Athletes and coaches are hearing a lot more about “mental imagery” these days. Although the practice of visualization is nothing new, sports psychologists have brought it to the forefront of modern psychology as a way for athletes to mentally, emotionally and even physically train.
What is Mental Imagery?
Mental imagery is defined by Stanford University as a mental, quasi-perceptual experience which simulates or resembles normal perceptual experience but in the absence of the typically associated external stimuli.
In layman’s terms, we often think of this as a sort of focused, intense daydream. Psychologists in the past sometimes referred to this technique as “visualization,” but since the best practice involves more than simple visual imagination, the standard industry term is now simply mental imagery.
When engaged in mental imagery, you imagine the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings associated with a particular experience. In sports, this experience usually covers the effects felt in a short span of time, such as the one minute or less runtime of a gymnastics routine. In longer athletic performances, like a game of basketball, the visualization is usually broken up into key moments, like the tip-off, running the court, passing while blocked, and taking a free throw.
How Mental Imagery Helps Athletes
Performance coach Brian Mac is a big believer in mental imagery and teaches it to all of his clients. He breaks down 7 key areas in which imagery can be used for:
Through detailed description, the athlete is able to imagine a particular race course or play, even if they have never been there or used the play before.
By focusing on positive outcomes from the past, the athlete is able to get a mental and emotional boost. For instance, a struggling athlete may bring to mind the moment he beat a tough team, including all of the happiness and accomplishment associated with that moment.
Perfection of Skills
An athlete may perform a sort of “shadow boxing” routine to act out their movements, or they may simply imagine themselves performing a newly learned skill.
Reduction of Negative Thoughts
The athlete can redirect negative thoughts or lack of self-confidence by visualizing a successful outcome.
When the athlete notices his mind is distracted, he can refocus by imagining exactly what he needs to be doing at that moment or, while practicing, what he hopes to do in a future competitive scenario.
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of “seeing is believing.” By imagining all of the details of a successful outcome, the proposition becomes more realistic and seems more achievable.
Setting the Stage for Optimal Performance
When the moment of truth comes, an athlete must be in the right state of mind. For some, this includes setting a mental stage just before the competition or intense moment begins with some relaxed, focused and clarity-seeking imagery.
The noticeable benefits of mental imagery are nearly innumerable. From increased relaxation to boosted confidence, this technique runs the gamut of areas that are vital in a high-performing athlete.
Here are just some of the benefits:
- Reduced Stress
- Promotion of Proper Rest and Recuperation
- Development of Pre-Game and During-Game Strategies
- Increased Ability to Focus
- Management of Anxiety and Nervousness
- Improved Communication Skills
- Improved Decision Making
- Fostering of a Positive Attitude
- Boosted Self-Esteem
- Better Ability to Bounce Back from Setbacks
How to Use Mental Imagery
For some, the idea of having to visualize an experience in great detail is daunting. They may not have a good imagination, or they may feel they are unable to focus and quiet their mind long enough to see any real benefit.
Luckily, sports psychologists have helped developed some proven step-by-step methods to get started.
It helps to think of the 3 R’s when beginning a mental imagery habit: Relaxation, Realism, and Regularity.
Try to get your mind to calm down and be in the present moment before you begin the creative imagining of other events. It may help to practice deep, slow breathing. Yoga and meditation breathing techniques can be useful if you already know them, but there’s no need to get too complicated. Just slow your respiration while breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Make sure your abdomen inflates with each inhale and not just your shoulders and upper chest.
It may also help to use a progressive relaxation technique. One way to do this is to tense all of the muscles in your body at once. Then slowly release the tension muscle by muscle until you feel a deep relaxation. You can also do this by tensing and relaxing one muscle at a time, starting with the right foot, then the left foot, right calf, left calf, and so on, working your way up the body.
Decide what you want to visualize. This can vary by sport, of course, but most athletes tend to focus on a moment during the game when they need to perform a skill correctly or when they know their anxiety will be running high. A baseball pitcher may imagine executing a perfect curveball. A basketball player may imagine a game-winning free throw. A gymnast may imagine an entire tumbling routine. The goal is to end the mental imagery with a successful performance.
Once you know the scenario you want to visualize, you must bring it to life. Build up the individual components of the moment with sensory details and raw emotion. Imagine the feel of the ball in your hand, the sweat dripping down your nose, the sound of the crowd, the way your weight shifts as you move, etc. Set the scene with as many details as you can. Then imagine yourself executing the move with utter confidence and achieving your desired goal. Imagine the feeling of accomplishment and joy.
When you first begin using mental imagery, you don’t want the visualization to be realistic in the sense that it mirrors your negative behaviors. For instance, if you know you become excessively anxious before key moments, don’t recreate your anxiety. Instead, use mental imagery to live through an experience that recognizes the nerves but doesn’t give in to them.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of the technique, you can begin introducing some negative concepts. For example, if you struggle to handle your emotions after an error, imagine making an error and then responding with courage and confidence. Visualize yourself regrouping and refocusing followed by a successful second attempt.
Most athletes who use mental imagery ingrain it in their routine just like physical training. They may use imagery while they lay in bed, while they train, or even moments before a game or competition starts. Most imagery sessions last from 3 to 5 minutes with up to 3 sessions per day, but some pro athletes who use this technique spend up to an hour running over their imagery as a form of mental training, especially before an important game.
With patience and practice, anybody can get better at mental imagery. In fact, most athletes find themselves focusing on their imagery for longer stretches of time and reaping the compounded benefits of this mental and emotional training.
For those who still struggle to get mental imagery techniques down, you may want to look into Guided Imagery, which uses external sources to describe to you exactly what to picture.
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