Use the power of imagery to groove new
skills, polish existing ones, and ready
your mind for optimal performance
It’s our nature to imagine, and more specifically, to imagine ourselves being or performing in a particular way. As far back as 330 B.C. Aristotle wrote of our fundamental instinct for mimesis: to imitate, to imagine ourselves doing something.
As children, we’re encouraged to use our imaginations, to imagine or rehearse experiences that we’re either too young or too unacquainted to experience firsthand. For many of us, our first experiences as athletes are not playing a particular sport, but imagining what playing that sport would feel like, what it would look like, how we would play, and what kind of player we’d be.
Imagery, as a skill and technique for performance enhancement, isn’t altogether different from those childhood imaginings. Simply put, imagery is the activation of the imagination to create or recreate a full sensory experience of a previous or upcoming event. When an athlete “images” she uses the full complement of her imagination in a manner specifically designed to enhance her performance by rehearsing strategies, learning new skills, managing anxieties, building confidence, and optimizing her activation levels.
We’ve all imaged a negative event. That, too, is our nature. We’ve relived a moment, over and over again in our minds, that we’d rather forget. We’ve recreated the gamut of sensory experiences when remembering a critical error—what we saw as our shot went wide, how it felt leaving our hands, the noise the crowd or an opponent made, the taste in our mouth, the way our stomach dropped, and so forth. Imagery, as part of a positive mental training routine, is the exact same process moving in the exact opposite direction. We take what we know from past experiences, in all of their actual and sensory detail, and use it to prepare us for future ones.
When done properly, imagery is powerful tool that can help us in nearly every area of our performances. Added to this, it takes very little time and no physical resources to deliver profound, measurable results, so it’s worth investing some time into learning how it works, and how you can make it work for you.
Why it works…
The brain has similar neural activity when you imagine performing a skill as when you physically perform it. In other words, your brain can get “practice” without having to do anything more than imagining you’re performing. Neurons in the brain that fire together, wire together, meaning that they create a neural pathway in the brain that makes an action easier to do. This is why practicing something makes you better at it, or makes it feel more automatic: the neural pathways associated with those skills become more “grooved” and optimized with repetition.
We might consider a new skill to be like a “gravel neural road”– we can travel on it, with some effort, but there are going to be bumps and stutters along the way. A well-learned skill, on the other hand, is like a “neural superhighway” in our brain– we can zip from place to place with speed, agility, and comparatively little effort. We point our car in the right direction, set the cruise control, and go.
So if the brain can innervate our muscles when we just imagine ourselves performing, then we can give ourselves extra practice in our sport by completing imagery regularly. The more vividly our imagery replicates an athletic task, the stronger our neural pathways become. And the benefits don’t end there. Because imagery involves the mental rehearsal of skills, scenarios, and upcoming events, it allows us to anticipate potential challenges or setbacks, and develop potential strategies for meeting or overcoming them. For these reasons, athletes who utilize regular imagery show better physical and mental readiness, better stress and energy management, and increased confidence and motivation levels.
We all understand that the benefits of physical practice are bifold: it prepares us physically by refining our motor movements and building our strength and endurance, and it prepares us mentally by reminding us, when the chips are down, “you’ve been here before and you know what to do.” Mental rehearsal operates in the same way.
It prepares us physically by developing the neural pathways necessary for the optimal, automatic performance of requisite skills, and it prepares us mentally by allowing us to anticipate the many variables of competition—both good and bad—and rehearse them, so that when they arise we’ve been there before and we know what to do. The advantage of imagery is that we can do it anywhere. We don’t have to wait for circumstances to arise in practice or in games in order to learn from them. So long as we can imagine them, we can always be learning.
Research has shown that imagery can be used to develop and maintain skills across purposes in a variety of different athletic situations. When you are capable of imagining yourself vividly, the resulting brain activation can lead to better performance, whether you are learning new skills, regaining old ones, regulating emotions/activation levels, or dealing with unforeseen circumstances like sudden stress or injuries.
For more on the science behind imagery, take a few minutes and listen to Premier’s Dr. Carly Anderson speak on Minnesota Public Radio Here.
