Imagery is considered by many to be a core mental technique and a favourite topic in sport psychology text books. We know that athletes, dancers, and exercisers use it in a range of situations to achieve different kinds of benefits. There is also ample evidence to make a convincing case that imagery will directly improve performance, particularly for those who are highly skilled at using this technique. But, surprisingly little is written on how to help people to improve at using imagery. In my blog, I have already explained how to use layered stimulus response training (LSRT) as an effective way to increase our ability to see and feel images. In this post, I focus on simple ways that sport psychologists and coaches can promote image generation. These suggestions can work for any type of image and might be most helpful to those who find it harder to form clear and vivid images.
But first, I need to explain a bit about how imagery generation likely works. Imagery is a cognitive process that originates either from our stored memories, stimulated by an external cue (e.g., sight, sound, smell), or a combination of these two sources. Our brain has an amazing capacity to revisit old experiences and preview upcoming ones. We can combine bits of information from different sources to image new things that we have never done, such as inventing a new move in gymnastics or achieving a new personal best time in swimming.
The flexibility and unlimited potential for how imagery can be used is one of the many reasons why it is so popular among talented and successful individuals. However, some find it harder than others to create effective mental images. Like any intentional mental activity, it does take practice and experience before it becomes easier. But, I also think there are ways to help this development along by using different (yet simple!) ways to cue or trigger the desired image.
Here are a few of my favourite ways based on Holmes and Collins’s (2001) PETTLEP model:
- Image in the physical environment where the real life experience take place. If this is not possible, then use creative ways to bring the environment to the person (e.g., photos, videos, Google maps). YouTube is a great source of material nowadays. Athletes can often find footage of past events held at a venue to provide concrete details to see in the image.
- Make small gestures or “walk” through the performance. As a competitive figure skater, I used to do this all of the time off the ice listening to my solo music on a Sony Walkman (it was the 80’s after all!). Just before a test or competition, I would mentally rehearse my programme using small leg and arm movements to emphasise key positions and techniques. These gestures would help to create kinesthetic sensations in the image and make it feel more life-like.
- Standing and/or adopting the starting position of the movement. Lying down or sitting can make it harder to generate an image of yourself moving. Just by standing up and moving your body into a familiar position will help to create a more vivid and therefore helpful image. You can try this out for yourself by comparing lying vs. sitting vs. standing for a simple everyday (e.g., climbing up stairs) or sport movements (e.g., kicking a ball). See if you can notice a difference in how easy it is to generate the image for each different position.
Do you have any tricks for creating a mental image? I would love to hear from you in the comments or via Twitter.
Holmes, P. S., & Collins, D. J. (2001). The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: A functional equivalence model for sport psychologists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(1), 60-83.
About the author: I am a Chartered Psychologist and a Senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Birmingham (UK). I co-founded the Research in Imagery and Observation (RIO) and Birmingham Research in Imagery and Observation (BRIO) groups, and have been researching imagery use in sport, exercise, and dance for almost 20 years. The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.