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.
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.
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.
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