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Lesson 4: Mental Imagery
This section aims to introduce the big four mental skills, discuss their benefits, and how to incorporate them into your routine. Research continues to show the benefits these four skills can provide. We will cover them individually at length.
Mental skills is an umbrella term that encompasses; goal setting, mental imagery, self-talk, and arousal regulation. Often referred to as “the big four,” these skills are the primary four when speaking regarding mental skills and will be the focus here. We will cover them each at length.
Mental imagery (using your imagination) is the ability to create and experience an event in your head long before it ever happens. The goal is to internally recreate the event to control the reality better once you get there. Come game time, I want you to feel you’ve already been there and succeeded at that moment because you have already rehearsed and “seen” it in your head.
“We taped a lot of famous pictures on the locker-room door: Bobby Orr, Potvin, Beliveau, all holding the Stanley Cup. We’d stand back and look at them and envision ourselves doing it. I really believe if you visualize yourself doing something, you can make that image come true…. I must have rehearsed it ten thousand times. And when it came true it was like an electric bolt went up my spine.”
Wayne Gretzky (as quoted in Orlick, 1998, p67)
Remember playing baseball in the neighborhood as a kid and imagining you were playing at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park? That tree over there was first base, and the manhole cover was 2nd. You had ghost runners, and you emulated your favorite players’ swings. Or you were playing basketball and counting down to the game-winning shot with no time on the clock. You used your imagination, visualization, or mental imagery a lot. You’re using your imagination to paint a picture in your head of the words you’re reading. (That alone shows you can practice and implement mental imagery.) Or, as a kid imagining Christmas morning or an upcoming birthday, you were so excited and counting down the days. You imagined all the presents, the food, the friends and family that would be there, heck, you imagined so hard you couldn’t sleep at night. We all are well-versed in the art of visualization; we just have to get back to putting it into practice.
Imagery may be defined as using all of one’s senses to produce or re-produce an experience in the mind. Said more technically, “an internal representation that gives rise to the experience of perception in the absence of the appropriate sensory input” (Wraga & Kosslyn, 2002). This allows a batter in a baseball game to see the ball out of the pitcher’s hand (visual), feel the muscles in his arms before the swing (kinesthetic), and hear the bat contact the ball (auditory) (Weinberg, 2008). The takeaway, and it should excite you as an athlete, is you can practice the skills of your sport without physically performing them.
Before we proceed with how to practice mental imagery, I would like to highlight a University of Chicago study performed by Dr. Blaslottos in 1996. Dr. Blaslotto was interested in the effect mental imagery would have on made free throw% in basketball. Students were chosen randomly and asked to shoot free throws while the% made was calculated. The students were then placed in three separate groups and asked to perform one of three different tasks over 30 days.
The results for the group who only practiced through “visualization” are impressive and speak to the benefits that mental imagery can provide for athletes. The results are nearly identical for the group that visually practiced versus the group that actually did. And these benefits are not just limited to the basketball court. There have been several case studies that have shown the value mental imagery can provide to multiple different sports. Such as swimming (Casby & Moran, 1998), baseball (She & Morris, 1997), and rugby (Callery & Morris, 1993).
The above does an excellent job of driving home the performance benefits that mental imagery can provide. Its positive effect can be seen in performance and other important areas of sport and life. Paivo’s (1985) innovative work focused on the motivational aspects of imagery. Athletes can see themselves performing correctly in competition, correcting skills that have previously presented problems, or simply achieving the desired outcomes—having the ability to “see” first in your head can and is a great motivational factor.
As you know, confidence (which will be discussed in a future section) is paramount to success in the sporting landscape. It’s challenging to perform at or near your best without it. Imagine the confidence that can be gained by a slumping baseball player who, through visualization, can take batting practice mentally. He can see himself consistently making hard contact, remember what it felt like when he was playing at his best, and visualize the perfect swing repeatedly.
A soccer goalie who gave up a few big goals and had their confidence rattled. They can regain some of that confidence by seeing themselves making every stop. The examples are endless and apply to every conceivable sporting landscape, but imagery can be a driving force to improve self-confidence. Other studies show imagery can help improve levels of self-confidence regarding multiple differenI.T.’ssks (Callow, Hardy, & Hall, 2001; Mamassis & Doganis, 2004.)
“When I want to turn it on, I have a routine I go through. I get away from the plate. I stretch, control my breathing, and slow up my heart rate. I slow up. I imagine myself putting the sweet spot in the hitting area just as the ball is getting there. I see a line drive going to center field. I.T.’s important to me to see myself putting that bat there and not swinging it. When I visualize, I feel my approach and the contact.”
My hope in listing the above is to show you the value and importance of a mental imagery routine and why you should adopt one. The value is undisputed and well-documented, and I think it should be in your daily routine.
The following tips will help establish a mental imagery routine for yourself.
Imagery is not just “thinking” about your sport; it’s connecting your practice to a specific need or concern within your sport. Know what you’re going to focus on beforehand. For example, a tennis player struggling with double faults within their services will structure their imagery practice around this topic.
They will internally re-create the tennis serve’s needs, demands, and feels. Whatever the game time service routine is, it is imagined in as rich detail as possible, going exactly as planned over and over again. They feel the sun on their back, the sweat on their lip, the crowd’s eyes, the racket in one hand, the ball in the other; the ball is bounced once before returning to hand and tossed overhead as the racket raises to make contact. They hear the noise of the ball and racket colliding as the arm is extended overhead, and the body rotates rapidly as the ball leaves the racket.
Both feet return to the ground to best be in a reactionary stance as they see the serve impacting the ground at the exact desired location, and there is no return of service. They attach that serve to the feeling of real-time emotions, except the crowd’s applause as they get ready to deliver the same service again. That’s the level of detail I would like you to bring in.
I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie. First I ‘see’ where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes and I ‘see’ the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behavior on landing. Then there is this sort of fadeout, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images to reality.
It’s not uncommon for some individuals to have difficulty implementing mental imagery, and that’s ok. To start, I would like you to envision your room, where’s your bed at, the nightstand, and pictures on the walls; paint a mental picture of the general layout and contents of your room. This will be easy for some of you but challenging for others. If this comes easy to you, move on to mentally creating a classroom or a restaurant you maybe recently visited, and do the same as the previous one but with a room you are much less familiar with. As those two examples become easier, you will move on to specific sports situations.
On our next zoom call, we will discuss mental imagery in depth and answer any questions you may have. Until our next call, I would like you to center imagery practice on different rooms in your house. Try just 5-10 mins a day to start; as you get more comfortable, incorporate your breath work into your imagery.
The takeaway here is one that I hope is pretty straightforward for you, mental imagery works and can complement you as an athlete in a host of positive manners. Every year you are fortunate enough to continue to play your sport, the margin for error is reduced, and you must do all you can to gain advantages when and where you can. One of those opportunities is mental imagery; give it the attention it deserves.