Imagery and Sport: Your Mind as a Tool to Improve Your Performance
In the world of competitive sports, there are a few universal principles, a crucial one being that the more you practice, the better you get. Whether this is extra batting sessions, longer weight training, or a few more shots on goal, an athlete trying to reach their peak will go above and beyond to train their bodies for performance. However, an athlete’s body is not their only tool for maxing out their game; the mind has proven to be a valuable asset in training an athlete’s skill without the need to step foot on the field.
Professionals in the field of sport and performance psychology have recognized the power of the brain in athletics. They implement a number of different skills to help athletes and teams conquer anxiety, improve their technique, and sharpen their focus, giving them a competitive edge over players who skip over this piece of training. In my own experiences as a collegiate athlete and in my academic training now in sport and performance psychology, the mental side was sometimes more important than the physical. One such method has become increasingly popular among clinicians: Imagery.
Imagery is a skill that involves mentally recreating a scene in as much detail as you can, using as many senses as possible, which in turn can actually manipulate physiological responses in a person’s body. Athletes use imagery for a number of reasons, most commonly to practice a technique, to get in the proper headspace before competition, or to even aid in injury recovery.1 By engaging in imagery, athletes can gain a sense of control over certain physical aspects of the sport that can seem unpredictable, which can be a critical tool for athletes of any level and has been shown to have a significant influence on an athlete’s performance.2 Even competitors at the highest level have demonstrated the impact of imagery in sport, with various Olympians coming forward to talk about how they have incorporated imagery as a crucial part of their performance routine.3
Despite its benefits, imagery can be a daunting skill to implement. Creating an image that is rich enough to be effective is not an easy task by any means. However, I can recommend a few tricks from my own experiences utilizing and teaching imagery to hopefully help any athlete start building the best possible imagery routine from scratch:
- Find your Purpose: Before you can even start creating an image, you have to know what it is for. For example, are you training a technique? Running through a possible scenario? Calming pre-match jitters? Having a purpose in mind will help you get as specific as possible, and make sure that the routine does what it is supposed to do.
- Understand Your Strengths: Imagery does not come easily for many people, and even for those who feel confident in the skill might have weaknesses around certain senses. Some people might be able to see their image with crystal clarity but cannot feel themselves going through the motions. Practicing with basic images — a walk on the beach, eating a favorite food, etc. — can help you get an idea of which senses you can replicate and which you need to work on.
- Orient Yourself: Similar to establishing a purpose, orienting yourself in is critical to narrowing down the details and making sure you are getting what you want out of it. In other words, answering the 3 W’s: a) What are you doing? b) Where are you in time and space? And c) When is this image taking place?
- Establish Feeling: Physical feeling is not the only key to a successful image. Figuring out which emotions you want to feel during your image can help you get into your desired headspace before performance. Some athletes may want to feel calm, excited, or joyful while they compete, so including these in an image will allow you to reproduce them when it is time to perform.
- Record a Script: Many athletes struggle maintaining a consistent image throughout their seasons, and so writing and recording a script can help an athlete sink into the image and hit all of the desired points. If you are a beginner, it is also a huge help to be guided through the image, as opposed to conjuring it on your own. Sport psychologists or certified mental performance consultants (CMPCs) are excellent resources for writing and recording the optimal imagery script.
- Practice! Just like with any physical skill, imagery takes practice. The more you go through your image, the easier it will be to bring it up when you need it, and the less time it will take to recreate the desired physical and emotional effects. So be patient, especially if you are new to mental skills.
The world of sport is expanding past the focus on the physical and into the realm of mental skills. Understanding the power of the mind in performance can help an athlete gain the competitive edge without the physical stress that comes from trying to force an extra strength session. Looking at athletics from this holistic perspective may open doors within elite competition that athletes might never have thought possible.
- Driediger, M., Hall, C., & Callow, N. (2006). Imagery use by injured athletes: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 24(3), 261-272.
- Mizuguchi, N., Nakata, H., Uchida, Y., & Kanosue, K. (2012). Motor imagery and sport performance. The Journal of Physical Fitness and Sports Medicine, 1(1), 103-111.
- Clarey, C. (2014 Feb 22). Olympians use imagery as mental training. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html
Braunewell, E. (2020). Imagery and Sport: Your Mind as a Tool to Improve Your Performance. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 31, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/imagery-and-sport-your-mind-as-a-tool-to-improve-your-performance/