In my more than 25 years of work with professional, Olympic, collegiate, and junior-elite athletes, mental imagery is the tool that I emphasize the most with them and the one that I have seen have the greatest impact on their performances. Here’s the bottom line. If you aren’t engaged in a consistent mental imagery program, you’re not doing everything you can to achieve your athletic goals.
Keys to Quality Mental Imagery
There are four factors that impact the quality of mental imagery: perspective, control, multiple sense, and speed. You can develop each of these areas so you can get the most out of your imagery.
Imagery perspective. Imagery perspective refers to where the “imagery camera” is when you do imagery. The internal perspective involves seeing yourself from inside your body looking out, as if you were actually performing your sport. The external perspective involves seeing yourself from outside your body like on video. Research indicates that one perspective is not better than the other. Most people have a dominant perspective with which they’re most comfortable. Use the perspective that’s most natural for you and then experiment with the other perspective to see if it helps you in a different way.
Control. Have you ever been doing imagery and you keep making mistakes, for example, a basketball point guard sees the ball stick to the court while dribbling or a golfer sees her ball pop out of the cup? This problem relates to imagery control, which is how well you’re able to imagine what you want to imagine. It’s not uncommon for athletes to perform poorly in their imagery and it often reflects a fundamental lack of confidence in their ability to perform successfully (when I started using imagery as a youth, I couldn’t go three gates in a ski race course in my head without falling!).
If mistakes occur in your imagery, you shouldn’t just let them go by. If you do, you’ll further ingrain the negative image and feeling which will hurt your performances. Instead, when you perform poorly in your imagery, immediately rewind the “imagery video” and edit the imagery video until you do it correctly.
Multiple senses. Good imagery is more than just visual, that’s why I don’t like to call it visualization. The best imagery involves the multi-sensory reproduction of the actual sport experience. You should duplicate the sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that you would experience in an actual competition. Visual imagery involves how clearly you see yourself performing. If sounds, such as the quarterback calling the play at the line of scrimmage, are important, you would want to generate them in your imagery. If you get nervous before an actual competition, you should get nervous in your imagery (and then take steps to relax).
The most powerful part of mental imagery is feeling it in your body. That’s how you really ingrain new technical and mental skills and habits. A useful way to increase the feeling in your mental imagery is to combine imagined and real sensations. Imagine yourself performing and move your body along with the imagery. You see world-class athletes doing this before competitions.
Speed. The ability to adjust the speed of your imagery will enable you to use imagery to improve different aspects of your sports performance. Slow motion is effective for focusing on technique. When you first start to work on technique in your imagery, slow the imagery video down, frame by frame if necessary, to see yourself executing the skill correctly. Then, as you see and feel yourself performing well in slow motion, increase the speed of your imagery until you can perform well at “real-time” speed.