Introducing imagery: a key mental skill for success in sport and life
Updated: Dec 11, 2022
How can you harness the power of imagery? In this post, I explain what you need to know about this important mental skill using lessons from athletes who have used imagery as part of the secret to their success.
What is imagery?
Imagery involves using some or all of your senses to create a mental image. It not just about what you see through your mind’s eye. You can also experience an image as a sound, smell, and taste. In sport, one of the most common senses during imagery involves feeling sensations and emotions. England Cricketer James Anderson talks about how imaging the feel of the ball coming out of his hand helped him to overcome problems with his swing. Now when he bowls a good ball, he will “just try to think about everything I did during that ball, how it came out of my fingers, how it felt and just try to recreate that over and over again”.
Athletes will also combine different senses to create a vivid and realistic image. For example, a tennis player might view themselves tossing the ball upwards and then see the downward motion of the racket when mentally rehearsing his serve. He might also feel the racket in his hands, the force of the racket connecting with the ball, as well as the muscular effort involved in this swing. These physical sensations can also be combined with positive and helpful emotions such as feeling determined and confident that his serve will be successful.
Because imagery can and, more often than not, involve multiple sense, I prefer the term “imagery” over “visualisation”. The latter is probably how imagery is most commonly known to athletes and coaches. But, I think it then limits how imagery is defined and used. Three time Olympian and US Freestyle Aerialist Emily Cook agrees, “Visualization, for me, doesn’t take in all the senses. You have to smell it. You have to hear it. You have to feel it, everything.” Using the different senses not only helps to create more effective images, but also ensures that these images will be more meaningful and relevant to the athlete.
Where does an image come from?
Images can be based on past experiences drawn from your memory or triggered by something that you have seen, felt, read, smelt or heard. You can get your inspiration from images from almost anything, but listening to music used to be an excellent sources for me. As a former figure skater and professional coach in Canada, music help to develop new ideas for choreographing a skater’s routine. I would start to image what kinds of movements and skills would work with the music and this gave me a chance to work out a plan before even stepping on the ice.
It is also possible for you to generate a completely new images by combing details from your memories with new information that you get elsewhere. Take the case of a gymnast who might preview themselves competing at an event for the first time after viewing YouTube clips of past competitions held at that location. After watching the video, she might mentally transport herself into the scene, incorporating key details of what she saw to help create the atmosphere of the event and then recreate an image of a recent best performance. Mentally preparing in this way gives the athlete an important boost of confidence even without any real experience at this particular venue. When she arrives at the event, she will have an immediate sense of familiarity from having already experienced her routines many times over in her head.
How and why is imagery used by athletes?
The best athletes will apply the same principles that make their physical training effective to how they use imagery. That is, they will approach imagery practice in a deliberate and systematic way. Indeed, it is not uncommon for top athletes to plan what they will image and for how long. They will also use imagery as part of their regular training programme.
By doing so, the best athletes will reap the many benefits of imagery including learning new skills, memorising game plans/strategies, motivating themselves to achieve goals, managing their emotions, as well as keeping their confidence high. For example, professional golfer Jerry Kelly described rehearsed the course in his mind each night before going to sleep and again in the morning for the month and a half before winning his first PGA tournament at the 2002 Sony Open.
By comparison, less successful athletes use imagery more sporadically, less often, and without much thought or planning. As a result, their imagery is probably more like day dreaming. However, athletes of any level can be taught how to use imagery more effectively.
Imagery as a marker of success?
How often an athlete uses imagery is a factor that separates those who are successful from those who are not. In his autobiography, Olympic gold medallist Sir Bradley Wiggins, CBE describes how imagery has been a part of his training for most of his career. He explains that “The routine for this time trial is the same one I’ve built and perfected over fifteen years; as I go through it thoughts and images flash through my mind…I always pick a power to ride at. If it’s 460, 470 watts, I’m imagining being there, at that power. In my head it’s feeling strong, flowing, everything’s working. It’s easy, I’m floating along, I’m gliding, it’s feeling great. I can sustain this feeling for up to an hour.”
In some of the first research I carried out as part of my PhD at the University of Western Ontario, I explored how much time athletes spent imaging over different years of their career. It was surprising to find that more successful athletes will start to accumulate more hours of imagery practice as early as 5 to 6 years into their career. This result has reinforced to me how important it is for athletes to develop imagery as a skill and use it as part of their long term development. Regular and effective use of imagery will likely speed up an athlete’s journey to the top, as well as help to pave a smoother road by being better able to handle the natural bumps along the way.
*A version of this post originally appeared on the Birmingham Imagery and Observation Research (BRIO) Group website.
About the author: Dr Jennifer Cumming is a Chartered Psychologist and a Reader in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Birmingham. The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.