Imagery: How to Do It, Part I: Creating Effective Imagery
Everyone can create imagery. We do it every night when we sleep. But the key to making your imagery work for you is to make your images vivid, and to make your images controllable. The more vivid your images, the more your neural pathways will be strengthened, and the more controllable your imagery, the more neural pathways you’ll be able to build or reinforce.
When we discuss the vividness of imagery, we are referring to the clarity and dimensionality of your perception. Stated simply, we mean using all five of your senses, not just sight, to create a mental image that strongly resembles a real experience. We want your imagery to be a full sensory experience for you.
So if, for example, you were a volleyball player who was imaging her serve, we’d want you to be able to generate information from all of your senses—what you were seeing, what you were hearing, what you were feeling (in this context, we’re referring to “feelings” as your sense of touch, and not your emotions, which will come later), relevant tastes, smells, and so on. If you could vividly see the ball, but couldn’t feel it or hear the crowd, your imagery isn’t considered vivid, and wouldn’t be until you could draw upon all five of your senses to fully create, or recreate, the experience of the serve. This can take practice, patience, and in some cases, some additional resources to get right.
Many athletes improve their imagery through watching/listening to video of previous performances, in some cases multiple times, until they can fully imagine the performance with all of their senses intact.
Controllability refers to two elements of your imagery:
(1) your ability to maneuver your “sensory camera” to observe all of the many details around you; and more importantly…
(2) your ability to command your performance during your imagery.
If, as the volleyball player in the above example, you were able to imagine yourself serving the ball while seeing the net, hearing the crowd and feeling the ball, your imagery would be considered vivid. But if you continually saw yourself missing the serve or firing the ball into the net, you would have low controllability of your imagery, which would need to be corrected for your imagery to be effective.
Lack of controllability is a far more common problem than one might think.
If you are having difficulty imaging a successful performance, an effective strategy can be to watch a video of yourself performing the task successfully and immediately close your eyes and attempt to duplicate it in your mind. If no such video exists, you can watch a video of someone else performing the task and map yourself onto the other athlete. What is important is that the image is intact and represents the desired performance and outcome; it isn’t important that the image be authentic, especially in the early stages of imagery development.
Still another option is to give yourself an imaginary remote control to manipulate your imagery. It may sound silly, but it works as a representation of the power we have to manipulate the speed and direction of our imagery.
We use remotes every day to suspend and rewind live sporting events, right? Do likewise. Pause your imagery when things aren’t going well. Rewind it and start again until you get the outcome you want. Similarly, use your remote to slow the speed of your imagery. Take it frame by frame, moment by moment, until you can engage every one of your senses, and control every element of your mechanics, and perform in precisely the manner you’re targeting.
As your imagery skills develop, you can gradually increase the speed of your imagery until you’re performing in real time. Advanced athletes have even made a practice of imaging their performances at accelerated speeds, so that when it comes time to perform, the game seems to slow down for them, though we don’t recommend this practice until you’re able to do so without compromising the vividness or controllability of your images.
Imagery: How to Do It, Pt. II: Engaging Your Senses
To make your images vivid and realistic, get in the habit of imagining scenarios using all of your powers of perception. This includes all five of your senses, and a few additional mindset components unique to performance.
Let’s walk through each of these layers individually, and outline some examples of how you might conjure these senses when creating your own images. Whenever possible, try to use the cues described below to create some preliminary imagery in your own mind. It will help you in the sections to follow.
You can begin your imagery using any one of your senses, but most athletes begin with the one that is most readily available to them: sight. As you enter your image, see the environment you’re performing in. Start with the big details– the size of the venue, the lighting, the colors, the larger masses of people like the crowd, the teams, the clusters of coaches– and work your way down to the smaller ones, like individual teammates or opponents, the laces on your shoes/skates/cleats, or the appearance of the playing surface just beneath your feet. Does this imagery feel visually complete? Does it appear realistic? Imagery doesn’t come easily to everyone, and very few athletes can fully imagine an event on their first attempt, but keep practicing until you can see the experience in detail. Create a movie reel in your head if you have trouble, and move frame by frame until all of the details are in place.
