Imagine you could improve your sporting prowess by 10 percent or more… while sitting in an armchair, eyes closed.
Mental imagery in sport is a crucial tool for any athlete’s peak performance.
Tapping into the power of imagination is like releasing a brake. It allows mind and body to work in greater harmony.
Whether you’re an amateur or a professional athlete, sports imagery can help to upgrade your outcomes significantly.
What is Mental Imagery?
You can define mental imagery (aka. mental rehearsal or visualization) as sensory phenomena you experience in the “theater of your mind.” But when we say mental ‘imagery,’ we don’t restrict our imagination merely to visual representations of the mind. We also include all other senses, such as sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch. Furthermore, we charge our mental movies with emotions for maximum efficacy.
In a nutshell, mental imagery is the act of viewing a movie clip in your mind.
Most folks falsely assume that visualization only works if you can see with your mind’s eye as clearly as with your physical eyes. While it’s known that mental rehearsal in sports is most effective if you create bright, vivid, and realistic mental representations, it doesn’t mean you have to rely on visuals only.
With mental rehearsal (especially in sport), you can rehearse your performance kinesthetically. That means you mentally invoke the physical sensations that occur when you go through a motion.
5 Benefits of Mental Imagery in Sports – Hijacking Your Brain with Synthetic Memories
Although some Champion athletes assert they spent a significant amount of time practicing in their mental theater, it stands to reason that mental imagery can’t fully replace your actual physical training. Nevertheless, golf legend Jack Nicklaus, for example, contributes 50 percent of his success to mental imagery:
I never hit a golf shot, not even in practice, without having a sharp picture of it in my head. First, I ‘see’ where I want the ball to finish. Then I ‘see’ it going there; its trajectory and landing. The next ‘scene’ shows me making the swing that will turn the previous images into reality.”Jack Nicklaus
Let’s have a closer look at the individual benefits of using internal imagery in sport:
#1 – Improve Athletic Physical Performance
Because your mind perceives imaginary experiences as though they were real, you can selectively feed it with artificial impressions of your choosing. So if, for example, you’d want to work on your golf swing, you’d imagine yourself executing it in perfection, thus creating a memory imprint that’ll carry over to your physical execution in the future.
#2 – Amplify Motivation
You can use motivational imagery to charge up with motivation by familiarizing yourself with your goals. Champions like Arnold Schwarzenegger (in bodybuilding) gave an account of how they claimed the first place on the winner’s podium countless times first in their imagination before they translating experience into reality.
#3 – Gain Confidence
You know that surge of confidence whenever you succeed at something important to you?
Through your imagination, you can artificially engineer success scenarios for the future, or you can revisit your past triumphs.
One way or another, witnessing yourself succeeding reinforces your confidence in the visualized activity.
#4 – Reduce Stress and Anxiety
When you retreat to an imaginary world, you can let go of stress and anxiety. In the worldwide bestseller Psycho Cybernetics, Dr. Maxwell Maltz called that inner world the “Mental Foxhole.”
It’s your private domain where you can do whatever you like. To relax and reduce anxiety, you’d visit a place of harmony and serenity, free of stressful stimuli. A sanctuary of recovery.
Visiting an imaginary safe place is an effective cure for stress and anxiety, generally.
As an athlete specifically, to reduce performance anxiety, you’d imagine yourself performing calm and confidently (or in any other desired mental state), picturing all the details that constitute a perfect athletic practice.
#5 – Maintain a Peak Form and Quicken Recovery When Injured or Sick
In times when you can’t practice because you’re suffering from an injury or you’ve caught the flu, you can still keep up with your training sessions by visiting your mental gym, thereby speeding up your recovery and maintaining a top form.
This Olympic gold medal winner in shooting hadn’t access to the shooting range for training, so he supplemented with mental workout:
Though I could not actually go to the (shooting) range, I did continue the training. Five times a week after my family had turned in for the night, I simulated shooting for 2 to 4 hours in a spare bedroom, a technique called dry firing. I made the U.S. international team in 1978 and won the World Championship that year in Seoul.
Criteria for Maximum Results With Mental Imagery
The effective force of the impression you make on your mind depends on several factors. Every single ingredient listed below determines the impact of imagery in sports and physical performance.
• Clarity and Vividness
While you don’t need to create images that are as vivid as in reality, more detailed and precise mental pictures send a more clear message to your mind. Furthermore, any other sense you can incorporate in your visualization helps to leave a stronger mental imprint.
