Imagine your favourite footballer taking to the pitch ahead of a cup final. Or a star Olympic sprinter ready to launch off from the starting blocks. What thoughts are going through their minds in those moments of intense focus and excitement?
The best athletes create mental images of themselves being successful, particularly when under the pressure of performing. We call this mastery imagery.
But does imaging ourselves achieving success help you to manage the stress of performing? In a paper recently published in Frontiers in Psychology, Dr Mary Quinton and her colleagues from the University of Birmingham found out.
When we play any kind of sport, we are faced with stress. You want to play well. You don’t want to let your fans down. You want to prove to yourself that you can do it.
Stress can affect athletes in many ways, such as:
· Confidence Do you feel ready and able to score a goal or break a speed record? Stress and anxiety can make you feel like you are not good enough to succeed
· Physical health Stress is known to have many negative effects on our bodies over time, especially concerning the health of our heart
· Performance When stressed, we may not be able to do as well as we would if we were less tense and anxious. This can affect our ability to score goals or break those speed records
Mental skills to cope with stress
But is stress always a bad thing? There are different kinds of stress, some more beneficial than others. However as our paper explored, the most important thing is not always the kind of stress we face. The mental skills we equip ourselves with to manage the stress determine whether competitive situations will work to our benefit or not.
Almost 80 male athletes took part in our study. We found that people who are more skilled at imaging themselves achieving success feel more in control when entering a stressful situation.
Importantly, being able to image success made people feel more confident in their ability to perform well under pressure. This is because if you are able to image success, you actually view stress in a more positive light. You know you can take the nervous energy and use it to your advantage.
So what does this all tell us about the importance of imaging success? There are a few key points that we can take home from this:
1. Reacting well to stress Seeing and feeling ourselves being successful through imagery helps us to react well to stress, in terms of what we think about the stress and how it makes us feel
2. Having a sense of control When we image success, we face stressful situations with a greater sense of control, taking a stressful situation and using it to our advantage
3. Developing mental skills It is important to find time to develop this mental skill, to protect people from the negative effects of stress
4. Imaging success can be taught The ability to image success is a skill that can be taught and developed. This has implications in terms of providing interventions to teach more effective ways to deal with stress
Quinton, M.L., Veldhuijzen van Zanten, J., Trotman, G.P., Cumming, J. & Williams, S.E. (2019). Investigating the Protective Role of Mastery Imagery Ability in Buffering Debilitative Stress Responses. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(1657), 1-12.
Quinton, M.L., Cumming, J. & Williams, S.E. (2017). Investigating the Mediating Role of Positive and Negative Mastery Imagery Ability. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 35, 1-9.
Photo credit: I.C. & Mubariz Khan on Reshot