Guided imagery is a process by which the athlete himself, a coach, or another third party walks the mind through a detailed description of what should be imagined.
Mental imagery is one of the best tools to come out of the recent decades of sports psychology research, but sometimes it can be hard to know how exactly to start. Especially for those who never tend to daydream, nailing a realistic and vivid sensory experience on-the-fly is difficult. There are a few main ways to do this.
Listening to others describe a vivid scene to paint in your mind’s eye has been a meditative tool for thousands of years.
There are essentially two ways you can use an audio recording for guided imagery. The first is to find a prerecorded audio file online (through sites like YouTube) or through purchasing a CD or mp3. There are even apps for mobile iOS and Android devices that contain structured guided imagery programs. These recordings are sometimes sport-specific, but they may not address the problems you have as an individual athlete.
The better option is to write your own script for a customized audio recording. This can take a bit of research. If you have access to a team sports psychologist, you definitely want to work with him or her to develop a script that targets your weaknesses. If not, you may want to consult with a coach to determine what areas you need to work on. If you’re feeling up to it, you can try self-diagnosing more obvious problems, like anxiety, lack of confidence, recurring negative thoughts, or the inability to properly deal with mistakes.
Once you know the problem, work alone or with a mentor to draft a solid, detailed script. You may even wish to enlist a friend or family member who has good creative writing skills. You want the script to be as vivid and realistic as possible. Include descriptions relevant to all 5 senses as well as your emotional state.
The research team of Holmes & Collins came up with a formula for a successful guided imagery script, which they entitled The PETTLEP Model.
- Physical – Write down what your body should be doing for a successful performance. When you listen to the recording, you can simulate the actions you described in the script. At the very least, you need to imagine yourself moving in the exact ways you outline.
- Environment – To be as realistic as possible, you want to imagine the exact field or court on which you will be playing. Have a specific location in mind. If you’ve never been there, use pictures to help you visualize the scene.
- Task – Again, know what scenario you need to envision. This is especially important in longer games, like soccer, football, basketball, etc. You want to pick a specific task, like shooting a goal, running a touchdown, or making a free throw. With sports like diving, gymnastics and some specific track & field events, you can focus on your performance from start to finish since your entire performance is short enough in duration.
- Timing – Holmes & Collins suggest that your visualization last as long as the actual performance will. If you’re shooting a free throw, the visualization will last about 15 seconds. Some athletes still prefer to slow time down to isolate and focus on specific areas and movements of the body.
- Learning – Adapt your script when you learn a new way of doing something. For instance, if your coach corrects your pitching stance one day, you’ll want to revisit your script to ensure your imagery is accurate.
- Emotion – There is more to imagery than simply picturing the sensory experience. You must focus also on the emotions associated with the imagery, such as self-assuredness, courage, determination, pride, etc. Note these feelings in the script as descriptively as you can.
- Perspective – You can use guided imagery to imagine the scenario through your eyes or through the eyes of a third party. Some athletes find this latter technique easier to use in order to visualize the movements of their body. Others simply like the amped up feeling of watching themselves in third person as if they’re in a movie. Try the different perspectives to find what works for you.
Next, you will record yourself reading the script aloud. (If you dislike the sound of your own voice, it may be better to have someone else read it aloud.)
Finally, you can sit back and practice your guided imagery. Get comfortable in a standing, sitting or reclined position, close your eyes, and listen to the recording. Make a concerted effort to put yourself in the scene as fully as you can, experiencing every sensory and emotional detail to its fullest.
There are a couple of ways to work with a video recording.
Usually, you want to have someone film a few games or matches so you have enough footage to work with. From there, work with your coach or trainer to edit the material down to your finest moments. The goal is to find exact movements you want to replicate. Remember how you felt at the moment of the recording and try to bring up these thoughts and emotions. Focus especially on the successful result and the ensuing feelings you had.
Some athletes also do a form of guided imagery by watching videos of other athletes. This isn’t ideal, since you should be the star of your own imagery, but it can help to focus on the correct motions and moves associated with a successful athlete. As they say, you can learn from watching the best. Still, you’ll want to envision yourself from a third person perspective as the person in the video. Try only to use this option as a supplement to other guided imagery techniques.
Literature as Guided Imagery
Similar to the audio recording technique, you can simply read a guided imagery scenario. Simply write the script and read it in meditative thought. The trick is being able to read quickly enough that you can actively visualize the scene in real time. You may also wish to include long pauses noted by an ellipsis (…) so you can stop reading, close your eyes, visualize what you just read and then return to the page. Because this technique can break up the smooth motion picture in your mind, most people avoid the literature approach.
Group Guided Imagery
It may help to have a coach lead a group session with a prepared imagery script. Have the entire team relax and close their eyes. The coach will then walk the team through the details of a successful play or an inspiring win.
These group imageries can be especially useful before a big game or competition. However, the coach is limited in the level of detail he can provide, since each player of the team will have his or her own position to envision. For this reason, some coaches find it better to focus on guided imagery that incorporates emotions or experiences anyone on the team might have, like how to combat anxious thoughts or what it will feel like to win in the final moments of a hard-fought game. In some situations, it may even help to use meditative scripts that outline and vividly describe a simple, relaxed state, like lounging on the beach.
Adding Kinesthetic Learning
One of the best ways to work on realistic imagery is by acting out the scene as you move through the scenario in your mind. This can be intimidating for guided imagery newcomers who may feel they look silly, but it is incredibly effective, especially in groups.
A kinesthetic approach is best combined with external guidance, i.e., listening to recorded audio or to an in-person coach. As the scene progresses, the athlete should move his or her body as if the scenario was occurring right then and there. They may do this with their eyes closed or open, whichever is more effective for them. As the athlete gets better at combining visualization with movement, they may be able to guide their own kinesthetic imagery.
We mentioned that this is great for teams, because proper visualization can be an excellent addition to practicing drills or running plays. When the whole team is guided to think of the exact same environment with the same optimistic attitude, they will be able to perform mentally and emotionally (in addition to physically) on the same page.
Practice Makes Perfect
As with any part of sports training, imagery takes practice. The athlete is effectively giving his mind a workout. As the athlete’s ability to vividly imagine different scenarios improves, the visualizations will be longer, more frequent and (most importantly) more effective. Beginners may struggle with a wandering mind, but with determination and frequent practice, guided imagery can make a huge difference in their mental and, ultimately, their physical performance.
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