Simulation Training

Simulation  training  is  a  popular  technique  used in  many  domains,  including  aviation,  the  military,  medicine,  music  and  theatre,  and  sport.  It can  be  described  as  training  or  practicing  under conditions that are reflective of performing under pressure.  Whether  this  is  to  practice  performing lifesaving surgery, rehearse a new dance piece, or preview  the  atmosphere  of  the  Olympic  Games, the main aim is to prepare individuals to effectively handle the pressures of performing. Discussed here are  two  major  types  of  simulation  training  used in  sport  and  their  theoretical  underpinnings  and main psychological benefits.

Types of Simulation Training

It is well known that the best athletes make extensive  use  of  simulation  training  by  approaching routines,  plays,  or  scrimmages  in  practice  as  if they were at competition. This is an active form of simulation and typically involves the athlete wearing  the  clothes  worn  in  competition  and  following the same preparation routines. Soccer players will be dressed in their home uniform before hosting  a  match  and  rehearse  certain  plays  with  the strengths and weaknesses of specific opponents in mind.  Other  aspects  of  the  competition  environment also may be replicated to make the situation as  realistic  and  relevant  as  possible.  Swimmers may  preview  an  important  event  by  holding  a mock race in practice that is started by an official and  watched  by  friends  and  family  to  create  the usual  noise  and  commotion  that  would  be  present.  Mimicking  details  that  are  usually  unique  to competition helps athletes to become desensitized to  potential  distracters  and  stay  focused.  As  well as  becoming  more  comfortable  with  performing under these conditions, it will also give the athletes a  sense  of  confidence  that  they  can  be  successful when it really matters.

Studies show that simulation training also can be done more passively by imagining scenarios or using video clips. These passive forms of simulation  training  may  be  particularly  useful  when  it is  not  possible  to  either  create  or  participate  in the real life situation, such as when preparing for certain  weather  conditions  or  when  an  athlete  is injured.  It  is  also  an  effective  way  of  systematically desensitizing athletes to situations that they fear  or  worry  about.  When  imagining  scenarios, the individual will often generate relevant details of  the  situation  in  their  mind  (i.e.,  the  stimulus), including  all  of  the  usual  thoughts  and  feelings associated  with  it  (i.e.,  the  response).  To  weaken the  connection  made  between  the  situation  and any  anxiety  typically  experienced,  two  different approaches  can  be  taken.  The  more  traditional method is to first relax the individual, using deep breathing  or  muscle  relaxation  strategies,  before imaging  the  stress-evoking  scene.  By  starting  in a  relaxed  state,  the  individual  is  better  able  to endure  the  imagery  and,  with  time  and  repeated practice, will come to associate the stimulus (i.e., competition) with a different response (i.e., feeling relaxed).

However,  a  low  level  of  activation  may  not always  be  appropriate.  Depending  on  the  activation level an athlete performs best in, an alternative  approach  is  to  change  the  meaning  of  the response. Also referred to as cognitive reappraisal, the guided imagery may direct the athlete to reinterpret the thoughts and feelings experienced in the scene as helpful toward performance. By doing so, the  athlete  will  feel  more  confidence  and  control over symptoms normally associated with anxiety. Rather  than  view  the  stress-evoking  situation  as a  threat,  the  athlete  will  then  come  to  associate the  situation  and  the  responses  experienced  as  a challenge,  which  will  increase  the  probability  of performance success in real life.

Theoretical Underpinnings

The  use  of  simulation  training  is  based  on  the encoding  specificity  principle  of  learning  (also known  as  the  theory  of  identical  elements).  This theory  is  that  practice  is  most  effective  when  it closely approximates competition. By engaging in simulation training, there is a greater likelihood of automatic  transfer  from  the  situation  in  which  a skill or routine is learned (i.e., practice) to the situation in which it is performed (i.e., competition). Within  research  on  memory,  it  has  been  established  that  contextual  information  (e.g.,  details within  the  physical  environment)  affects  what  is remembered  and  recalled.  Remembering  how  to perform a skill or routine is better when the information available when storing the skill or routine in the memory is also present when this information is being retrieved. Thus, by recreating unique competition conditions within practice, the learning environment will be optimal and quality training should ensue.

Psychological Benefits

In addition to improving learning and performance, there  are  many  presumed  benefits  of  simulation training including improvements in self-confidence, attentional  and  emotional  control,  decision  making (DM), and communication and teamwork. By recreating  the  conditions  of  competition  in  practice, simulation training provides opportunities for athletes to succeed in certain situations. According to Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory (SCT), providing  authentic  experiences  of  performing well under conditions that mimic competition will instill  a  sense  of  performance  accomplishment  in athletes.  This  is  considered  to  be  the  most  valuable form of self-efficacy—a more specific more of self-confidence. Consequently, performing in these conditions  should  lead  the  athlete  to  being  more confident.

Better  attentional  and  emotional  control  can also  result  from  simulation  training.  By  identifying details that are present during competition and incorporating  these  into  training,  the  athlete  will have an opportunity to practice selectively attending to relevant things and disregarding distracters. Similarly,  the  simulation  could  involve  aspects  of competition  that  typically  trigger  unhelpful  emotions, such as hearing a bad call made by an official,  being  taunted  by  an  opponent,  or  taking  a penalty kick after a teammate misses. The athlete can then rehearse how they will stay positive and cope more effectively if such a situation ever arises again in real competition.

Finally,  and  particularly  for  teams,  simulating how  plays  might  work  under  certain  game  conditions  can  lead  to  greater  situational  awareness (SA)  and  better  DM.  It  also  provides  an  opportunity  to  rehearse  communication  strategies  and develop  better  teamwork.  Research  shows  that national squads will identify unique aspects of an upcoming  championship  or  competition  and  try to re-create these in their practice preparation. It is thought that practicing in these conditions can be very beneficial to performance in the competition.


  1. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.
  2. Eccles, D. W., Ward, P., & Woodman, T. (2009). The role of competition-specific preparation in expert sport performance. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10, 96–107.
  3. Orlick, T., & Partington, J. (1988). Mental links to excellence. Sport Psychologist, 2, 105–130.
  4. Tulving, E., & Thomson, D. M. (1973). Encoding specificity and retrieval processes in episodic memory. Psychological Review, 80, 352–373.
  5. Williams, S. E., Cumming, J., & Balanos, G. M. (2010).The use of imagery to manipulate challenge and threat appraisal states in athletes. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32, 339–358.

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