How imagery is key to chess and canoeing

When considering what it takes to be a top Olympic slalom canoeist few people would draw parallels with chess. However, studies have found that the skills needed for these activities aren’t so different after all.

Canoe-slalomists are prohibited from practising on the actual course before a competition so they must plan their route and paddle strokes from a location on the bank. Similarly chess players picture their moves several moves ahead, pre-empting the opponent’s moves along the way. This ability is known as imagery. 

For Professor David Lavallee, a Chartered Psychologist from the University of Stirling, imagery is the ability to mentally picture scenarios. He says: “This simulation can involve different senses, seeing the gates, feeling of the pull on the paddle, the splash of water and even knowing where the next obstacle is even if it is out of view.”

Evidence suggests that both chess players and canoeists excel in this ability. Dr Tadhg MacIntyre, a Chartered Psychologist from the University of Ulster, says: “When tested on pencil and paper inventories, it is possible to predict finish position in a World Cup Slalom event on the basis of an athletes performance on spatial imagery ability.

“In one qualitative study in which world class athletes were asked to imagine a recent race, their time for paddling the course in reality and in their imagination were almost identical.”

For more on this subject see Kingston University's Sport Psychology in Canoe Slalom video.

The latest sports psychology news and features, during the Olympics and Paralympics, can be found on our Going for Gold website.

Once there you can take part in our online experiment, which gives you the chance to walk the path of a judoko preparing for a judo bout.

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