Can you recall the voice of your coach? Worry less about what s/he is saying than how it sounds. Hear the chatter of people around you. Focus on the way they sound collectively, then zero-in on individual voices within the din. Hear the hum of the lights and the scuttle of moving bodies. Add in the atmospheric sounds– the squeaking of shoes on the wooden court, the scratching of skates on the ice, the hollow clang of a folding chair, the chirp of whistles or warning buzzers. Create a full soundscape for your image. As above, when you’re drawing up these elements of your imagery, take your time and don’t be discouraged if you struggle to locate or experience them. Just keep practicing until the details reveal themselves to you.
The sense of smell tends to evoke strong memories and create particularly strong images. What does the gym, the rink, the field smell like? Can you smell the popcorn from the concession stand? The mustiness of an unwashed jersey or well-worn cleats or sneakers? That random wad of fruit-flavored gum that invariably sits in the basin of every drinking fountain? The varnished leather of a brand new ball? Draw in through your nose and activate all of your olfactory senses.
Are there opportunities in your sport or event to add a sense of touch to make your image more vivid? Can you feel the ball in your hands? The turf beneath your fingers? The grip of the athletic tape around your ankles? The texture of your damp jersey? Feel your shoes or cleats against the field beneath you. Feel the temperature of the air around you. Enliven the sensory experience of your environment.
Taste can be a tricky one, as many athletes don’t associate these senses with competition, but they are surely present if we conjure them. Taste the crisp, minty gum you chew during competition, or the rubber mouth guard you bite into as you ready for play, or the salt from the trickle of sweat that hits your lips, the Gatorade or cool water you drink between periods. It doesn’t take many of these gustatory memories to round out your imagery—one or two will likely suffice—but the more you can summon, the better.
Advanced Sensory Elements
Your kinesthetic sense is your awareness or feeling of movement. In this context, you are imagining the “feeling” of a particular sport skill. Baseball and tennis players know the feeling of a well-hit ball, the way the force and shudder reverberates up their bodies. A quarterback knows the feeling of a well-thrown ball the moment it leaves his hand. Whatever your sport and whatever your skill, you likely have a similar feeling when you execute that skill well. Target that feeling. Isolate it, and bring it with you into your imagery. As your imagery takes motion, and you begin to imagine the event in real time, we want your kinesthetic sense to be a part of that experience. Many elite athletes place a heavy emphasis on their kinesthetic sense, especially in the context of imaging an athletic event, because they want the mastery experience of playing at their best to be a part of their regular mental training routine. Try to do likewise. It will add another dimension to your senses, strengthen your imagery, and build confidence in the process.
Feel free to move around as you’re doing this kind of imagery, to swing your arm as you imagine that serve or that pitch. Whatever brings the experience to life.
Emotions are inseparable from our experiences of competition, so as you build your imagery, make an effort to incorporate the corresponding emotions you will likely be feeling. As you enter the environment you’re imagining, how do you feel? Do you have butterflies? A bit of anxiety? Excitement? Are you stone-cold confident? As your event begins, how do you feel? As it unfolds, how do you feel? How do you feel after you make a shot? After you miss one?
It’s important to bring all of your emotions, the good and the bad, into your imagery. If you imagine feeling nauseated before competition, great, let the nausea in, feel it, and then imagine letting it go and performing anyway. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. If we imagine only positive feelings and circumstances, the negative ones will surprise and potentially derail us when it counts. Anticipate setbacks and distractions, but imagine and rehearse overcoming them and re-focusing on the task at hand.
A fundamental skill we approach from a variety of angles throughout this program is focus enhancement, or the ability to maneuver our attention away from unproductive thoughts or foci, and toward productive ones. This is a complicated skill to develop, and is something that can be rehearsed through imagery.
As you begin to image your performance, imagine consciously directing your focus where it needs to be for you to perform your best. Move from moment to moment, and imagine directing your focus, point by point, to those elements that will most positively impact your performance—from your breath, to your feet or your mechanics, to the ball, to your teammates, to your downfield reads, and so on. Try to stay in the present moment; as our focus drifts to the past or the future, our performances tend to suffer.
This is where most imagery exercises stop, but we encourage you to go further. Incorporate potential or likely distractions into your imagery, allow yourself to be distracted by them—make these distractions as real and as three-dimensional as the rest of your imagery—and then imagine separating from them and re-focusing on the task at hand.
