Imagery – Do the elite use it? What is it? What are some of its purposes?

Do the elite use it? Absolutely!

“I always visualize the run before I do it – By the time I get to the start gate, I’ve run that race 100 times already in my head, picturing how I’ll take the turns.” Lindsey Vonn

This quote from the highly successful American alpine skier Lindsey Vonn captures the essence of imagery, whereby it enables one to feel like they have been in a performance situation/context, before they have even been in it. This would likely help one to feel more prepared and environmentally comfortable than an opponent, who has done less, or no imagery at all.

“I use visualisation to think about the perfect technique. If I can get that perfect image in my head, then hopefully it’ll affect my physical performance.” Jessica Ennis-Hill

In this quote 2012 Olympic champion and three-time world champion (2009, 2011, 2015) Jessica Ennis-Hill alludes to using imagery to visualise perfect technique. Visualising perfect technique of a sports skill is good practice, but athletes need to accept that actual performance might often fall short of their perfect visualised movement. Furthermore, it is important to remember that perfect means perfect in relation to your capabilities. For example, there is no point visualising yourself throwing an American Football 50 yds if you only possess the physical competency to throw 20 yards; visualise perfect technique or sporting movements within the confines of your competency level.

What is it?

Imagery is defined as the “…creating or re-creating of an experience in the mind” (Weinberg & Gould, 2004, p.284). For example, you might create an experience in your minds-eye that has not yet happened like some what-if type scenarios (e.g., What-if you are a track and field athlete that doesn’t like competing in the wind or rain? How will you cope with that situation? How will you respond to an opponent trash talking you, a losing score line, making a mistake, or having a bad start?). Using imagery, you can visualise how you would ideally like to respond to some of these what-if situations. Re-creating an experience in the minds-eye might refer to using actual memories of your positive sporting experiences. For example, prior to every game, a soccer player might visualise two successful examples from past performances of some of the performance behaviours s/he typically executes (e.g., long distance pass with laces, tackling, run-making, shooting from outside area). This is known as best-performance imagery and is a fantastic way to build confidence. Imagery is a multi-sensory experience, meaning it can include the visual, auditory, olfactory, and kinaesthetic senses. Imagery is also used synonymously with the terms mental rehearsal, mental practice and visualisation. Imagery is a skill that can be learned with practice – It is not something you either have or don’t have the ability to do. Imagery is a form of thinking – Most of us affiliate thinking with the words that we say quietly to ourselves in our heads. However, pictures and movies created in our minds eye are also considered thoughts.

What are some of its purposes?

Imagery also has other purposes aside from creating what-if scenarios and enhancing confidence. Other purposes of imagery include strategy rehearsal, evoking relaxation, enhancing concentration, improving motivation and even healing from an injury (Vealey & Greenleaf, 2010). A quarterback in American football might visualise his own movements and those of his teammates in various plays – This would be an example of using imagery for strategy rehearsal. Visualising a happy place, like a beach scene might help induce the relaxation response. Pre-skill routines (i.e., before doing a closed skill like a penalty kick in rugby or golf shot) involve a sequence of thoughts and behaviours sequentially assembled to facilitate concentration. Imagery [a type of thought] might be used within these routines to further enhance concentration. For example, as a golfer addresses his ball s/he might visualise the trajectory of the ball in flight, where it will land, and where it will bounce to. Visualising holding a championship medal at the end of a season might enhance motivation. Finally, imagery might be used to facilitate healing. For example, a physical therapist might invite an athlete rehabilitating from a broken bone to visualise the fracture filling with a cement like substance as each day of rehabilitation passes or someone recovering from a torn muscle might visualise their muscle fibres braiding together, as they do their rehabilitation strengthening exercises.

Thank you for reading!

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