Imagery: Seeing your way to performance improvements
Have you ever pictured yourself making an amazing play? Being your favorite sports hero? Being a professional athlete? Every time you did this, whether you knew it or not, you were doing imagery. In this newsletter I am going to talk about what imagery is, how it works, how it applies to you, and will include an exercise to test your imagery ability.
What is imagery?
Imagery is creating or re-creating an experience in your mind using all of your senses. The mind processes the information from real or imaged images the same. This is why imagery can be helpful to performers. So whether you are actually practicing or picturing yourself practicing your mind doesn’t know the difference. Physical practice is the most important and should not be substituted, but adding imagery practice can give you more benefits than physical practice alone. Imagery is more than just seeing your performance. It’s about using all or most of your senses. The more senses you use the more realistic and therefore the more helpful the imagery experience will be. An example of this for a baseball or softball player would be not only seeing the next pitch but the feel of the bat in your hands, the sound of the crowd, and the smell of the grass on the field. With practice, athletes and performers come to use most if not all of their senses. Most beginners will start with seeing an image where as many elite level athletes are known to use their sense of feel or kinesthetic imagery to feel the movement.
How it works?
Imagery is used every day. It is used when someone asks us directions to a certain restaurant and we picture how to get there before explaining it or if a fellow athlete or younger player asks us how to do a backhand in tennis or throw a spiral in football, we see it or feel it first and then explain it. This is imagery. The goal of imagery practice is to get better at creating or re-creating specific images or experiences on a more consistent basis.
Imagery works by the brain sending a message to the nerves in the muscles to move when you create or re-create an image or experience. This movement is small and usually goes unnoticed but it is enough to create muscle memory of how to do a specific action. Repetition of this process will create an automatic response from the muscles. Imagery can also be thought of as creating a “mental blue print” for the mind of specific actions needed to perform well.
How it applies to you?
Imagery can be used to improve athletic performance such as: learning a new skill, practicing and refining previously learned skills, making corrections to a player’s technique, preparing for an upcoming competition, building confidence, increasing motivation and focus, and helping with injury rehabilitation. It is also a great way to practice competitive strategies before a big competition. The goal with imagery is to increase your ability to create and control clear images.
Below is an exercise to test your imagery skills. Don’t get frustrated if it is difficult. The more you practice the better you will get. Some people will be able to see images easier and others will be able to feel images easier. Don’t force it. Just relax and let the images come.
Start by sitting or lying in a relaxed and comfortable position. Take a deep breath and allow yourself to be in the moment. Close your eyes. Picture yourself walking into your kitchen. As you look around notice any sights, colors, sounds, and smells that may be present. See the table, cabinets, and appliances. As you look around you see a small, wooden, cutting board with a bright yellow lemon on it sitting on the counter. You walk up to the counter and pick up the lemon and feel the smoothness of the rind and the weight of the lemon in your hand. As you place the lemon back on the cutting board, pick up the knife lying next to it and cut the lemon in half. Now cut it in half again. Pick up a piece of the lemon and look at the inside. Notice the texture and color of the pulp. As you raise the lemon to your nose take a deep breath in and notice the smell of the lemon. As you lower it to your mouth, take a bite of it. Notice your lips pursing and jaw tightening as the bitterness and sourness of the lemon passes through your lips onto your tongue. Taste the bitterness. Taste the sourness as the juices run into your mouth. Notice the feel of the lemon’s texture as you bite into it. While the sour taste of lemon lingers on your tongue place the lemon back on the cutting board. Once you have experienced the taste of the lemon, open your eyes.
When doing imagery always picture what you want to have happen and ALWAYS keep it positive. Images may be seen from your point of view (internal imagery) or from an observer’s point of view (external imagery). Either one is fine but if you are able to see the image from your point of view practicing it that way will help to simulate what will actually happen in a performance. Remember you have control of your imagery and the pictures you create. The more you can control them and the more vivid you can make them the more realistic they will be. Imagery can be done anytime and anywhere. It is best to try it first in a relaxed and low stress situation (i.e., a quite room). As you get better you can start using imagery in practice and competition.