Erika Noel, Courtney Hanlon, Bethany Lidstone, Mackenzie Pope, Shahab Alizadeh, David G Behm
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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