If there’s just one thing that successful athletes do that gives them a competitive edge over their opponents, it’s practicing imagery in sport.
Although many athletes believe that they practice this basic psychological skill, there’s much more to it than ‘positive thinking’. In fact, its depths need to be studied in order to be truly understood. It requires a conscious application and complete dedication of every sense, to be effective as part of mental preparation in sport.
Like most skills, imagery can take time to master. Regardless of discipline, it has been found to play an important role in an athlete’s success story. A study by Murphy and Martin highlighted that there is a strong relationship between imagery ability and sports performance.
Its widespread appeal has seen it used by the likes of everyone from Wayne Rooney to Johnny Wilkinson. It has even crossed over into huge tournaments. During the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, the Canadian team were reported to have arrived with no less than eight sports psychologists in their group. They weren’t alone. Teams from Norway and the United States also brought their coaches and psychologists with them to this global sporting stage.
The Benefits Of Imagery
But first, let’s look at the definition of imagery in sport. This has been described by experts as: “An experience that mimics real experience, and involves using a combination of different sensory modalities in the absence of actual perception” (Cumming & Ramsey, 2009).
Meanwhile, in practice, it is perfectly summed up by Olympic medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill. She said: “I use visualisation to think about the perfect technique. If I can get that perfect image in my head, then hopefully it’ll affect my physical performance.”
The benefits are many. When used effectively, it can be an important tool in motor skills development. It can aid in recalling past experiences and assisting with future ones.
But in its purest form, it’s about mentally rehearsing for a situation. It requires all of your attention and a multi-sensory approach to get there. This is perhaps the most notable benefit of all. Studies have found that visual rehearsal can help create a mental blueprint that can “facilitate future performances”. In many ways, it goes back to the old adage – practice makes perfect.
When practiced correctly, imagery in sport can aid performance in training, competition and equip you to better deal with emotions. It can improve the way you deal with problem-solving and assist with coping strategies, as well as dealing with introspective issues, such as self-confidence. We look at some of these in greater detail later on.
While most athletes believe they practice and understand imagery, many are unaware of the sensory stimulation techniques involved.
As anyone in the field of sports psychology will tell you, imagery is not simply visualising yourself winning or crossing the finishing line. It’s about putting your mind in the best space to achieve this.
Therefore, being able to form mental images in your mind is a critical part of the process.
As with all areas of sports psychology, work with your sports coach to understand your intent and objectives in the first instance. This will help find ways to unlock your potential, using mental preparation in all parts of sport – from training to competing – to give you a competitive advantage.
There are different ways of achieving this, which we look at in more detail below.
More than just a PETTLEP talk
If you haven’t heard of the term ‘PETTLEP’ it stands for: Physical, Environmental, Task, Timing, Learning, Emotion and Perspective.
This commonly used approach is well regarded in sports psychology when working with athletes on imagery in sport. Widely recognised, the framework can be broken down into the following considerations:
- Physical: Incorporating physical elements into imagery, this might be including wearing specific sports clothing, or being on a sports field for instance. Using these physical aspects will help improve performance.
- Environment: This is about being in the moment as physically as possible. So, for instance, before competing in an arena it’s worth visiting it, to help visualise it as part of the process. Aiding your familiarity with a venue has many advantages, least of all helping to calm your nerves.
- Task: Keeping imagery relevant to the task is important. This means focusing on the cues that are relevant to you, at that specific moment in time.
- Timing: Simply put, this is about imagery in ‘real time’ using the normal time it might take to perform an action, during your mental preparation of it.
- Learning: To carry on pushing ourselves, it’s important that imagery must keep up with ability levels. Your changing needs as an athlete over time will need to be reflected by tweaking your imagery.
- Emotion: Effective imagery is supported by acknowledging emotions before, during and after performance and integrating them. This can help us understand ways to manage arousal, anxiety and performance, which contribute to our state-of-mind and consequent physical behaviours. Therefore, including emotional content into imagery can be quite valuable.
- Perspective: Work with your sports coach to understand which perspective to take for imagery. It is likely to be the first person, although for certain situations, it might be through the eyes of a third person. Learning to get some clarity and distance from the emotional side can have many benefits in preparing you for a big event.
PETTLEP in practice
Taking into consideration all of the elements of PETTLEP, think about ways in which you can improve your personal take on imagery in sport. For instance, do you continue to update your imagery to reflect your changing goals, and do you practice imagery in real-time to be as on cue as you should be?
This is an important point since a caveat of imagery is that you don’t want to ‘fantasize’ about something out of the realms of possibility. It is about enabling realistic targets within the constraints of your vast abilities; it’s a careful balance.
There are a number of ways that imagery in sport can be integrated to support overall performance and function. When used successfully, it can have untold benefits across the whole spectrum of sport, into performance and personal wellbeing. Here’s just a few ways in which it can help:
From dealing with poor motivation, to self-confidence and anxiety. Athletes are not immune to the mental pressure of competing, even at the highest level. Maintaining wellbeing is just as important as performing – after all, a healthy mind will assist with your performance.
There are ways in which imagery can help with some of the mental preparation required. Try to integrate imagery into your mental warmup and bring it into anxiety regulation. It may be something that forms part of your daily routine. Slowly you should see its benefits, especially in nurturing confidence levels.
Strategies and problem solving
One of the many challenges that athletes face is dealing with problems and challenges along the way. Regardless of the scale of these, imagery in sport will equip you with the right attitude and approach to overcoming difficult feats.
Through the experience of competitive routines and self-evaluation for instance, it becomes second nature and familiar with this type of assessment. Through mentally rehearsing a series of scenarios, you are also equipping yourself with problem-solving skills and tactics, helping you with useful coping strategies.
Motor learning and performance
Similar to the above, practicing imagery can help manage certain emotions, and distractions such as arousal in sport. Mental and physical practice can aid with this process.
Injury can be one of the most frustrating elements of being an athlete. However, when your body is healing, your mind needs to remain strong. To help focus the mind, and for overall wellbeing, imagery in sport can be a welcomed tool.
Some studies have shown that when conducted the right way, imagery may even help with pain management. Healing imagery is a specific part of rehabilitation from an injury. Work closely with your sports coach to find out how this can benefit you.
As well as rehabilitation, imagery can help with strength and stretching gains and may even limit strength loss when practiced.
It is clear that imagery in sport is no longer considered an ‘out there’ practice, neither is it a well-kept secret. In recent years, those in sports psychology have become more aware of its benefits. Today it is a common theme incorporated into training programmes for many athletes.
However, for it to be completely effective, it requires dedication and attention, drawing on all your senses – sight, sound and smell.
Much like the way an athlete evolves, so should its training techniques. Therefore, imagery should be refined and tweaked as it goes on.
As well as helping with a multitude of areas; from self-confidence to pain management, imagery has a key role in preparing athletes for sport. If even used for mental rehearsal alone, it will pay dividends to those smart enough to use it.