Sports Coach Logo Sports Coach Training Principles Fitness Components


What is the stimulus that gives rise to a specific response?

Dr Adam Vile explains how to build simple, powerful anchors for mental focus.

In a previous article[8] I discussed how athletes use rituals to enter appropriate mental states and maintain consistency. A typical example of this, although in an arena outside of sports, is the US Presidential Election in which President Bush used a standard scripted start to all of his rallies. A script that included: the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer for the president in that order. This is not that much different from the player who always wears an old red sock, the jumper who can only jump if the crowd claps towards a crescendo or the tennis player who only uses his favourite racquet. The only other thing to note is that George W Bush's ritual is designed to generate appropriate states in the audience as well as himself. The keyword here is "Designed".

Off days

We have bad days and good days; we have days where our focus is only on the job at hand, and days when it just is not. You cannot have inconsistencies like that when you want to win an election. As a sports competitor, you certainly cannot afford to have an off-day - A day when physically everything is going right, but mentally everything is going wrong. Many of us leave these things to chance, but what if we could be in control of how we felt, our mental states, and our consistency? In top-class competition, where winning or losing can be dependent on 100th of a second or a fraction of an angle, it is often the mental state of the athlete that gives them that all-important edge. How often have we heard the second or third-placed athlete say "I just was not at my best today"?

Just as physical skills can be developed by training programs and periodisation in the lead up to sporting events, so can mental skills. I take the view here that the physical and mental go together in a single package to create a performer giving their very best performance at just the right time and in just the right place. Of course, there are lots of theories on the best way to approach training and competition from a physical skill and conditioning point of view, and there are many ways of building appropriate mental skills (Baum 1999[3], Liggett 2000[4]). The question is how to connect the two. This is where we draw on the notion of anchoring, and we refer to our good old behaviourist friends Drs Pavlov and Skinner.

Weigh Anchor

The basic principle of anchoring draws on the work of Dr Ivan Pavlov (1927)[5] who noticed that he could condition dogs to salivate before they were shown and given food just by ringing a bell. The stimulus 'S' (a bell) that would not normally produce a particular response 'R' (salivation) eventually comes to do so by being paired with another stimulus (food) which usually does produce this response. Repeatedly the dogs were shown the food and the bell rung, after a while the mere ring of the bell had the same response as the food. The food is referred to as the Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS), and because the bell does not normally produce salivation, it is referred to as the Conditioned Stimulus (CS). The salivation following the bell ringing is the conditioned response (CR). As an example of this in action, it may be a good idea for you to try an experiment. Think of the taste of a lemon on your tongue. Do you get a response? The slight salivation that you may have noticed is an unconditioned response. When you see a red light at the traffic lights, what do you do? The fact that you automatically stop is a conditioned response (it would not be normal behaviour if you had not learned it). This is known as classical conditioning, and it gives rise to a simple law:

  • The crucial determining element in any behaviour (Response) is what happens immediately before the behaviour (Stimulus).

An anchor then is the stimulus that gives rise to a specific response. The term Anchoring, common now in NLP and Hypnosis as well as Psychology, was first used by Bandler and Grinder (1979)[1] to describe this classical conditioning behaviour in a human context. They noted that as we go through life, we build a lot of anchors for various responses. How many of us feel a certain way when we hear "Our song", or have a sense of dread when we hear a specific tone in a parent's voice? They pointed out that Anchors are learned responses, and gave the example of a Phobia as one such learned response. See a spider (S), start the physical manifestation of fear (R). And the amazing thing about a Phobia is that it is usually learned as a result of a single learning experience. It is normally the case that there is one defining incident that creates the phobia (seeing a spider in the bath and mummy screaming and running) and seems that it would be very easy to give someone a phobia and of course, this can be useful - how about having a phobia of being lazy, or of not sticking to your training regime?

The key thing about the anchor is that the stimulus does not have to give rise to a physical response. It can give rise to an internal one. In the sporting arena, the sorts of mental responses that we might be looking for are: focused, calm, confident, and motivated. Connecting a simple stimulus such as squeezing the left hand, with a response of calmness, or confidence, maybe all it takes to settle the sprinter before he gets down in the blocks. Installing anchors is straightforward. You might like to try the following procedure (taken from Vile and Biggs 2004[7]):

  • Think of a unique stimulus (anchor), like squeezing your hand, or touching your thumb and forefinger. This trigger must be unique; otherwise, you may fire more than one anchor at the same time with undesired effects.
  • Think of a desired mental state, and re-access that state. Think of a time when you were at the very top of whatever state you wanted. Fully associate yourself with that state, feel, see and hear what it was like to be in that state.
  • Fire the anchor. This connects the state and the trigger
  • Break state. I often ask people to think of a watermelon. This gets them out of the fully associated state and back to the here and now.
  • Repeat the above process three times

Now, after breaking state, fire the anchor. You should feel the feelings associated with the state you wanted to connect to the anchor. You can use this process with your athletes directly. Once you have worked out what mental state they need to perform at their best, anchor it to some simple action that they can do and that they will remember. When they need to be in this state, get them to fire the anchor. They can have as many anchors as they like, as long as they are unique.

