Imagery is a technique used by some of the best athletes to prepare for a high intensity performance. A gymnast might imagine going through the steps of her routine, and visualize each flip and landing and how it feels. Imagery is a way to mentally practice a skill, and can actually benefit you more than physical practice alone.
How imagery is used by athletes
Phillip Post and his lab at New Mexico State University have been studying the use of imagery by athletes. Initially he was interested in how imagery might enhance performance. Working with a high school basketball team, he had them practice imagery sessions before some of the games. These sessions consisted of the athletes imagining making successful free throws, mentally going through the technical details but also making them experience the emotional aspects of the imaginary situation. He found that the games where imagery sessions were practiced had significantly more successful free throws.
“It’s a mental skill best used in addition to an athlete’s regular training. An athlete can not only mentally practice the technical aspects of their performance, but rehearse their desired emotional states and what they need to do to accomplish a task successfully,” Post said.
Mentally rehearsing something can be functionally the same as physically practicing it when it comes to the circuitry of the brain – in both cases, the motor cortex is activated. When your mind goes through the motions mentally, and creates a realistic experience in your mind, the same mental pathways leading to your muscles are reinforced, leading to storage in long-term memory.
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Post’s most recent research is interested in the way that imagery is used to enhance performance of already acquired skills, and is also looking at how imagery might be used to help an individual gain a new motor skill. One of his tests uses a ping-pong ball light simulation and paddle to time participant’s swings and measures the accuracy of their responses to the millisecond. One group of volunteers practices visual imagery while another does not, to compare how their response times improve.
About recent findings, Post said “The research presented suggests that imagery might be effective for enhancing learner’s skill acquisition of tasks that contain greater cognitive elements, such as tasks that require decision making or remembering a sequence or pattern, as opposed to motor elements, or tasks that require correct skill execution, like a soccer kick. However, with more experienced performers imagery appears to be effective on a range of tasks, including both motor and cognitive.”
How to use imagery to enhance performance
The research being conducted may be useful in the future for patients undergoing physical rehabilitation, possibly to reduce therapy time. But the practice of imagery can be useful for the rest of us too; like for those who run races, or play sports for fun, or even in a situation like giving a speech.
Jim Taylor provides tips for using the best imagery in his article, and recommends focusing on four aspects. The first is imagery perspective, which is the perspective you take when you visualize the activity. You can do it from a first-person perspective or as an observer of yourself. The second is control, which is important if you lack the self confidence to imagine real success. If you see yourself making mistakes in your imagery, focus on it and change that image until you see yourself successful. Otherwise it can be harmful. Thirdly, you want to engage multiple senses in your imagery – hear the normal sounds, think about your emotions, and really think about what your body experiences. Lastly, work on the speed of your imagery, starting with slow motion to pinpoint details and problem areas, and working up to real-time speed.
Commit to practicing mental imagery like you commit to practicing the actual sport, and it should give you a boost in performance and confidence.