Imagine potential setbacks or hurdles. As with distractions, allow yourself to feel their stature, and then imagine yourself re-directing toward productive focus points, like information relevant to the task or behaviors consistent with your values and vision.
The more we fully imagine potential impediments to our performance, the less apt they’ll be to surprise us when we’re competing; and the more we imagine ourselves overcoming those obstacles with focus strategies, the quicker and more automatic those responses will be during competition.
The key is to end each imagery session on a positive note: no matter how real or resilient your distraction or setback may be, you should imagine overcoming it and re-focusing on the task before you end the session (if this is a challenge for you, your imaging might not be controllable, and you should visit the “Controllability” section above for some tips on gaining control over your imagery).
When it comes to imagery, behavior and focus go hand in hand, as our purposes for using focus in our imagery exercises is largely to direct our powers of perception from the uncontrollable elements of our performances to those that we can control. No matter how unstable our external or internal environments may be—no matter what might be happening around us, or how we may feel about it—we can always control how we behave.
When we focus on our behaviors, we are captaining our own ship. When we’re attentive to those behaviors which are consistent with our values, and which have enhanced our performance in the past, we are ensuring that our ship is headed in the right direction. So when you image your performances, it can be helpful to locate those behaviors best suited for your competitive scenario, and to imagine yourself behaving accordingly. Similarly, when you are imagining adversity, you should imagine yourself re-directing your focus to something constructive and controllable in the present moment, and positive behaviors sit atop that list.
In this section, you’re going to working through two consecutive exercises to ease you into creating vivid and controllable imagery. Each exercise will take you 10-15 minutes to fully complete. To get the full benefit of these exercises, we recommend that you complete them together in a single sitting, so block aside about 30 minutes before you get started.
Remembering a Past Event
Our imagination can take us in one of two directions: it can recreate the past or it can project the future. Because recalling a previous event in detail can be easier than creating a new one, let’s begin with a formative memory from some point in your athletic career, and build some vivid imagery around it.
We tend to naturally remember important events in our lives vividly. We remember precisely where we were when this event occurred. We remember what we were doing in the moments that immediately preceded it. We remember our physiological responses to the event. We remember the taste in our mouths, where we directed our gaze, what we did with our hands. The greater the impression this event made upon us, the more details we can likely recall, and the more easily we can put ourselves back in precisely the moment in which the event took place and relive it.
So take a few moments and select a formative memory to image. For mental health reasons, we caution you against selecting a traumatic event for this exercise, but it’s important to note that the event you select needn’t be a pleasant one, either. We’re simply targeting a memory—on or off the field—that you can recall in elaborate detail. It might be a free throw you made or missed, it might be the moments before the biggest game in your athletic career, it might be the moment when you learned that you earned or lost your starting position.
Once you’ve selected your event, give yourself 5-10 minutes to complete the exercise below.
Close your eyes, clear your mind, and place yourself back in that moment. Engage your senses. Remember the look, the sounds, the scents of your environment. Re-experience them. Remember, if you can, the taste in your mouth, the way your body felt. Allow your breathing to quicken, if your memory is of an exciting or a nervy event. Allow your muscles to contract, your stomach to rise or drop. Allow yourself to see what you saw during that event, feel what you felt, be as you were when that event took place. We’re not trying to control our imagery, at this point, we’re just attempting to recreate the event in our minds and re-experience it.
Take your time, and when you feel you’ve fully immersed yourself in this event, take some mental notes of your sensory experiences—note what you saw, heard, smelled, touched, tasted and felt. When you’re ready, end the exercise and note your observations on the worksheet below. You have just created vivid imagery.
You may find it useful to complete this kding of recollective imagery immediately following your performances, so that you can evaluate your decisions and, when possible, note the decisions you’d like to repeat, and those you’d like to correct, in future performances.
This is vivid imagery, what we now want to do is make your imagery controllable.
Exercise 2: Revising a Past Event
In this second round of imagery, we’re going to return to the same event you just imaged, and manipulate it to imagine a different—and better—outcome. To do this, we’re going to begin the imagery in the same manner as above: by engaging our senses, activating our brain, and placing ourselves within the environment where the event took place. Once we’re fully immersed in this environment, however, we’re going to add two “controllable” mindset components, Focus and Behaviors, to steer our imagery in a direction of our choosing.
