Mental imagery, also known as visualisation, is a powerful tool that can help athletes improve their performance. By creating a mental image of a task or movement, athletes can simulate the experience and train their brains to react in the same way they would during a real competition. In this article, we will discuss the uses of mental imagery and seven key areas to consider when developing a mental imagery programme for athletes.
Definitions for mental imagery which can help us appreciate the subtle nature of mental imagery include Moran (2011), “An internal representation that gives rise to the experience of perception in the absence of the appropriate sensory input.”, and Vealy & Greenleaf (2011), “Using all the senses to re-create or create an experience in the mind.”.
Uses of Mental Imagery
Mental imagery can be used in a variety of settings which we have outlined below:
Learning and practicing sport skills that require more than physical action, it requires conscious thought processing and planning. An example would be to rehearse the tennis serve in the dressing room before the match.
Learning a strategy for the event sees the steps in the mind through processes identified as developing into a full action. Formulating a game plan in the dressing room before the rugby game by the out half being an example here.
Arousal Control is of vital importance for any athlete. Mental imagery’s involvement here is the visualisation of oneself behaving calmly in an anticipated stressful situation.
Self Confidence development and maintenance sounds simple but is only so through practice and preparation, like any other skill and here we see the athlete focusing on ‘seeing’ themselves as confident and successful and performing the skill to a successful outcome in their control.
Error Correction relates to replaying the error in the mind after the event slowly and recreating it to correct any controllable flaws to the technique. The golfer with their putting would be a fine example here.
Interpersonal Skills are first about awareness; awareness of your personality and your level of communication skills. Then involves ‘thinking before acting’. An example being the athlete imagining the best way to approach the coach about some issue.
Recovery from injury or illness is one we often only appreciate when we are faced with such scenarios. Here the athlete imagines themselves getting better and performing again, even if it is only togging out for the practice.
Developing a Mental Imagery Programme for Athletes
Researchers in the area of mental imagery often focus on these seven areas when looking to develop a mental imagery programmes for either an individual athlete or indeed a team of athletes.
- Physical Nature: Athletes need to be able to create an accurate mental image of the movement, including the muscle groups used, the range of motion, and the force required. This will help them to better understand the movement and to execute it more effectively in competition. This also refers to the sport and level of physical demand and specifically choosing programme content reflective of it.
- Environmental Specifics: It is important for athletes to create an accurate mental image of the environment in which the task or movement will be performed. This includes looking at the sport and gaining awareness of the actual environment in which the event takes place; indoor or outdoor, winter or summer.
- Task Type: Creating a mental image of the specific skills and techniques required can prove beneficial for athletes. This will help them to better understand the task and to execute it more effectively in competition. Is it an open or closed skill you are looking at?
- Timing of Movement: Athletes need to be able to create an accurate mental image of the timing of the movement, including the speed and rhythm. Key considerations are whether the movement timing is random or programmed.
- Content Learning: We also need to consider the amount of content that needs to be learned and at the pace required.
- Emotion: Is there a level of emotion involved in the programme? Either in the sport or individual.
- Personal Perspective: Finally, it is important to consider the personal perspective of the event and how the athlete perceives it.
In conclusion, developing a mental imagery programme for athletes is a powerful tool that can help athletes improve their performance. By considering the seven key areas listed above, athletes can create an accurate mental image of the task or movement, including the physical nature, environmental specifics, task type, timing of movement, content learning, emotion, and personal perspective. This will help them to better understand the task or movement and to execute it more effectively in competition.
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