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Mental Imagery

Mental imagery involves the athlete imagining themselves in an environment and performing a specific activity using their senses (sight, hearing, feeling and smell). The images should have the athlete performing successfully and feeling satisfied with their performance.

What can mental imagery be used for?

Mental Imagery can be used to:

  • Familiarise the athlete with a competition site, a racecourse, a complex play pattern or routine etc.
  • Motivate the athlete by recalling images of their goals for that session, or of success in a past competition or beating a competitor in a competition
  • Perfect skills or skill sequences the athlete is learning or refining
  • Reduce negative thoughts by focusing on positive outcomes
  • Refocus the athlete when the need arises, e.g. if performance is feeling sluggish, the imagery of a previous best performance or previous best event focus can help get things back on track
  • See success where the athlete sees themselves performing skills correctly and the desired outcomes
  • Set the stage for a performance with a complete mental run-through of their performance's key elements to set the athlete's desired pre-competition feelings and focus.

Mental imagery should not focus on the outcome but on the actions to achieve the desired outcome.

How do I apply mental imagery?

Golfer Jack Nicklaus used mental imagery for every shot. In describing how he imagines his performance, he wrote:

"I never hit a shot even in practice without having a sharp in-focus picture of it in my head. It is like a colour movie. First, I "see" the ball 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, shape, even its behaviour on landing. Then there's a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality and only at the end of this short private Hollywood spectacular do I select a club and step up to the ball."

When should mental imagery be used?

To become proficient in imagery, you must use it every day: on your way to training, during and after training. Before you execute any skill or combination of skills in every training session, do it in imagery. See, feel, and experience yourself moving through the actions in your mind as you would like them to unfold. Use imagery before the event in the competition situation and see yourself self-performing successfully/winning.

How can I stay focused?

You have probably seen an athlete become angry at their performance. The situation here is that the athlete focuses on the mistake (negative attitude), something that cannot be changed, and not on how to improve their performance (positive outlook).

In sports psychology, "pattern-breaking" routines help prevent the athlete from this negative attitude. A "pattern breaker" can be a word or phrase used by the coach in training or competition to move the athlete from a negative mindset to a positive one. Many athletes have role models who they try to emulate. If the role model is suitable, their name could become the "pattern breaker" phrase for the coach to use when the athlete takes on a negative attitude to a task. On hearing their role model's name, the athlete will shift their focus to how their role model would react and assume a positive attitude to the task. Over time the athlete will begin to recognise when they focus on negative thoughts and use the "pattern breaking" word or phrase (repeating it in their head) to get themselves to switch off the negative thoughts and get back into a positive attitude.

What are the benefits?

Mental Imagery itself can be helpful in several circumstances, including:

  • developing self-confidence
  • developing pre-competition and competition strategies which teach athletes to cope with new situations before they encounter them
  • helping the athlete to focus their attention or concentrate on a particular skill their are trying to learn or develop
  • the competition situation

When combined with relaxation, it is useful in:

  • the promotion of rest, recovery and healing
  • the removal of stress-related reactions, e.g. muscular tension
  • establishing a physical and mental state which has an increased receptivity to positive mental imagery
  • establishing an appropriate level of physical and mental arousal before a competition

Kerkez (2012)[1] conducted a 14-week study of specific imagery and autogenic relaxation combined with regular physical training on soccer skill performance in novice boys aged 10-12. The research revealed that mental practice is effective for preparing action. Furthermore, learning instructions on the movement technique's movement effect are more effective than a distance effect. The present study results may have important implications for optimising instructions for motor performance and learning in young athletes.

The "Quick Set" routine

Psychologist Jeff Simons developed a routine that would allow an athlete to achieve appropriate mental arousal in the last 30 seconds before a competition. The "Quick Set" routine, which involves physical, emotional and focus cues, can also be used to refocus quickly after a distraction.

An example of this "Quick set" routine for a sprinter could be:

  • Close your eyes, clear your mind and maintain deep rhythmical breathing, in through your nose and out through your mouth (physical cue)
  • Imagine a previous race win, see yourself crossing the line in the first place and recreate those emotional feelings of success (emotional cue)
  • Return your focus to the sprint start. Think of blasting off on the 'B' of the bang with the appropriate limb action (focus cue)

"You only achieve what you believe"

I use this quotation when I hear an athlete make a negative statement about their ability and focus their attention on developing mental imagery skills.

The way forward

The benefits of mental imagery have been outlined, and I have found that athletes are particularly receptive to mental imagery when they are in a fully relaxed state. The next stage is creating scripts to help develop and apply mental imagery skills.


  1. KERKEZ, F. et al. (2012) Effects of specific imagery and autogenic relaxation combined intervention on soccer skill performance of young athletes in Turkey. Scottish Journal of Arts, Social Sciences and Scientific Studies3 (1), p. 53-67

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2002) Mental Imagery [WWW] Available from: [Accessed