So close your eyes, clear your mind, and again place yourself back in that moment where your event took place. Again engage your senses, and experience the sights, sounds, and feelings of the moment.
This time, however, as the event begins to unfold, take note of your focus—specifically, where are you directing your attention, and is your focus helping or hurting your performance? If your memory is of an unsuccessful event or performance, it’s likely that your focus was on an uncontrollable, like how you were feeling or the potential consequences of this event/performance. In these cases, imagine yourself accepting your anxieties or distractions, moving past them, and refocusing on only that information which is relevant to the task at hand—examples may include your feet/positioning, the ball, and your behaviors.
Discard any and all stimuli that isn’t directly related to what you are trying to accomplish. If your memory is of a successful event or performance, you can still toggle your focus, and experiment with different focus points that may have made your performance even more optimal.
Now take note of your behaviors. As with your focus, evaluate whether your behaviors are helping or harming your performance. Remember, no matter what our circumstances, we can always control how we respond to them. So if your memory is of an unsuccessful event or performance, allow yourself to feel the adversity, then imagine yourself redirecting your attention to a constructive focus point, and behaving in a manner consistent with your values and performance goals. If your memory is a positive one, imagine an obstacle in your path, and imagine reacting with strength and confidence to overcome it. We can always add additional positive behaviors to our imagery, even if our memories are replete with them. We can be more vocal leaders, better encourage ourselves or our teammates, maintain more confident body postures, and show more composure under pressure.
Now, using your focus and your behaviors to steer your imagery, imagine a different performance, and ultimately a different outcome.
Create a chain reaction in your imagery. As your focus shifts from a distraction to the task, allow your energy to follow it, and move to your feet or your mechanics. Let this shift impact your behaviors and your actions. If your initial memory was of a negative performance or event, imagine yourself surging past your distractions and making that critical throw, catch, or jump shot. If your initial memory was of a positive performance or event, imagine yourself making a different, but equally successful, competitive decision—perhaps instead of sinking that final shot at the buzzer, you snap the ball to a teammate and land the assist. Your goal here is simply to be able to steer your imagery toward a successful outcome. Once again, take your time, and when you’re able to guide your imagery successfully, you can stop the exercise and note your reflections on the worksheet below. You have just created controllable imagery.
As with the first exercise, you may find it useful to run through this kind of imagery immediately following a performance, particularly if there were moments that you wished you would have handled differently. Imaging those moments, while replacing bad decisions with better ones, can go a long way in making your desired responses more automatic in future performances.
Both the vivid and controllable imagery exercises above are useful primers for your imagery practice, as our most formative memories tend to be inherently vivid and easy to manipulate or control. They should also give you an idea of how ideal imagery should look and feel. You can return to these exercises as often as you’d like, with as many different memories as you can summon, to get imagery practice and to fine tune old skills. In most situations, however, the imagery you will be using will be forward-facing, and either address your mental state in the present moment, or anticipate a future performance. Our next section will take you through how that process works, and how you can use what you’ve learned to this point in the module to create the right kind of imagery to accomplish your goals.
Putting It All Together
So how do we put the pieces together? How do we take what we know about imagery and it’s many known benefits and applications, and use it to create vivid, controllable images that will help us enhance our performance and meet our own unique goals?
We begin with the process itself—the when, the where and the how—and then we adjust the content of our imagery to meet our targeted goals.
The Process: Where, When, and How
When: We recommend using imagery daily. It’s easy to do and only requires a few minutes of time—between 10 and 15 minutes is sufficient. Most athletes have the most success doing imagery immediately after waking or right before they go to sleep, when their brain is in that dreamy place between wakefulness and sleep and their imagination is easily accessible. When you choose to complete your imagery is ultimately up to you, but we strongly recommend finding a time that works for your imagery every day, and sticking with it. Consistency will help make it routine for you.
Where: Any quiet, controllable space will work. Many athletes practice in bed. Some athletes can sink into their imagery with music, but for most, we suggest doing imagery in a quiet place with as little external stimuli as possible.
