Imagery is one of the most powerful mental skills an athlete can learn, but implementing it into training and performance is not as simple as it seems.
Imagery is one of the techniques I use the most when coaching athletes. I’ve found that very few people understand how imagery works and how to implement it in order to best serve our goals. Imagination in sport does not only help with focus and concentration but can greatly improve an athlete's confidence, mental strength and performance.
What is Imagery?
“The more in-depth and detailed our image, the more real it becomes and therefore the more likely the brain is to accept it as a real event.”
The great feature of the mind that we are dealing with here is its capacity to replicate or reproduce experiences. In Sport Psychology we like to use the term “mental imagery” to describe this process which we use every day in order to cognitively experience things such as people, places or situations in the absence of real sensory stimulation. For example, if you close your eyes, you would be able to imagine a dog running in a park (a visual image), the sound of the dog barking (an auditory image) and also the physical feeling of running and playing with the dog (a kinaesthetic image). Theoretically, imagery refers to perception without the real stimulation. Specifically, whereas perception occurs when we interpret sensory stimulation, imagery occurs when we interpret memory-based information. Therefore, the process of mental imagery can be described as experiencing perception in reverse.
We specifically use the word imagery, rather than visualization for one simple reason: Visualization refers to the use of only one of our senses, our vision. In other words, visualization refers only to seeing something in our mind, thus limiting the experience in our mind. What we want to do is create a whole image, incorporating the other senses such as smell, hearing and touch as well as other aspects such as emotions and thoughts. When we speak about using imagery, we refer to using all of our senses to imagine and create the full picture in our minds. The more in-depth and detailed our image, the more real it becomes and therefore the more likely the brain is to accept it as a real event. We can therefore create powerful neural connections as if though our body and mind is really experiencing the image or the moment. All this by simply making good use of our imagination.
When do we use Imagery?
” There are no limits to the possible uses of imagination and creative coaches can implement it in many different ways. ”
One of the key things about imagination is that everybody has it, so it does not need to be learned. What needs to be learnt, however, is the effective use of it, the timing and techniques, as well as the choice of image that we create. The choice of image is possibly the most important aspect here, as it is very dependent on what the problem is the athlete is trying to overcome. There are no limits to the possible uses of imagination and creative coaches can implement it in many different ways. Some of the uses of imagination that I tend to implement the most include:
· Anxiety Reduction
· Increasing Focus
· Calming thoughts
· Pre-shot routines
· Regaining confidence
There are different techniques and strategies for each of the above methods, but the principles all stay the same. What we’re trying to do is create either an event or an experience that replicates a real experience as best as possible and is suitable to the problem we are solving. For example, one of the best things to do with an athlete is to encourage them to imagine their best performance or their most recent successful performance. If we are dealing with a highly important performance tomorrow against a known opponent, we can use it to play the game before we actually play the game. There are countless different situations in which imagery is helpful, but the one I come across the most is regaining confidence. Below I will describe a typical session which I divide into three phases.
” During this phase of the process, I like to ask the athlete to imagine being at the bottom of the ocean. We fill this image with heaps of detail, including the feeling of the sand on their knees, the flow of the cold water on their skin, the quietness around them, the colours of the fish gliding by them and so on.”
For the sake of this example I will focus on cricket. So the experience we are creating will be one that has already been lived, and therefore the process is slightly simplified. A batsmen would then choose an innings they played where they felt their performance was excellent, they were in a flow state and their thought processes were on point. Once they have chosen their positive memory, we first need to train the mind to be able to access the memory with little distraction. This is done by calming the mind through a simple 10 minute mindfulness session, a bit of breath work or some guided meditation.
During this phase of the process, I like to ask the athlete to imagine being at the bottom of the ocean. We fill this image with heaps of detail, including the feeling of the sand on their knees, the flow of the cold water on their skin, the quietness around them, the colours of the fish gliding by them and so on. We start to attach meaning to everything they see, for example, when they look up and see that the surface of the water is rough and turbulent, we pretend that that is the conscious thinking part of the brain. The athlete is therefore in the depths of their own mind where everything is calm, quiet and peaceful. They are aware of the surface (thoughts, stressors, anxieties etc.) but it is far in the distance, and our focus is on the stillness and present moment of floating about in the calm deep ocean. All of this should happen simultaneously deep breath work.
If the athlete is able to create that image and enter that space in their minds, they are ready to enter the process of imagery. In this next phase I ask the athlete to leave the ocean and “arrive” at the cricket ground where they played the innings they have chosen to replicate. I talk them through the arrival, the warm-up and the situational environment. Here we try to recall even the thoughts and emotions that occurred during this period. The athlete has two different images: one is a live replay as if they are in their own shoes, reliving it as it was experienced and the other is 3rd person point of view as if they are watching a movie about themselves. Fast foreword to the innings and the moment they entered the crease.
The next phase is the action phase in which we replay the innings ball for ball. The athletes relive the entire innings from asking for guard to the moment they left the pitch. Each moment must be walked through, including identifying the bowler, remembering his or her facial expression, the field placements, who the umpire was and who their batting partner was. When the first ball is delivered, the bowler’s run up and action should be replicated, where the ball bounced, the shot that was played, where the ball went, who the fielder was and the thought they had after the shot. We then also engage the touching sense, where they pay attention to how well they timed the ball, how it felt on the bat, how their balance was and so forth. The most vital part of this exercise is the extreme attention to each detail.
This process should continue until the athlete has a vivid image of the entire innings. Once this is done, the next session should be to re-live the innings in the nets or on the pitch. Here, after each ball the batsman should play the actual shot that they played in their minds. This allows the body to feel the movement and include the “muscle memory”. I then ask them to place a cone exactly on the spot that the ball bounced, and we move on to the next ball. This process is long and slow, and can be altered into creating a new image (imaging a great innings that has not yet been played) or a specific image (imaging the game against tomorrow’s opponents). However, the principles stay the same and the basics of guiding an athlete through it would include the following:
1. Calm and clear the mind with some deep breathing. the breath count can be: breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, blow out for 6 seconds.
2. Bring the athlete to a central focus. This could be anything from paying close attention to the birds or wind, or imagining themselves lying on their bed. I prefer taking them to the bottom of the ocean in their minds, as the bottom of the ocean is extremely quiet.
3. Introduce them to the image they want to create. If it's a past performance ask them to imagine the scene right before the performance. They should now explain the scene to you.
4. The details here should be very vivid and you should encourage smells, colours, shoes or clothing, where parents were seated, where the stands were, teammates faces etc.
5. Once the scene is set, ask them to take you through the performance in as much detail as possible.
6. This is a slow process and cannot be rushed. one session should last the entire session you have with the client. The details of the performance walk-through will be discussed in video.
“ The processes for helping an athlete that over-thinks during performance, has negative thought patterns, struggles to recover from a bad shot and so on can all be adapted within the above framework. ”
Guided imagery, as mentioned before, can be used for many different reasons and each one will change the process slightly. The process will also change depending on the sport and performance. The above example, using an old performance to replicate good thoughts and movements, can help an athlete recover their form or confidence. I have had great success in helping athletes go from questioning themselves to playing match winning performances within 2 weeks with a couple of imagery sessions. The processes for helping an athlete that over-thinks during performance, has negative thought patterns, struggles to recover from a bad shot and so on can all be adapted within the above framework. I am happy to share these with anyone interested so feel free to contact me with queries. As always, I invite any commentary on the above.