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Let's use imagery to our advantage

Updated: Nov 13, 2019


We all visualise in our day to day life. I think we can all agree that most of you would have imagined yourself lying on a beach at some point… You might have imaged the surrounding environment, the smell and the salty taste of the ocean, the sounds of the waves, the colours and the way sand feels on your toes. But what if I told you that imagery can be your greatest tool to achieve success?


Motor imagery has been termed as the mental representation of an action or a movement without equivalent body movement (Guillot & Collet, 2005). A very early piece of research demonstrated that 70-99% of world-class athletes incorporate imagery into their training along with 94% of coaches adopting it as a technique for training purposes (Jones & Stuth, 1997).

1. Why?

It is because imagery has been shown to directly lead to improved learning and performance through the enhancement of skills and strategies; and indirectly by achieving an optimal mental state, for example, regulating anxiety and developing self-confidence (Cumming & Williams, 2013).


2. How?

To get very scientific, it is because of the shared brain processes imagery has with movement execution (Jeannerod, 2001). When you visualise you are activating the same neural pathways which are responsible for the actual movement, so when it comes to executing the movement it is going to activate more correctly (Williams, Cooley, & Cummin, 2013).

Now that we are convinced that it is an amazing psychological tool, let's explore the different ways we can use it.


First of all, you can differentiate between an internal perspective – looking out through your own eyes, or an external perspective – watching yourself performing from the outside so as if you were watching yourself on TV. Close you eyes and see which one works best for you. 


Secondly, what is your goal with imagery? - and it isn't enough to say "to improve my performance". How do you want to enhance your performance? Is it a) through improvement of a skill, or b) increasing self-confidence? Your imagery script would differ depending on the aim of the imagery. For instance, it can be cognitive or motivational that operate either at a general or at a specific level (Paivio, 1985).


a)  Cognitive

  • learning a new skill

  • improve a skill

  • game strategy, game plans

b) Motivational

  • “psych up”

  • reduce anxiety

  • increase self-confidence

  • boost motivation

Cognitive imagery would involve sentences such as "your right arm is raised at shoulder level, with a 90° angle at your elbow" or "imagine releasing the dart as your elbow extends and fingers fully extend, your wrist flicks and you see your fingers pointing towards the dartboard" (Roberts et al., 2010)


In my study of novice darts players I found that those who were in the motor imagery group improved their performance statistically significantly more than those who were in the control group. IN JUST ONLY 1 DAY! So think about the advantage you could have if you incorporated it into your training or pre-competition routine. 


But let’s take a look at a different script that serves more of a motivational purpose:


"Think back to the best game you’ve ever played

  • Remember what you did in that game and how you did it

  • Remember the environment around you

  • Remember how you felt playing

  • Remember how you tackled, carried, passed or kicked

Now picture yourself playing that perfect game tonight"


The amazing thing about imagery, is that you can use it in all areas of life. Alter it to suit your profession, for example, musicians and doctors frequently adopt imagery to enhance their performance, or students and corporate clients when preparing for presentations or for a pitch. It is also commonly used by stroke patients as a way to strengthen their limbs.


A few other examples of how imagery could help:

  • Feeling nervous because you are performing in an environment where you haven’t yet? – look up images on google and imagine yourself performing there – same strategy for those who struggle to go to the gym due to their anxieties. Why? to get comfortable with that environment

  • Injured and want to help your recovery? – Imagine training and executing certain skills from the beginning to the end. Why? because when you return back from injury it won’t feel like the last time you trained was a long time, it is going to feel like as it was just yesterday


Lastly, some guidance on how to create the best images

  • Make sure it is at your skill level

  • Make sure the time it takes to imagine a skill is the actual time it takes to perform it

  • Try to incorporate all your senses along vision - hearing, smell, taste, touch

  • Find what perspective works best for you - internal or external


But let me prepare you, it takes time and effort! Try practicing the imagery of a skill everyday for a week and see how you get on!


References:

Cumming, J., & Williams, S. E. (2013). Introducing the revised applied model of deliberate imagery use for sport, dance, exercise, and rehabilitation. Movement & Sport Sciences – Science & Motricité, 82, 69–81. doi: 10.1051/sm/2013098


Guillot, A., & Collet, C. (2005). Contribution from neurophysiological and psychological methods to the study of motor imagery. Brain Research Reviews, 50(2), 387–397. doi: 10.1016/j.brainresrev.2005.09.004


Jeannerod, M. (2001). Neural simulation of action: A unifying mechanism for motor cognition. NeuroImage,14(1), 103–109. doi: 10.1006/nimg.2001.0832


Jones, L., & Stuth, G. (1997). The uses of mental imagery in athletics: An overview. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 6(2), 101–115. doi: 10.1016/s0962-1849(05)80016-2


Paivio, A. (1985). Cognitive and motivational functions of imagery in human performance. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Sciences, 10(4), 22-28.


Roberts, R., Callow, N., Hardy, L., Woodman, T., & Thomas, L. (2010). Interactive effects of different visual imagery perspectives and narcissism on motor performance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology32(4), 499-517. doi: 10.1123/jsep.32.4.499


Williams, S. E., Cooley, S. J., & Cumming, J. (2013). Layered stimulus response training improves motor imagery ability and movement execution. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology35(1), 60-71. doi: 10.1123/jsep.35.1.60