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Mental Models - Noticing distinctions

Adam Vile explains how Jonny Wilkinson uses an imaginary girl to stay focused on the rugby pitch and how we might acquire similar mental skills

There is no denying it; some people are just much better at some things than others. No matter how much effort you put in, no matter how much practice, there just seems to be an insurmountable gap between them and us. In general if someone is a professional sportsperson they have the luxury of time and resources that amateurs do not have, but even then there are vast differences between the skills even of world-class athletes. It cannot just be practice, although this clearly has a major impact, perhaps it is talent? Yet some may argue that it is talent that gets you noticed, and gives you the opportunity. You have to somehow turn that talent into enhanced skill. So what is the difference that makes the difference?


One of the key attributes of world-class athletes is consistency, the ability to perform at a top level of skill in every situation. Milton Erickson, a psychiatrist who was a pioneer in the use of Hypnotherapeutic methods in sport, worked with a number of world-class athletes (including the US Olympic Rifle squad and the shot putter Donald Lawrence). In one story relating to a tournament golfer (Rossi 1988) Erickson is asked to assist in improving the golfer's consistency across all holes throughout a round. He seemed to always play the first hole perfectly, and then deteriorate. The question, for Erickson was: if you can play the first hole perfectly, then can you do as well on the next? He put the golfer in a trance and told him "You will play only the first hole, that is all you will remember, and you will be alone on the golf course". The golfer, needless to say, played an excellent round in his next tournament.

The secret to Jonny's conversions

This is one of the things that set Jonny Wilkinson above his peers, consistency. He is feared by opposing teams for his ability to turn pressure into points, and he is able to do it under the most stressful conditions. How does he do this? In fact his approach is not too dissimilar from that taken by Erickson. You only have to watch him prepare for a kick; he uses the same ritual every time."

He places the ball carefully, the same way that he has so many times before. Shutting out the cheers and jeers of the crowd, he stands up, and walks just the right amount of paces backwards. Then takes a single sidestep. But he is not yet ready. Standing with his feet a shoulder width apart, he clasps his hands in front of himself, staring at them for what seems like an age. Finally looking towards the posts, tilting slightly upwards, he pulls his head back just a little, as if the target somehow magnifies in his vision. He focuses, and there he sees her, sitting right in the middle, in the crowd, between the posts. Then he feels it; he knows that he is ready. And the rest is history". (Vile and Biggs 2004 p.44)[8]

By following this series of steps, the same steps each time, he is able to get himself in the zone and shut himself away from all the pressure and noise. He has a single focus of attention, the process of kicking a rugby ball over the bar and between the posts, he is alone and it seems that for him, this is the only kick that matters. If you have a chance to watch him, you may also notice the defocusing of his eyes, and the flattening of his face, as he stares at his hands, the way looks up at the posts, bringing them closer in his mind, visualising the ball going up, and then down between them.

OK, so who exactly is Doris?

However Jonny attributes his success to one fact above all, that he is able to visualise a woman sitting in the crowd behind the posts, directly in-between them. He has named her Doris. He aims for Doris, and invariably collects the three points on offer. Essentially, Jonny Wilkinson hallucinates during his kicking process. Hallucination, along with a number of other phenomena that Jonny exhibits - single focus of attention, defocusing of the eyes, disassociation - are signs of trance. When he is at his most accurate, most elegant and most efficient, Jonny is in a brief, specifically directed trance.

If we wish to replicate Jonny's consistency we not only have to practice constantly (even on Christmas day apparently), modelling his style and specific movements, we have to understand his mental processes as well. As Annett (1995)[1] suggests, "The key to cognitive motor learning lies in elucidating the way in which learned skills are represented in memory". Often it is the mental processes that are the difference that makes the difference. These processes are skills, and skills can be learnt.

Acquiring mental skills

The good news is that just like their physical counterparts, mental skills can be developed and perfected. The acquisition of physical skills can be thought of as a three-phase process (Fitts and Posner 1967)[3]:

  • Cognitive (focusing on the nature of the task)
  • Associative (develops proprioception - learning to feel if our movements are correct)
  • Autonomous (making this an unconscious process)

Mental skills can be thought of as developing in the same way.

Skill acquisition essentially begins in the cognitive stage with the process of modelling the skill required. This is a straightforward matter when this skill is physical and can be observed and taught. In particular the use of videotapes and computer software can assist is establishing the finer nuances, which perhaps the performer did not even know about. Yet when the skill has mental components, or is a purely mental skill, you can only achieve so much by observation, the way to really understand the breakdown of the strategy is to ask. And of course you have to ask the right questions.

Think big and slow it down.

Bandler (1982)[2] tells of a time that he was asked to assist a Baseball player raise his game. Not knowing much about baseball, he watched a lot of videos of the top hitters and observed a pattern of behaviour that could only be attributed to mental processes. He interviewed a number of them and found out that as the ball was thrown towards them they were using a mental process of slowing down the ball, and making it much bigger. This made it, for them, easier to hit. Now of course the ball did not actually slow down or increase in size, and equally they did not go through this process consciously. But this process did exist and it did seem to be the difference between the top hitters and the player that wanted to improve. In real terms, these players were exhibiting the signs of trance: time distortion and hallucination, being two indicators. So Bandler taught this player to go into trance, and make the ball bigger, and go slower. He connected this to standing on the plate. The player improved his game and became a top hitter.

