Imagery: What It Is
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).