Nicole Westlund Stewart, PhD (@NicoleWestlund)
We’ve all been there. You’ve got an open shot and you blow it. You miss the shot. You’re upset. You can’t believe you missed such an easy shot!
And what do you do in response? You replay that missed shot over and over in your head. “How could you do that,” you say to yourself. You make that shot all the time in practice. You keep replaying the missed shot over and over again, hoping to find a reason why it happened; you think this will help.
In reality, replaying that missed shot over and over again in your head is the worst possible thing you could do. Why? When you use imagery, you are activating the same pathways in your brain that you would activate when you are actually performing the same movement, or series of movements (Jeannerod, 1994). When you repeatedly picture yourself missing that shot (i.e., using negative imagery), you are strengthening the connections in your brain that will increase the likelihood of that missed shot scenario happening again in the future. We don’t want that to happen because imagery can be a valuable performance-boosting tool. It is only when harnessed properly that imagery can help you become a better athlete.
Imagery is one of the most-researched and used sport psychology technique (Short et al., 2002). A simple definition of imagery is “using one’s senses to re-create or create an experience in the mind” (Vealey & Greenleaf, 2010, p. 268). As the definition suggests, imagery is most effective when it is vivid (i.e., clear) and incorporates all the senses: sight, sounds, touch, kinesthetic, taste, and yes, even smell. Imagery can be used from either a first-person perspective (i.e., through your own eyes) or a third-person perspective (i.e., watching yourself from the crowd or on television), depending on what you are trying to accomplish.
Imagery is a powerful mental tool that serves a number of functions. The most common functions include: skill learning and performance, strategies and game plans, mental preparation, and anxiety and emotion management (Hall, Mack, Paivio, & Hausenblas, 1998). I will go into each one in more detail and provide examples of how you can incorporate each imagery function into your own training and competition routines.
Skill learning and performance: Skill learning and performance is one of the most common uses for imagery. Athletes frequently use imagery to help learn and reinforce a new skill or movement. Imaging yourself performing a skill from a 3rd-person perspective can be really beneficial for making sure your technique is correct (White & Hardy, 1995). Once you get the hang of the movement, incorporating the 1st-person perspective will help solidify your ability to perform it accurately every time (Hardy & Callow, 1999).
Strategies and game plans: Using imagery to learn and practice both strategies and game plans is one function that is often overlooked. However, imagery can be useful whether you’re preparing to navigate a race course, or determining how to beat your opponent. Imagining the possible scenarios and outcomes can help prime you for those situations if and when they actually happen.
Mental preparation: A lot of research shows that using imagery right before a performance can help an athlete perform better. Many athletes incorporate imagery into their pre-game or pre-performance routines in order to perform automatically during competition (Lidor & Singer, 2003). In the gym, athletes can image themselves successfully performing their next exercise or set, which primes their brains to actually perform those movements. Using imagery in this way can also boost your confidence, which also increases your chances of success!
Anxiety and emotion management: Imagery can be a powerful tool for helping to manage performance-related anxiety and emotions. This fact is especially true when imagery is combined with relaxation techniques (to bring your anxiety levels and emotions down; Vealey & Greenleaf, 2010) or music (to pump yourself up; Pain, Hardwood, & Anderson, 2011). If you are feeling anxious, try picturing a twisted up rope slowly beginning to unravel, or place yourself in your favourite relaxing place. If you need a confidence boost, go through a mental “highlight reel” of your best performances.
Now you’re probably thinking, “This is great and all, but I’ve never actually used imagery before. How can I get started?”
My advice to you is to start small. Even if you’ve never used imagery before, with practice, you can become a pro in no time. Start simple and in short time blocks. Imagery is easiest when practiced in a quiet space where there are no interruptions. Some athletes find it easier to close their eyes. Start by picturing yourself in your training or performance environment. Slowly look around the environment and pick out static objects or people that you would normally see. Once you’ve mastered that, you can start incorporating sounds. What do you normally hear in this environment? Is it the clang of weights being dropped on the mats? Uplifting music coming out of the exercise studio? Or is it the sound of a crowd cheering you on? Whatever it is, focus on hearing those sounds in order to make your imagery that much more accurate. As you become more comfortable, start incorporating more senses and dynamic images in your mental imagery until you can see yourself going through an entire exercise or performance.
Remember, when it comes to imagery, what you see is what you get. In order to get the maximum benefit of using imagery, always visualize positive images. Focus on seeing success and you will increase your chances of actually experiencing it!
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Hall, C. R., Mack, D. E., Paivio, A., & Hausenblas, H. A. (1998). Imagery use by athletes: Development of the sport imagery questionnaire. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 29, 73-89.
Hardy, L., & Callow, N. (1999). Efficacy of external and internal visual imagery perspectives for the enhancement of performance on tasks in which form is important. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 21, 95-112.
Jeannerod, M. (1994). The representing brain: Neural correlates of motor intention and imagery. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 17, 182-202.
Lidor, R., & Singer, R. M. (2003). Preperformance routines in self-paced tasks: Developmental and educational considerations. In R. Lidor & K. P. Henschen (Eds.), The psychology of team sports (pp. 69-98). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
Pain, M. A., Harwood, C., & Anderson, R. (2011). Pre-competition imagery and music: The impact on flow and performance in competitive soccer. The Sport Psychologist, 25, 212-232.
Short, S. E., Bruggeman, J. M., Engel, S. G., Marback, T. L., Wang, L. J., Willadsen, A., & Short, M. W. (2002). The effect of imagery function and imagery direction on self-efficacy and performance on a golf-putting task. The Sport Psychologist, 16, 48-67.
Vealey, R. S., & Greenleaf, C. A. (2010). Seeing is believing: Understanding and using imagery in sport. In J. M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (6th ed., pp. 267-304).New York: McGraw-Hill.
White, A., & Hardy, L. (1995). Use of different imagery perspectives on the learning and performance of different motor skills. British Journal of Psychology, 86, 169-180.