How: Close your eyes and clear your mind. Engage your imagination. The content of your imagery, which we will discuss below, will vary from person to person, and from situation to situation, but the techniques will remain the same. This is your mental, or your sensory, film room. Begin to activate your senses. Find your venue, or the environment you’re imaging, and work from the outside in—sense the physical space you’re in, from the sight of it, to the smells, to the sounds, to the details you can touch or taste. Work inward to your own thoughts and feelings in this space. Once you can feel yourself there, start to bring in content and scenarios that correspond with your goals.
The Content: General Readiness
For most athletes, we recommend a fairly standard course that we’ll term general readiness. This will take you through the more or less normal sequence of events for a standard competition—your arrival, your pre-performance routine, and your competitive scenarios, good and bad.
Begin your imagery at the beginning: as you arrive at the park/venue. Imagine what you can of your environment, and if it’s entirely new to you, imagine arriving someplace unfamiliar. Use your senses and experience the emotions you’ll likely be feeling or confronting in those moments. Excitement? Nervousness? Agitation? Flatness? If you’re like most athletes, you won’t be feeling a single emotion, but a constellation of competing ones. Let them all in. Experience them all, the pleasant and the unpleasant. Get comfortable being uncomfortable, and rehearse “sorting out the trash,” and working through difficult emotions, distractions, and anxieties, and focusing on the task in front of you.
Do the same for your pre-performance routine. Again, make it a sensory experience, and don’t be afraid to anticipate difficulty. What’s important is that you don’t end on an adversarial moment—imagine yourself accepting that this adversity exists, re-focusing on your pre-performance routine, and coming out onto the field of play feeling prepared. Throughout your imagery, if you are ever confronted by a distraction, or an emotion, that you are unable to overcome, simply repeat this portion of your imagery. Repetition will diminish its force, make the feeling more familiar to you, and allow you to rehearse new strategies for contending and competing with it.
Move to the moments immediately prior to your competition. Imagine monitoring and manipulating your activation levels. Imagine narrowing your focus to a razor’s edge, and zeroing in on those select few focus points that will best prepare you for that opening tip-off, that first play, those first few moments of competition.
Then progress to your competition itself. As before, use your senses to make your images vivid, and begin working through scenarios, good and bad. Rehearse the good stuff—imagining directing your focus to the appropriate places, using proper mechanics, executing game plans, giving yourself positive self-talk—and prepare for the bad stuff—distractions, missed opportunities, stress—always envisioning yourself re-directing your attention from destructive to constructive thoughts. If you encounter a scenario that gives you trouble, conquer it with repetition. Rewind and re-imagine it. Revisit it in your future imagery. Rehearse strategies for overcoming it. Rehearse yourself playing with or in spite of it.
This sort of imagery practice emphasizes the importance of a daily imagery routine. It would be impossible to run through an entire competition, and all of its many possibilities, in a single imagery session, but daily sessions of 10-15 minutes will provide ample opportunity to incrementally work your way through a significant number of them over time.
As you advance in your mental training, you may find there are specific goals or problem-areas that require additional attention. These could include learning new skills or strategies, or overcoming a specific mental hurdle or performance obstacle (perhaps making that throw to first base has suddenly become a challenge). In these cases, using imagery in combination with the “100 reps per night” strategy can prove highly effective. Using imagery to mentally rehearse a new or problematic skill over and over again—including confronting and overcoming potential obstacles to executing those skills—can greatly accelerate your development, make motor movements more fluid, and build strong, automatic responses to mental blocks and triggers.
In skill- or situation-specific imagery, our effort is to gain experience or regain comfort or motor-coordination, so a high number of high-quality mental repetitions is our target. Many advanced athletes will complete up to 100 repetitions of a single movement or scenario per session (hence the “100 reps per night” nickname).
Content: Pre-Performance Imagery
Similar to learning a new skill or refining an old one, we can neurologically ingrain our pre-performance routines through imagery. When we activate our neurons during this form of imagery, we’re priming our brains for the important moments prior to competition, which can build confidence and aid in consistency. Just like imaging a skill or competitive scenario, pre-performance imagery allows us to imagine the entire sequence of events preceding a competition—from emerging from the bus to our pre-performance routines themselves—and envision ourselves coming out prepared.