The difference that makes the difference

Not all mental strategies are connected with trance, but many are. Hypnosis has, for a long time, been utilised in improving sports performance, and research is now catching up (Liggit 2000)[5]. Alternative models (Robazza 1994)[6] are suggesting that (alert) hypnosis should be induced before or during performance. The suggestion, which I fully support and want to argue here, is that self-hypnosis should be part of the skill set of an athlete. Practically, of course, we are not all hypnotists and inducing trance does require special skill and training. Anyone can learn self hypnosis, and we have seen that some sportsmen use alert trance as part of their mental strategy for success. We need not focus on trance in our modelling of mental processes however, as it will come as a by-product, if we get it right. The key elements of such modelling concerns the way in which we represent skills internally.

What you hear, see and feel is important

We may make the assumption that experience is stored internally in the three main sense systems (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic), and that by modelling and replicating this structure, we can have access to the same experiences as someone else. In this way we have more chance of developing the same mental skills. Understanding how someone represents skills internally then is essentially a case of asking the following two questions repeatedly:

  • What do you See, Hear and Feel, inside, when you are about to (perform whatever physical skill)?
  • What do you do then?

These questions address two aspects of internal strategy, the key representations associated with the skill, and the order in which things happen.

For example Jonny sees Doris, he hears nothing (shutting out the crowd) and he feels that it is right (I would be interested in asking him how that feeling starts and where it moves to). Then he kicks. For some athletes it may be that having a thumping soundtrack playing in their head gives them just that extra push (after all many of us listen to music as we run), but it may not start until they hear the gun or get a specific feeling in their stomach of excitement. If these strategies are successful, then they constitute part of the whole that makes up a specific skill, and such mental strategies may tip a performer into the world-class arena.

The key to modelling the mental structure and process is to notice finer and finer distinctions. For example, when Jonny sees Doris, is she in focus or out of focus, does he wait until she is in focus and then he knows that it is the right time? Without asking, we will not know, but if we can find a successful performer in our sport, and understand the order, structure and distinctions in their mental strategy, then we will have a model of the psychological underpinning of whatever skill we are working on.

Try this with your athletes

By way of example you may like to try the following exercise on yourself, or with your athletes. Pick a time in the past when you were highly motivated. Go back and see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. Imagine you have a control panel in which you can adjust the representation. It has the following controls: Volume, Brightness, Contrast, and Focus. Adjust them up and down until you feel totally motivated and utterly compelled. Write down the numbers on each control knob. Now think of something that you do not want to do (the washing up always gets me) and make a representation of you doing it. Set all the controls to those of your most compelling motivation. How does that make you feel?

The key to modelling internal process is to understand not only at the general level of what it is that the expert sees, hears and feels internally, but also the fine distinctions that they make in these representations. It may be that you can take these basic building blocks and subtly modify the distinctions to suit your own representations, improving perhaps at the micro level, whilst adopting at the macro level the winning strategy.

Towards Autonomous installation

Having broken the mental processes of the expert on a specific skill down into a number of representations in a specific order we then need to install it in ourselves and in our athletes. This is the process of Association. It is important to remember the aim of our modelling, to learn a whole skill. So the mental processes that we have elicited must be connected with the physical aspects of the skill, and should go hand in hand with the practice of that skill. During coaching sessions the mental and the physical aspects must be practiced and seen as two sides of the same skill.

We do have an additional advantage in the learning of mental skills: they can be practiced and refined almost anywhere. Even on the bus. There is enormous value in repetition (of course assuming that the correct components are repeated), and mental skills can be repeated far more and much more quickly. There is a view (Bandler 1982)[2] that the brain learns quickly, not slowly (how long, for example, does it take you to learn a phobia?). We can take advantage of this by repeating and practicing the skill mentally at a much faster rate than we would perform it in practice.

Practice makes permanent

By constant repetition, these mental skills and strategies will become unconsciously installed. Additionally in moving to the autonomous stage, we can benefit from hypnosis, which can quickly install processes directly in the unconscious. Accelerated learning works in this way, and many sportsmen can see immediate benefits in their game after just one or two sessions of hypnosis (Holdevici 1989)[4]. Understanding mental processes is just as relevant for the occasional squash player as for an international sportsman. My challenge to you is to go out, and notice distinctions. Start with the way you represent success yourself, and replicate that the next time you are competing. Turn up the brightness, pump up the volume and if you want to, play to win!!


  1. ANNETT, J. (1995) Motor Skills. In: Mackintosh, N; Coleman, A (Eds) Learning and Skills. Longman. p. 56-75
  2. BANDLER, R. (1982) Using your Brain for a change. Real People Press
  3. FITTS, P. and POSNER, M. (1967) Human Performance. Belomont Brooks
  4. HOLDEVICI, I. (1989) Hypnosis in the Psychological Preparation of High Performance Shooters. Revue Roumaine de Sciences Sociales Serie de Psychologie. 33 (2), p. 155-160
  5. LIGGET, D. (2000) Enhancing Imagery Through Hypnosis: A Performance Aid for Athletes. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 43 (2), p. 149-157
  6. ROBAZZA, C. and BORTOLI, L. (1994) Hypnosis in Sport: An Isomorphic Model. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 79 (2), p. 963-973.
  7. ROSEN, S. (1989) My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H.Erickson. Norton
  8. VILE, A. and BIGGS, J. (2004) Grace Under Pressure: Martial Arts and Sports Hypnosis. Trafford, Lulu Press

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • VILE, A. (2004) Mental Models - Noticing distinctions. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 14 / July-August), p. 8-10

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work then the reference for this page is:

  • VILE, A. (2004) Mental Models - Noticing distinctions [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Dr Adam Vile is a Hypnotherapist and NLP master practitioner. He has a PhD in education and has been a teacher, lecturer, computer scientist and manager. He is a martial artist, and has been teaching and coaching both competitive and traditional martial arts for over fifteen years.

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