There is more than one way to Skinner cat

The psychologist Skinner (1957)[6] drew on the work of Pavlov and extended it in ways that are important to us as "anchors". His research into human conditioning threw up the idea that behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences. This essentially implies that if we reinforce desired behaviour, it is more likely that it will occur in the future. This is what we do as coaches and teachers and parents all of the time. Positive reinforcement for good behaviour and negative reinforcement or punishment for bad behaviour. This is known as operant conditioning and has its law: The determining elements in any future behaviour are the consequences of the current behaviour. This law enabled Skinner to train Pigeons to steer torpedoes at enemy ships in WWII, and it allows us to modify the behaviour of our children. In the case of anchoring, it helps us understand that every time we fire an anchor and get a required response, we are reinforcing that anchor and it gets stronger and stronger each time, becoming more ingrained. It also helps us to remember to fire the anchor every time we have the response we want; however, that response came about. It is, however, important to be accurate and to make sure that you are reinforcing the correct anchor.

Powerful Anchors

Both Pavlov and Skinner (Hill 1997)[2] noticed that eventually the power of the anchor reduces and they die down and becomes extinct, although Skinner[6] was able to show that by random reinforcement the anchor could be easily retained. However, since we know that the most powerful Phobias rarely become extinct by themselves, and so it is clear that some anchors can be most powerfully installed. Bandler and Grinder[1] noticed that the very best time to fire an anchor was just before the peak of the activity or state. This builds and installs powerful and long-lasting anchors. The following diagram illustrates this point.

What on earth has all of this to do with the US elections?

And what does that have to do with performance and mental preparation? Now that we know how to build, install and maintain powerful anchors, we can understand how others may do the same. Wearing a lucky red sock, gives a powerful anchor for a successful frame of mind, hearing the crowd cheer is a trigger for many athletes to go that extra mile, and make that extra effort. George Bush uses anchoring in generating a frenzied state at his rallies, the pledge of allegiance, and the national anthem, are all powerful triggers for generating positive and profound states. This is a demonstration of the fact that anchors are not just for individuals, but can be used to take groups and teams into appropriate uptime and winning states. Team talks and coaching sessions can all benefit from careful selection and triggering of anchors.

An interesting point to note here is that the US president is doing a double anchoring, using triggers that he already knows exists to generate the state he wants, and then attaching those feelings in the crowd to him. George is going through the process of stealing anchors. It does not take a particular skill to notice anchors around us when we know what we are looking for, and as coaches and athletes, it would pay to think of appropriate anchors to steal.

It is important to note that Anchors can be in any of our key representation systems. They can be a sound, a touch (feel), or something we see. It is vital to choose an appropriate anchor, and the real skill in anchoring is to pick something like the trigger that is going to occur anyway. Good examples of this would be to perhaps anchor feelings of self-confidence and power to the feel of the athlete's feet as they settle in the blocks, or to the sound of the crowd, or the gripping of a racquet, or the sound of an engine. Imagine if you could create an immediate and automatically explosive response to the sound of a starting pistol. In some sports, consistency is an issue. Rifle shooters, for example, may be perfectly able to hit a bulls-eye, showing that they have the skill. However, as the pressure of competition grows, and as several bulls-eyes are hit in a row, often it becomes more and more challenging to perform that one simple thing each time. One solution to this problem may be to use the feel of the finger against the trigger as an anchor for forgetting that this is not the first shot.

There is one word of caution

Anchors can be negative as well as positive; it is just as easy to create a trigger for behaviour that is not valuable as is the converse. A simple case is of an athlete who has an off day at a certain arena or ground, and who feels from then on that he can never perform on that ground. This is the mechanism that builds Phobias and can be dealt with very quickly by someone trained in simple Phobia removal techniques (it is almost as easy to remove an anchor, as it is to install it. Perhaps I will deal with this in another article). However, it is best to try and avoid this situation if at all possible.

In conclusion

Anchoring is one of several tools in the arsenal of a coach, and the process is already being used subconsciously in many coaching programs and preparations. However, a simple recognition of how the classical and operant conditioning of Pavlov and Skinner can be turned to use through the installation of simple anchors can help in the design of coaching programs. It can give tools that will help provide that edge to an athlete that could push them in front of their nearest rivals.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • VILE, A. (2005) What is the stimulus that gives rise to a specific response? Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 26 / October), p. 5-6


  1. BANDLER, R. and GRINDER, J. (1979) Frogs Into Princes. Meta Publications.
  2. HILL, W. (1997) Learning. Longman.
  3. BAUM, K. (1999) The Mental Edge. Perigree.
  4. LIGGET, D. (2000) Enhancing Imagery Through Hypnosis: A Performance Aid for Athletes. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 43 (2), p. 149-157.
  5. PAVLOV, I (1927) Conditioned reflexes. Oxford University Press.
  6. SKINNER, B. (1957) The Experimental Analysis Of Behaviour. The American Scientist. 45, p. 343-317.
  7. VILE, A. and BIGGS, J. (2004) Grace Under Pressure: Martial Arts and Sports Hypnosis. Lulu Press.
  8. VILE, A. (2004) Mental Models - Noticing Distinctions. Successful Coaching. Issue 14.

Page Reference

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

  • VILE, A. (2005) What is the stimulus that gives rise to a specific response? [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.