The content of your pre-performance imagery will likely be similar to the early portions of your general readiness imagery. You’re simply activating the senses, and working your way through those critical minutes before your competition. As with your general readiness imagery, you should anticipate potential setbacks and distractions, from anxiety to self-doubt, and imagine yourself accepting them, putting them down, and re-focusing on the task at hand. A benefit of pre-performance imagery is that, because the scenario you are imaging is limited in duration, you’ll be able to complete multiple run-throughs in a single session. This should give you ample time to “get comfortable” with the potential discomfort you feel prior to performing, and to rehearse multiple strategies for contending with them.
For most athletes, pre-performance imagery will zero-in on that sequence immediately prior to the start of the contest, but for athletes in intermittent sports, like baseball or golf, it could also include those moments immediately before an at-bat or tee-shot. The process and content are the same in each of these scenarios: you’re simply imagining the moments before a performance—whether an entire game or a single at-bat—and rehearsing your physical and mental routines to optimize your readiness.
Anxiety is a natural extension of the heightened arousal of competition, and almost every athlete deals with it. Too much anxiety, however, can negatively impact our performance, and imagery is an effective tool to keep our nerves from getting the better of us. Anxiety is something we want to get out in front of, so if we begin to feel our anxiety escalating, or if we anticipate feeling anxious before an event, we want to start with imagery early.
For some athletes, simply imagining themselves in a calm, peaceful environment is enough to significantly reduce the physiological symptoms of anxiety. For these athletes, we would recommend continuing their imaging until 15-20 minutes before competition, then stopping. Remember, we want to use relaxation to bring down your anxiety levels, but we still want you fully activated when it comes time to perform.
For others, we recommend imagery focused on tight, controllable sequences within their upcoming competitions. This could be a golfer approaching the tee, a quarterback approaching the line of scrimmage and beginning his pre-snap reads, or a basketball player stepping to the line for her free throws. Anxiety is often associated with a perceived loss of control, so if an athlete isn’t responding to calming imagery, like those described above, imaging highly controllable scenarios, where the athlete may feel anxiety but overcome it with controllable behaviors like positive self-talk (which we’ll discuss at the end of this module), body posture, and positive rituals, can be a better strategy for reducing anxiety. You can refer to your Peak and Poor Performance worksheet from the Focus module, and use some of the behaviors associated with your Peak Performances to help you flesh out this imagery.
Whichever approach you choose, using imagery in combination with the Measured Movement, Counted Breaths, and 3-3-3-3 Method breathing exercises in the Emotional Regulation module should prove highly effective in managing your anxiety.
Content: Increasing Activation through Imagery
In contrast to using imagery to calm ourselves during periods of anxiety, we can also use imagery to elevate our physiological response and amp up for competition. Imagining that your heart is pounding can actually increase your heart rate and boost your activation levels, as can imaging controlled intensity in your performance and explosive moments in your sport.
In the right circumstances and at the right times, boosting your activation levels can enhance your readiness for competition. A word of caution, however: hyperactivation can lead to negative performances, so we recommend finding your own optimal activation level, and not exceeding it.
Content: Developing Performance Strategies through Imagery
You can never anticipate all the possible situations that may arise during competition, but you can probably imagine a few likely scenarios. Imagery can be used to place yourself in those competitive scenarios, develop effective strategies for contending with those scenarios, and imagine yourself executing those strategies calmly and successfully.
This is particularly true of adversarial circumstances, which can be effectively managed by developing recovery strategies, and rehearsing them until they become automatic in our imagery.
Content: Imagery and Injury
Nearly all athletes will be sidelined with an injury at one point or another, whether it be for a practice, a game, or a season. And recovery from injuries is a complicated process: we miss valuable practice or gametime, we have to contend with diminished skills or rust, and we need to develop trust in our injured joints or muscles again. Imagery can help us in all of these areas.
As noted in the sections above, imagery can help with the maintenance of existing skills and the development of new ones by developing neural connectivity, even when the body isn’t quite ready to go. Taking “mental reps” and imaging the performance of new and existing skills will keep those neural networks fresh, and speed the process of returning to peak performance once your body has recovered.
