavior change counselling
when proposing mental skills training (see Rollnick et al., 2002).
During behavior change counselling the sport psychologist should
encourage martial artists to make their own decisions with regards
to behavior change. A trusting atmosphere should be developed to
explore a martial artist's feelings about mental skills training
and any resultant changes. When implementing mental training skills
training and engaging in the process of change, martial artists
should be encouraged to utilize self-reflection and evaluation prior
to, during, and after training and competitions. Sport psychologists
should formally reflect on change with martial artists to identify
and work towards the resolution of any difficulties regarding the
application of mental skills training.
Linking mental training with training activities also appears to
be an important consideration in the development of mental skills.
During training, martial artists learn and rehearse the necessary
skills in order to improve tournament performance. McCann, 1995
suggests that committed athletes spend up to 99% of their time in
practice, as opposed to competition. The literature offers further
support for the integration of mental skills into practice suggesting
that it appears to be influential on an athlete's success (Frey
et al., 2003). Weinberg and Williams, 1998 suggest that athletes who display a poor mental performance
during practice (e.g. inability to concentrate, lack of motivation
and application) invariably display the same behaviors during competition.
Incorporating mental skills into physical practice will increase
the chance of transferring these mental skills into competition
(Barr and Hall, 1992; Vealey and Greenleaf, 1998; Weinberg and Comar, 1994; Weinberg and Williams, 1998). Practicing the application of mental skills during training
allows them to become habitual and will also increase a martial
artist's confidence in their outcome efficacy when used during competition.
Conversely the immediate application of mental skills in competition
may result in a negative experience. The use of an unfamiliar technique
presented in the application of a new mental skill will require
conscious processing on the part of the athlete and as such may
detract valuable attentional resources away from competition (Weinberg
and Williams, 1998). This may result in performance decrements and reduce
the martial artist's efficacy expectancies regarding the intervention.
Durand-Bush and Salmela, 2002 found that world and Olympic champions refined their psychological
skills and strategies informally during daily activities and in
conjunction with other training exercises. The results of the present
study support the findings of Duran-Bush and Salmela (2002) suggesting
that athletes can use different strategies and be creative as they
develop and maintain those mental skills appropriate for kickboxing.
There is clearly a need to revisit the suggestion that mental training
should be structured and involve the use of specific performance
enhancement techniques in order to be effective.
The results of this study identify the use of
many short and long-term psychological strategies that have been
passed down through Kickboxing generations and refined through personal
experience. As a result of experiential learning all participants
considered the psychological preparation of martial artists to be
an important consideration for success. Their practices concerning
the mental preparation for a fight varied considerably. Each participant
possessed individualized pre-competition and competition practices
intended to optimize their mental preparation for competition. This
concurs with past research which suggests that psychological techniques
used by athletes need to be tailored for the individual (Seabourne
et al., 1984, 1985; Schinke, 2004).
Psychological skills training should be integrated within physical
skills training and rehearsed during training and simulated competition.
Whilst all participants acknowledged the importance of psychological
preparation for success, their application of mental skills training
was unsystematic. Sport psychology consultants clearly have a role
in helping athletes develop and refine individualized routines to
formally integrate psychological training into physical training.
of the contribution of psychology to success in high performance
kickboxing was explored using semi-structured interviews.
mental skills and three psychological attributes were collectively
identified by participants, which they perceived as being linked
need to integrate mental skills training into physical training
was identified. This is necessary to optimise training effectiveness,
and as such should be a key objective of applied sport psychologists
in Sport and Exercise Psychology, School of Sport, Performing
Arts and Leisure, University of Wolverhampton, UK.
Degrees: BSc, PGCE, MSc, Postgraduate Diploma in Psychology
Research interests: Stress appraisal and coping, emotion,
self-efficacy imagery, and performance