The Power of Mental Imagery

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As we exercise the mind, it grows stronger. The more the player pictures success, the more energy he or she creates to achieve it."—Bill Beswick, Mental Skills Trainer (2001, p. 78-79)

Athletes have been told by coaches to practice imagery to improve their game. Few are taught HOW to practice imagery and how it really helps their games. This article will detail this powerful mental skill and highlight the five performance areas that visualization assists with and how best to train to maximize its impact.

Coaches are certainly correct in reinforcing the power of mental imagery. It aids in practice and game preparation and execution, as well as to improve confidence while decreasing feelings of pressure and anxiety. So much so that players should utilize mental visualization or mental imagery on a daily basis. The use of imagery is defined as the ability to see playing excellence as it involves using as many senses as possible to view and feel sporting images prior to actually performing them on the pitch. If visualization is performed correctly, the images are vivid, in color, and in total control.

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As we exercise the mind, it grows stronger. The more the player pictures success, the more energy he or she creates to achieve it."—Bill Beswick, Mental Skills Trainer (2001, p. 78-79)

Athletes have been told by coaches to practice imagery to improve their game. Few are taught HOW to practice imagery and how it really helps their games. This article will detail this powerful mental skill and highlight the five performance areas that visualization assists with and how best to train to maximize its impact.

Coaches are certainly correct in reinforcing the power of mental imagery. It aids in practice and game preparation and execution, as well as to improve confidence while decreasing feelings of pressure and anxiety. So much so that players should utilize mental visualization or mental imagery on a daily basis. The use of imagery is defined as the ability to see playing excellence as it involves using as many senses as possible to view and feel sporting images prior to actually performing them on the pitch. If visualization is performed correctly, the images are vivid, in color, and in total control.

Images should be positively viewed (watching good plays, not misses), with as many details included to make it as real as possible. The more detailed the image, the more the brain will alert the involved muscles to contract, thus strengthing the motor memory process (neurological adaptations), so in your mind's eye, you are actually performing the imagined movement. Repeating this sequence over and over will only improve and strengthen motor memory (a more scholarly and correct term than "muscle memory"). The studies on mental and physical practices are fascinating. Moreover, the more emotion that is interjected into the scene, the more authentic the image will become, thus strengthening the neurological adaptations. Those who mentally practice on a regular basis will have "been there, done that" literally hundreds of times depending on the frequency of said training. So if players struggle playing a particular position or have difficulty grasping complex tactics, practicing seeing themselves performing these situations correctly will greatly aid in learning and performing these when needed, as well as enhancing confidence and motivation levels.

Players can visualize performing a skill or replay a particular event in one of two ways. From an internal perspective, whereby the skill is viewed from inside the "mind's eye." For example, players should actually see and feel the ball at their feet. When using this type of imagery, the brain is sending messages to the muscles as if the player is actually passing, dribbling, making runs, or making tackles. From an external perspective, players watch themselves as a spectator would, or watch themselves play on television or video. Internal imagery is believed to be more effective according to some research, although the external approach is still effective at helping improve preparation, confidence, motivation, anxiety regulation, and execution.

Mental imagery can be a skill for you to tap into to help reach your goals. Imagery can be used in multiple ways as it can help you relax, change your mood, and adjust your pre-competitive and competitive moods. Mental imagery can even help you learn a new skill or to revamp an already learned skill.

5 Types of Performance Images

  1. Successful images = mentally rehearse prior to Success (confidence).
  2. Play images = rehearse specific plays-techniques (preparation, learning, confidence)
  3. Winning images = imagine the end result (motivation).
  4. Motivational imagery = when mixed w/ good tunes, can increase energy (motivation).
  5. Recovery/coping images = imagining bouncing back after the rough patch (toughness in adversity.

5 Ways Mental Imagery Improves Performance

  1. See Success: "Seeing is believing" - use mental imagery to see yourself achieving your goals. This is a good way to reinforce self-belief. Don't limit yourself to just relying on sight alone. Try to include typical sounds, smells, emotions, or even tastes into your imagery. Again, the more realistic you can make the content of the imagery session, the more impact it is likely to have on your performance.
  2. Manage Energy Levels: You can use imagery to either calm yourself down when you need to relax or psych yourself up with energizing images. Playing your favorite tunes, along with imagery, helps also.
  3. Learn & Perfect Skills: The use of imagery can be incorporated to perfect a new or old skill. Imagery can also be used to correct errors in technique. One of the most important aspects of imagery training is to focus on the 'feel' of the movements. If you can focus on the feel of the movement, you will provide your body with more information to help make up the muscle 'blue-print' for the movements. You can focus on how your muscles feel through a skill. To develop this aspect of mental training, try holding onto your sporting equipment while imagining yourself carrying out the skill you are focusing on. Once you execute the skill the correct way, remember what it feels like and carry out an instant replay of the skill in your mind over and over again.
  4. Preparing For Competition: Mental preparation is just as important as physical preparation. Seeing you in the competitive environment and mentally rehearsing key elements of your performance will lead to Success during competition. Attempt to go through the skills you are practicing at speed. You would actually execute them. The more familiar your mind and body are with the 'real-time' sequences involved within the skill, the better prepared you will be to perform the skill. Real-time speed will help get your body in sync with what it is you are trying to accomplish. With this increased familiarity with all the elements of the skill, you will be more likely to produce the correct technique during competition.
  5. Evaluate Performance: After competition, take time to reflect on what happened. Replay the game in your mind to reinforce what you did well and evaluate aspects that can be improved. The use of video can often help athletes increase the quality of their imagery.

The more a player practices visualization, the more accurate the images will become. The memory trace will become stronger, the image more accessible, and the emotional support more powerful, boosting motivation and confidence. Repetition builds strength. Repeatedly practicing mental rehearsal will help develop both your imagination and your game skills so that you will be better able to read, anticipate, and react in any situation.

General Imagery Tutorial

Step 1: Go to a quiet place where you can relax (take some deep breaths) and not be disturbed.

Step 2: Select a variety of scenes and develop them with rich detail, including colors, sounds, smells, and feelings, if possible (your bedroom, favorite class, scenes of your dog playing).

Step 3: Select sport-specific images and include as much detail as possible.

Step 4: Practice visualizing people (teammates, fans, parents) into the scenes.

Step 5: Imagine being in a specific sport situation, either in the past (replay) or in a future event. Bring in as much detail as possible. Also, feel yourself experiencing Success in these scenes.

Step 6: When you get proficient at your visualization, you can then try to replay negative events so you can edit them the way you really wanted them to turn out (coping imagery). Being able to fix these negative events may help in ensuring that they don't get repeated while also helping to increase confidence and decrease anxiety about these specific sport situations.

Step 7: It is highly recommended that you visually practice specific sport skills and game-related situations, especially those that may be giving you some problems, as often as possible.

To achieve, you must see it first. All the best.

Mike Voight, Ph.D. E: mv@drvleads.com Website: https://drvleads.com

Portions of this article are adapted from Dr. V's books, Mental Toughness Training for Soccer, Volleyball, Basketball, and Football (2nd ed., Coaches Choice, 2019), and his articles in the Soccer Journal from the United Soccer Coaches Association.