Erika Noel, Courtney Hanlon, Bethany Lidstone, Mackenzie Pope, Shahab Alizadeh, David G Behm
School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada
CSCA’s note: Our primary goal is to showcase Canadian S&C coaches. Additionally, we look to shine a spotlight on studies and papers written by Canadian students and researchers that are relevant to S&C coaches. This is an example of a paper by a Canadian student on a topic that is especially relevant during these challenging times.
Author’s note: Originally, this study was conducted as an undergraduate honours research project, which was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors have created a summary article to introduce readers to the current research and hope to continue this work once it is safe to do so.
A variable that could enhance our understanding of action observation and subsequent exercise performance is empathy. Empathy has been defined as an affective response that stems from the comprehension of someone else’s emotional state or condition and is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel in a certain situation . It is an affective response that is more appropriate to another’s situation than one’s own situation . The extent to which empathy may play a role in action observation and subsequent performance outcomes is unclear. However, it is possible that the observation of others exercising, where efforts are visible (e.g. sweating, shaking, redness in the face) results in some level of change in the observers’ subsequent performance.
The avenue of research pertaining to the mechanisms involved in the observation of an activity and possible subsequent fatigue (empathetic tendencies), has not been extensively explored. However, separate research has been conducted on the mirror neuron system, observation, and fatigue. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when acting and when observing the same action performed by another; thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behaviour of the other . Some research suggests that the human mirror-neuron system is linked to empathetic responses and imitation behaviour .
In terms of relevance to sport, empathy could reduce aggression in athletes by promoting consideration of others’ feelings and well-being . It has been found that empathetic individuals are more susceptible to mimicry than individuals who are not empathetic . Females, in particular young adult females, have been found to be more empathetic than men, and have stronger motor responses while observing the actions of others . It would, therefore, be interesting to understand if the observation of others participating in vigorous exercise work bouts could impact individual performance and perception of effort and the extent to which this trait may vary between individuals. Mimicry behaviours have been reported to occur post-observation and are attributed to the mirror neuron system, as well as empathetic tendencies. However, currently, no studies have examined if this effect pertains to fatigue in an exercise setting.
The current research looks to examine the effects of observing fatiguing efforts (i.e., facial expressions, redness in the face, sweating, shaking, etc.) of another individual on the subsequent performance and motor output of the observer. The purpose of this study was to examine if observing fatiguing efforts would elicit fatigue in the observer during the same fatiguing protocol that was observed. It was hypothesized that the observer would experience an empathetic response to the fatiguing efforts of another, resulting in a decrease in the observer’s subsequent performance.
The study included twelve recreationally active female participants, aged 18-22, who were randomly assigned to control (non-observer), and experimental (observer), conditions in a cross-over fashion. Participant performance and motor output were analyzed by measuring the quadriceps force, electromyography response of the rectus femoris and biceps femoris, and heart rate. The experiment was conducted in pairs whereby the participant assigned to the control condition was instructed to complete two to three; 4-s maximal voluntary isometric contractions (MVIC) of the knee extensors followed by a sustained 30-s MVIC. The second participant of the pair was assigned the experimental condition and was placed in a direct view of their fatiguing partner to encourage inadvertent observation. The observer then performed the same protocol immediately after their partner. The participants were unaware that the effect of observation on subsequent performance was being investigated. They were informed that the study was investigating the reliability of the fatigue protocol. In the following session, participants reversed conditions, and the protocol was replicated. At the end of the final session, participants completed the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) scale, which provided an empathy score, and were debriefed .
Results showed insignificant changes for EMG activation, force output, instantaneous strength (F100: force output in the first 100 ms) and fatigue index. Further, there was a low correlation between empathetic rating, as per the IRI  scores obtained from the self-assessment tool, and the measurements obtained during the 4-second MVIC. Low correlations were also found for fatigue index, and EMG measurements obtained from the 30-second fatigue protocol for both conditions. Findings suggest the 30-second MVIC did induce some level of fatigue, given there was a significant reduction in force produced over consecutive time intervals.
While the current research did not find significant mimicry of fatigue, the participants demonstrated an anticipatory pacing effect under the observer condition. Anticipatory pacing refers to the conscious and/or unconscious distribution of energy resources during a bout of exercise to optimally utilize available energy . Participants may adopt this strategy when told to sustain physical efforts for a prolonged period.
In the current study, participants understood they would be maintaining physical efforts by first observing their partner complete the exercise. Further anticipatory effects were observed in the elevated heart rates of participants prior to the experimental condition leading researchers to believe that participants experienced a preparatory sympathetic response. It has been suggested that employing pacing strategies can be influenced by motivation . The external motivation provided by the control participant may have caused the observer to employ the pacing strategy given that participants, upon observation, knew the following fatigue protocol was strenuous.
Post-observation results showed that participants did not reach peak force production as quickly when compared to pre-observation trials. Employing a pacing strategy, whether consciously or subconsciously, could impact sport or exercise outcomes. If an athlete is attempting to produce intense high-velocity force, perhaps it may be beneficial for coaches to take into consideration the impact of observation and the potential pacing that may be employed. To determine if anticipatory pacing is the main effect of observation on subsequent performance, further research needs to be conducted in this area.
The observation of action can lead to subsequent specific performance adaptations. Chartrand and Bargh (1996) demonstrated that participants were likely to mimic the actions of a study confederate such as face touching and foot shaking, even though they were completely unaware of the confederates’ actions during the interaction. This study supports the idea that mimicry can occur as a direct result of behaviour perception, and consequently, individuals change their behaviours to blend with their current environment .
In an exercise training setting, the athletes may be motivated to mimic behaviour considering the influence of empathy. If, for example, physical activity adherence is the goal, based on previous research, trainers should look to work with the athlete in a group setting where others are modelling positive attitudes towards physical activity . Outside of the recreationally active population, high-performance athletic trainers are using priming exercise methods, including resistance priming prior to competition as a strategy to improve subsequent performance in sport . Considering additional research, action observation can act as a type of training, which may improve motor performance. Researchers have found that performance continues to improve over 24-h retention following passive action observation .
The results do not fully support the proposed hypothesis that the observer would experience an empathetic response to the fatiguing efforts of another, resulting in a decrease in the observer’s subsequent performance. The IRI scale administered found that not all participants experienced the same level of empathy; however, no strong correlation between empathy and decrease in performance was found. These findings were unexpected due to previous research on the mirror neuron system, and empathetic tendencies, that suggest individuals unconsciously imitate observed behaviour [3,4,6,7]. The authors hypothesize that a limited sample size influenced results and aim to continue this research once in-person research can be safely resumed. As the current study examined a small sample of recreationally active females, researchers acknowledge the data may not be inclusive to those outside this population. A larger sample size may yield more definitive results on the correlation between empathy and observation induced fatigue.
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