It already helps a great deal if you can imagine snapshots of key performance moments. But even better if you’re able to imagine full sequences, from start to finish, in a fluid motion.
You can either view your rehearsal naturally as if, (a) your eyes were a camera lens or, (b) you can witness yourself from an external perspective. Most people find the ego-view most efficient. However, a small percentage relies on the external perspective for the best results.
Short but frequent visualizations beat long and infrequent ones. Ideally, for the best results, you rehearse just before your and right after your physical performance.
• Complete Sequences
When you rehearse in your mind, make sure to view your mind movie in full length –from the preparation till the successful execution. Like that, you’ll be able to maintain a high level of focus, and you give your mind a comprehensive set of instructions to translate into reality.
Each performance may have an ideal emotional state associated with it. So, when you enter your mental theater to rehearse a singular sequence, identify and attach to it its most supportive emotion.
Example Exercise – Application of Mental Imagery in Sport
Here’s a short example of how to apply mental rehearsal in sport.
This exercise’s purpose is to streamline your typical workout session.
- Arrival. Entering your sports location with the right attitude is a vital component for peak performance. Hence, see yourself arriving, greeting your buddies, and changing your clothes –all in harmony with the mindset that’d support a successful session.
- Warm-up. Run through, in your mind, your warm-up routine. Feel your muscles getting warm and ready for action. Harmonize mindset with the upcoming action.
- Execution. View yourself performing well and feeling the way you’d want to feel. Review and analyze specific movement sequences by replaying them in an optimized fashion. Apply corrections to past actions and reinforce ideal ones.
- Finish. End your session strong and on a high note by evoking a winning feeling. Go through the happenings that’d occur ideally.
You have many options to improve individual aspects in your field. Instead of going through the whole event, you can ‘attack on a narrow front’ by isolating and rehearsing single motions.
Have a look at how Dr. Richard Coop advises golfers to optimize their shots:
Before you play any shot, you need to have a mental picture of how you want the ball to react once you deliver the clubhead to the ball. You need to have a definite, positive visualization of what your shot will look like. The picture should indicate the trajectory, the direction, the spot where you intend the ball to land, and how far you want the ball to roll when it lands… if the flight of a shot is difficult for you to picture, try visualizing a strip of highway that curves in the manner that you wish your ball to travel. Your options in this visualization are limited only by your imagination. You might see the green as a pincushion ready to accept your shot… pick visual images that work for you. Visualization is one of the most individual aspects of golf psychology.Dr. Richard Coop, from Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s “The New Psycho-Cybernetics”
When Should You Apply Mental Rehearsal?
For the best results, rehearse right before and shortly after your performances.
Visualizing before the action primes your body and reminds your subconscious mind to follow your rehearsed program.
Visualizing afterward enables you to review what you did, reinforce the successes, and optimize the things that didn’t go as expected.
Go through the critical motions and emotions that make it a success for you. Be sure to pay attention to all senses, what feelings you tap into, and which perspective you view your movie from.
We taped a lot of famous pictures on the locker-room doors. Bobby Orr, Felix Potvin, John Beliveau, all holding the Stanley Cup. We’d stand back and look at them and envision ourselves doing it. I really believe if you visualize yourself doing something, you can make that image come true … I must have rehearsed it 10,000 times. And when it came true it was like an eclectic jolt went up my spine.Wayne Gretzki
What to Do Next?
You know what? It never ceases to astound me: so few people know about mental imagery. And you don’t have to be a psychologist to boost your outcomes with it (in almost any aspect of your life).
Visualization in sport is not one of those self-help-guru-concoctions to pick the pockets of desperate people. It’s scientifically tested and proven to enhance one’s outcomes as an athlete.
With this in mind, I’d like to encourage you to try it out for yourself. Giving the above example, exercise a test run and ‘see’ how it affects your athletic prowess.
For maximum efficiency, review the efficiency factors from above before you start.
Then, if you’d like to dig deeper and find out more about sports psychology and mental imagery in sport, get hold of some resources on mental rehearsal in sport.
Recommended Readings on Mental Imagery in Sport:
If you simply want to apply these principles without the necessity of further study, you can avail yourself of the guided visualization/hypnosis from Uncommon Knowledge. It’s called “Improve your Performance with Powerful Mental Imagery.”
Anyway, that’s it for now.
Ah, wait, one more thing…
Leave me a comment below if…
… you have any experience using visualization/imagery to enhance a skill. I’m curious. Let me know about you.