Brock Weimer went from a .216 hitter as a freshman to the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville single-season home run king as a sophomore.
Much of the heavy lifting the now junior catcher did to turn himself from backup to slugger was done laying on the sofa of his campus apartment.
An assistant professor of applied health at the SIUE School of Education, Health and Human Behavior led a research study to see whether the use of virtual reality technology could held athletes exercise their mental imagery skills and, in turn, help them improve their on-field performance.
In the fall of 2015, Dr. Lindsay Ross-Stewart and her team of graduate students strapped Weimer and 32 other members of the SIUE baseball team with 360-degree cameras. By the spring of 2016, each had individualized highlight videos they uploaded to their smart phones then viewed through inexpensive virtual reality goggles.
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At any place and any time — from the dugout at Roy Lee Field to a soft chair in a campus lounge — Weimer and his Cougar teammates could relive the sights and sounds of on-field success from their own first-person perspective.
“Imagery is powerful,” said Ross-Stewart. “It’s not just seeing yourself doing something, but feeling and smelling it. It offers the entire five-sense and kinesthetic experience of being an athlete, without actually going through the actions.”
Ross-Stewart calls mental imagery “another powerful tool” in an athlete’s preparation routine. But did incorporating virtual reality to his own routine really make Weimer a better baseball player?
“Nothing takes the place of the physical reps, so you need to keep practicing,” said Weimer, who upped his average to .328 in 149 at bats last season for the Cougars. “In baseball, you know, you’re going to have the ups and downs. The end goal is to get to that place where, regardless of conditions, you’re in a zone to perform consistently all the time.
“Last year, though, I know I was a lot more consistent than I was my freshman year. The imagery had a lot to do with it for sure.”
The power of imagination
Whether Weimer’s performance gains came as direct result of the visual imagery-assisted virtual reality wasn’t measured in the study. It is presumed, however.
Sports psychologists have long recognized the connection between athletes’ imaginations and their physical performance.
A study conducted at the University of Chicago in the 1980s, for example, showed that basketball players who visualized taking free throws improved the percentage of shots they made at nearly the same rate of players who actually practiced their foul shots over the same period of time.
Studies involving hockey goalies, weightlifters and athletes in other sports have produced similar results.
“I can go out and play golf for four hours and I might end up behind a tree twice ... but I can experience that a number of times in my head and see myself succeeding in that situation whereas I only get to practice it twice when I play a round,” said Jeff Price, an SIUE graduate student who assisted with the study. “With imagery, I can put myself in that situation and overcome it over and over again.
“Based on all the prior research, I’ll be more likely to make that shot when I’m back on the golf course.”
Some professional sports teams, including several in the NFL and NHL, use virtual reality-assisted mental imagery with their athletes, said Ross-Stewart, whose husband is an assistant coach in the Canadian Football League.
The innovation in her research, however, was the incorporation of imagery-assisted virtual reality and mental imagery coaching. Its aim was to exercise the players’ mental imagery skills so they can continue to experience performance gains even when they don’t have ready access to virtual reality technology.
“We’re really interested in how this can help people who maybe don’t have great imagery ability to start with increase their imagery ability because we know it can lead to performance change,” she said.
Each player’s imagery ability was tested before and after their trial period. Results among those who used their goggles twice daily as prescribed showed significant changes to their psychological skills, including the ability to relax in high-tension situations and to suppress self-defeating negative thoughts in the heat of competition.
It’s not just seeing yourself doing something, but feeling and smelling it. It offers the entire five sense and kinesthetic experience of being an athlete, without actually going through the actions.
Lindsay Ross-Stewart PhD, SIUE associate professor applied health
Those results will be published in the “Journal of Sports Science” February edition.
“It’s often said that the game is 90 percent mental and 10 percent skill-based,” said Cougars outfielder Jackson Layton, a junior from Olathe, Kansas. “We used the virtual reality and imagery script before hitting sessions, practice, bed and any other down time. It was a great way to help with the mental aspects of the game.”
In the moment
Weimer’s 3-D, virtual reality video is about five minutes long. It begins in the Cougars’ locker room, where he sees his hands in front of him pulling on his batting helmet and fastening the Velcro straps on his batting gloves. He moves through a doorway into the dugout, where he catches a glimpse of the field and hears teammates chatter and call him by name.
Then the screen goes black. In that darkness, Weimer hears a voice talking him through his routine and reminding him that he’s calm and solely focused on the task of hitting a baseball.
The visual imagery script he hears was written and voiced by Ross-Stewart, with his input and final approval. The objective is for the athletes to internalize the message so that more positive emotions replace anxiety when they’re on the field.
“See and feel yourself and feel the bat in your hand,” the voice tells Weimer. “You feel relaxed. You’re calm. You’re ready. You’ve prepared. You’ve gone through your routine. You’re confident as you know you are up to bat next.”
When the virtual reality scene comes live again, Weimer adjusts his grip on the bat, walks to the batter’s box and takes his time digging in while watching the pitcher go through his own routine.
The pitch is delivered and Weimer lines a frozen rope into left field.
Last year, though, I know I was a lot more consistent than I was my freshman year. The imagery had a lot to do with it for sure.
Brock Weimer, SIUE junior catcher
“I’m really pretty mellow, so for me I want to go through my on-deck (routine) and stretching ... time up the pitcher, and then just approach the plate and go through the at-bat in my mind,” said Weimer, a 2015 graduate of Edwardsville High School. “Otherwise, I just focus on being calm, because that’s who I am.”
A more hyper player may see something completely different through his goggles. His walk-up music may blare on the ballpark speakers and the dark-period voice in his video may try to hype him up instead of calm him down.
Or he may have no video voice at all. Or view himself from a third-person perspective instead of first-person.
“It is so important that each one is individualized,” Ross-Stewart said. “If a player wears batting gloves, for example, they have to hear the Velcro coming apart as part of their imagery experience. Some players want to be calm, others want to feel hyped-up. We wrote each imagery script with input from the athlete and their coaches, then got their approval before we put it in there.
“This is a very affordable technology that applies this extra psychological component that no company we know of uses. That’s the innovation.”
Future study, other applications
Athletes in other sports at SIUE have incorporated the virtual reality into their training as well. Ross-Stewart says she’ll continue to explore ways the program can be used to help injured players continue to get their reps without putting recovery in jeopardy.
“Athletes and coaches who want to use this can,” she said. “That’s part of the reason we did this with athletics. They own the goggles the athletes use and I’ll continue to write the imagery scripts. And it’s not just for baseball.”
There are countless other possible non-sport applications of the study’s findings, Ross-Stewart said, from training employees in certain industries to helping veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.
We used the virtual reality and imagery script before hitting sessions, practice, bed and any other down time. It was a great way to help with the mental aspects of the game.
Jackson Layton, SIUE outfielder
In the meantime, Ross-Stewart and Dr. James Daniels, sports medicine fellowship director at the SIU School of Medicine, already have been awarded two internal grants to study the effects of imagery-assisted virtual reality on geriatric knee-replacement patients.
That research will begin in the spring.
“The (virtual reality) is the part that looks neat ... but it’s bringing imagery into it that’s the important part,” said Price. “Somebody who just (uses mental imagery) without it still is going to see some advantages, but this will enhance that and bring imagery ability to somebody who didn’t have it to start with.”