You can develop or regain trust in your injured muscles and joints through what is called kinesthesia. A “kinesthetic sense” is an awareness of the movement of our bodies, so kinesthetic imagery is, naturally, imagining the feeling of specific movements. An athlete with a knee injury may begin by imaging a stable knee completing a deep squat or a leg extension. Research has shown that individuals imaging strength training can increase their strength significantly—by 22% in one study!—simply by routinely activating the neural pathways associated with those strengthening movements. As her recovery draws to a close, that athlete may then image planting successfully on a stable knee, or running, cutting, or jumping with it, which will engage the neural pathways associated with her sport-specific movements, increase her confidence levels, and make the use of her knee feel less foreign those first few days back at practice.
Focus and Healing
Research has even shown that imagery can aid the body’s healing process itself. Using imagery to “see and feel” your tissues regenerate and your joints strengthen can increase the blood flow to those areas, thereby speeding the recovery process and improving strength and range of motion more quickly. This kind of imagery is an outstanding supplement to physical rehabilitation, and an ideal part of a warm-up or cool-down from physical therapy. What the kind dictates the body delivers, so take 5-10 minutes and focus intensely on the injured muscle or joint. Give it all of your attention, and imagine your body nourishing the distressed fibers, and re-building them strand by strand. Simple as it sounds, there is science behind its effectiveness.
Self-talk is a multifaceted skill that we’ll be applying to a number of performance objectives over the course of this program. Self-talk is something that most of us do routinely without really thinking about it. It’s our inner voice. It’s the tone and the language we use when we speak directly to ourselves, whether silently or audibly. When we mutter to ourselves, “that was stupid” after a poor play, or tell ourselves “let’s do this” as we break the huddle, we’re engaged in self-talk. In the context of imagery, self-talk serves a unique and important purpose.
Self-talk is our inner narrator, our inner storyteller, and as such, it allows us to define who we are and how play in terms that are meaningful and inspiring to us. We can exploit the power of our inner language by using it to create mantras or short phrases within our imagery that remind us of the kind of athletes we intend on being.
One professional golfer we work with loved the book Relentless, which discussed the persona of a “cleaner.” To the author of the book, a cleaner was an athlete who embraced pressure and performed at his best when
things were chaotic and outside the plan. A cleaner had ice water in his veins.
To our golfer, the mantra “I’m a cleaner” meant that he was going to be the guy who hit the long, pressure putts when the stakes were high. He was going to go for the cup even against long odds.
We had him start incorporating self-talk into his imagery. Specifically, we had imagine himself repeating the words “I’m a cleaner. I’m a cleaner.” as he was setting up for each of his putts. After doing this for a number of weeks, he noticed himself doing it habitually on the course, and each time he did, he felt the emotional charge of this mantra—he felt that aggression, that confidence, that ice water in his veins. He didn’t need to remind himself to use the self talk, or try to do it, he simply did it. His brain went to the self-talk naturally because he had trained himself to do it. Consequently, he saw himself hitting a lot more pressure putts, and reported feeling fewer distractions and more confident as he stood over the ball.
To find your own affirmation, create a positive image for how you want to be in your sport, and pair that image with strong, powerful words to create a mantra for your optimal mindset. Once you’ve found several phrases that work for you, incorporate them into your imagery. Picture yourself as your own version of a cleaner (or whatever your optimal mindset may be), doing and behaving as a cleaner would. Picture yourself using your mantra as part of your in-game ritual—to manage distractions, heighten focus, and/or to regulate your activation levels.
An example for a basketball player who wants to be a better rebounder might be: “I am a ball hawk.” To charge the affirmation with emotion, we’d recommend the athlete pair it with some imagery. The athlete might imagine himself boxing out, he might feel the aggression and the contact, see himself surging toward the ball, hear the crowd when he secures the board—all the while, repeating the internal manta: “I am a ball hawk, I am a ball hawk.”
The most important aspect of self-talk is that we believe it. If we create self-talk that we feel is untrue, the benefits evaporate. We may not buy into our self-talk 100% when we first begin—self-talk can admittedly feel a little strange in the early stages—but if we can at least choose affirmations that we believe in more often than not, we’ll gain trust and comfort in them with practice and repetition.