Mental imagery involves the athlete imagining themselves in an environment performing a specific activity using all of their senses (sight, hear, feel 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:
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's 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, and 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 the use of imagery you have to use it ever day: on your way to training, during training and after training. In every training session, before you execute any skill or combination of skills, first do it in imagery. See, feel, and experience yourself moving through the actions in your mind, as you would like them actually to unfold. In the competition situation use imagery before the start of the event and see your 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 is focusing on the mistake (negative attitude), something that cannot be changed, and not on how to improve their performance (positive attitude).
In sports psychology "pattern breaking" routines are used to help prevent the athlete falling into 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 attitude to a positive one. Many athletes have a role model who they try to emulate. Providing the role model is suitable then 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. Overtime the athlete will begin to recognise when they are focusing 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 useful in a number of circumstances including:
When combined with relaxation it is useful in:
Kerkez (2012) conducted a 14-week study of specific imagery and autogenic relaxation combined with standard physical training on soccer skill performance in novice boys aged 10-12 years. The research revealed that mental practice is effective for the preparation of the action. Furthermore, learning instructions on the movement effect related to the movement technique are more effective than a more distant effect. The results of the present study may have important implications for optimizing instructions for motor performance and motor learning in young athletes.
Psychologist Jeff Simons developed a routine that would allow an athlete to achieve an 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 as a means of refocusing quickly following a distraction.
An example of this "Quick set" routine for a sprinter could be:
"You only achieve what you believe"
I use this quotation when I hear an athlete make a negative statement about their ability and to focus their attention when assisting them to develop mental imagery skills.
The way forward
The benefits of mental imagery have been outlined and I have found that when an athlete is in a fully relaxed state, they are particularly receptive to mental imagery. The next stage is the creation of scripts to help in developing and apply mental imagery skills.
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