Imagery Training: helping soldiers find their grit

In 2019, members of the University’s Psychology team were approached by the Army in hopes to help raise the pass-rate of the trainee soldiers on their All-Arms Commando Course (AACC) through resilience and grit. The University’s team took up the challenge and have, so far, helped four groups of recruits, with the pass-rate rising 10% in the last two years. Sports psychologist and associate lecturer, Dr Jon Rhodes, explains how he and the team used a method called Imagery Training to help the soldier persevere with their goals and how it can be used in our every day lives.

Functional Imagery Training

Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of Imagery Training?

Functional Imagery Training (FIT) originated in collaboration between the University of Plymouth and Queensland Institute of Technology. Initially, imagery training was focused on supporting individuals to control desires and cravings such as alcohol and food. 

Over the last few years, theory has evolved into empirical research and a string of papers have been produced that use imagery to support weight loss, increase quality of life, enhance sporting performance, and change character. 

The imagery training team at the University of Plymouth include Professor Jackie Andrade, Professor Jon May, PhD student Despina Djama and myself. 

What we do is support individuals through the use of motivational imagery. People often think imagery is just about visualising, but it’s just the start.


How do our senses play a part in Imagery Training?

Imagery is multisensory, meaning that it engages our auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), tactile (touch), emotional, vestibular (movement), and of course visual senses. Beyond that, imagery can be combined to give people a sense of direction or a sense of belonging. 

What we do with FIT is teach individuals and teams to harness the power of their mental skills by linking emotion, specifically that of motivational goals such as achieving success, with tangible targets and immediate plans. 

This enables individuals to better perceive an outcome, plan for eventualities (failure and success), and then put actions in place through daily triggers; like when you make a cup of coffee, which activates imagery periodically focusing on success. 

The depth in which you imagine matters, because the more multisensory detail, the more motivated you will be to persevere to your goal, especially at times when you want to quit.

Our mind reconstructs the world every day through our senses and past experiences – what is happening to our brains during Imagery Training? How is it adding new elements to our existing view of the world? 

While FIT follows a structured scientific approach, there are times when a more bespoke method is needed. This is because not only do we all imagine in different ways, but most importantly the meaning of the image also differs. 

On the one hand, imagining an ‘aeroplane’ is, for most, an easy task; two wings, engines, nose and tail, and could conjure emotional excitement and connections with holidays, but for some the same image could evoke anxiety and stress. Therefore, by activating an image, such as an ‘aeroplane’, each individual will access multiple areas of their brain depending on the experience and connection of the stimulus. 

To train people to overcome mental barriers, FIT adds sensory layers by focusing on ways to perceive challenges and then plan ahead, giving attention and meaning to goal achievement.


Can Imagery Training still be beneficial to people who say they struggle to visualise images?

Many people struggle to create clear visual images. Think of visual images like a television. If you have an old television (or if your television is facing a window) your image may be dark and lack clarity as you struggle to see what’s there. Then you upgrade to a new crisp 8K television (and turn it away from the window), then the image is crisp, clear and sharp. This is vividness. Also, if you can change channel, perhaps from BBC 1 to CBeebies, then you have what’s known as good controllability. 

Your imagery ability is therefore dependent on both your vividness and controllability. So, this is where we start, by helping individuals become imagery experts by training their multisensory ability. 

There are naturally rare occasions when people cannot create visual images (like a sunrise) or may not be able to recall smells (like freshly ground coffee). In these circumstances there are methods to work with the senses individuals do have and try to turn the dials up on vividness, but it may not always be effective. 

There is a growing amount of research into aphantasia; the inability to use imagery, but with all my participants in sport, business and the military, everyone is able to (in some way) plan goals and have gone on to master their personal imagery ability.

<p>Rope climbing soldier</p>
<p>Rope climbing soldiers</p>

With the Army

What encouraged the commandoes to initially reach out to you to trial Imagery Training to overcome their mental wall?

In 2018-19, the number of Army recruits passing the All-Arms Commando Course (AACC) and achieving the green beret was on average 24%. With success potentially declining in 2020, the British Army reached out to researchers investigating resilience and similar character traits like mental toughness and grit. 

This was timely as FIT was evolving from one-to-one delivery to group based, with research conducted on sports teams showing a significant increase in performance and in grit. A customised intervention for the military, was adapted from the group-based sporting research and then delivered to recruits on Pre-Commando Physical Training (PCPT) in early 2020.

PCPT is a four-week introduction to the commando course, replicating the physical tests on AACC run by the Royal Marines at Lympstone. What we do on day one of PCPT is measure resilience, then train imagery through group tasks. We then deliver an imagery booster session when the soldiers are on exercise, and then measure resilience again at the end of PCPT including another booster. At this point, our research indicates that resilience when compared to baseline measures has increased. The soldiers then attempt AACC. 

To date, those who have achieved the green beret after completion of PCPT and who receive FIT is 34%, an increase of 10% in 2020-21.

Were any of the soldiers sceptical about using imagery training at the start of the process?

The soldiers were very receptive to using imagery training. There are always those who find it challenging to use imagery and may disengage in the process which is why the boosters are essential and why it is vital for interventions to be adapted to suit the group. 

When I started coaching imagery to groups in 2016, participants were often sceptical, but the FIT for groups intervention has been highly refined to engage individuals in a process of intrinsic learning and group connectedness.


Could this technique be used for other uses in the Army?

Resilience is complex. The sample, task and time of delivery are all key effectiveness factors. There has been research that trains resilience before operational deployment to decrease stress in and after combat, and studies that focus solely on resilience after adversity has occurred. Also, the type of intervention matters, from one-to-one to focus groups. 

For us at the University, at this point, we know that imagery training is effective at increasing resilience because it is the combination of physical stress (PCPT) with cognitive strategies (FIT) that supports success. 

We have interest with other regiments within the British Army and externally with the Royal Navy.

<p>Jon and Despina</p>
<p>Watching soldiers climbing</p>

Everyday uses

How could all of us coming out of lockdowns benefit from Imagery Training? Could it help us to adapt to the changing 'new normal'?

FIT starts by examining our values before discussing beliefs. 

The pandemic has recalibrated our values as we realign ourselves to a higher purpose whilst reconnecting with our social networks. We imagine our future and compare what could be to what has been. 

This is at the centre of FIT; change constructed on future goals. Most of the soldiers imagined becoming a commando and receiving their green beret. They perceived the obstacles and one by one overcame every hurdle, and at each stage their confidence was increased, and they slowly actualised their potential. 

Similarly, coming out of lockdown, there will be small hurdles to overcome which all add up to a higher purpose and a greater sense of connectedness. But, be warned, hard work is part of every challenge, and for change to be maintained and habits created it takes time.

Are there any techniques we can do at home?

Start with one positive purposeful thought each day. In the morning when you make your first drink, spend just a few seconds imagining achieving your long-term goal. When you use imagery, remember it’s multisensory, so experience where you are when you succeed, who you’re with, taste, smell, movement, touch, the conversations, the emotion – what does this mean to you? 

If you can make that morning trigger stick, it will become a habit. This habit motivates effort and can be activated when challenging times present themselves, as they always do.


Is it possible to complete imagery training online?

A large proportion of our recent research has occurred online and it is seemingly as effective as in person. For group-based imagery interventions there is a requirement for the mental strategies to be implemented.

Although the training occurs with a psychologist and follows a specific order, the application is tailored by the participant as they experiment what works best for them.