Imagery Training For Athletes

Updated: Sep 24, 2019

Epic Sport Psychology: Imagery Training

by Jimmy Yoo

Elite level athletes combine physical practice with imagery to improve focus and confidence.

The following tips will help you as athletes take a step toward strengthening your sports mindset!

First, I like to use the term imagery rather than visualization because they are not one in the same. To me, visualization involves just seeing a skill or activity performed in your mind. Imagery, on the other hand, is where you include your five senses to imagine a situation or skill to be used. In this way, you are trying to imagine all the things that will make it as real as possible.

Learning to effectively use Imagery:

1. Imagery Point of View (POV)

There are four different perspectives that you can use when imagining performance. I have found that depending on the situation or skill being imagined, athletes tend to switch between perspectives.

a. 1st person perspective is the internal perspective where you see actions or skills as you are looking out from your own eyes.

b. 2nd person perspective is an external perspective. With this perspective you are seeing the action as if you are standing behind your body and watching yourself perform the action.

c. 3rd person perspective is also an external perspective. Unlike the 2nd person perspective, the third person involves seeing things like you are either watching it on TV or watching it from the stands.

d. Feeling and sensing it. This perspective is when you just feel your body go through the actions. You are feeling the right movements and activation of muscles used for a skill.

*Be aware of which perspective you use depending on the skill, action, or scenario that you are imagining. Take note of which perspective you naturally use in specific scenarios because that perspective is your dominant and most comfortable perspective, in those moments. As you start to build and strengthen your imagery, you can also experiment with your non-dominant perspectives to gain more insight and enhance your imagery skills.

2. Using All of Your Senses

It is important to activate all of your senses when you use imagery. Not only should you see the action being performed, but you should also be able to hear it, feel it, and even smell it.

To hear it, associate sounds like the sound of the tennis ball being hit by the racket or how your shoes sound when you set your feet to hit a return.

Feel it, like feeling the tennis racket in your hands or the feeling of how your body moves into position for a shot.

Smell it, like the smell of the tennis ball or the different smells that are associated with indoor and outdoor courts. The more detail you can think of, the better!

If you are having trouble imagining a certain game scenario or skill, try the following:

Take a moment, close your eyes, and picture your favorite food.

a. Imagine what it feels like, is it hot, cold, rough, or smooth to the touch?

b. Imagine what it smells like, what are all the smells that you associate with that food?

c. When you bite into it, what do you hear, is the food crispy or does it melt in your mouth?

If you were like me, your mouth is probably watering and you now want something to eat….like a burrito….

3. Imagining Success and Controlling the Controllables

A basketball player once told me that when he imagines shooting free throws, he feels good about how he steps up to the foul line, sets his feet, sets his elbows, flicks his wrist, and sees the perfect arch that the ball needs to take to the basket. * This example was altered to protect the confidentiality of the athlete I work with.

Everything sounds great to this point….. He then goes on to say that in the end, he can only see the basketball hitting the rim and missing the shot.

To be successful using imagery, it’s important to focus on how we are going to be successful, not on how we are going to fail. The more you focus on the positives and things relevant to your performance, the more you reinforce good habits and positive outcomes.

This goes back to the acronym WIN, What’s Important Now.

In the heat of competition and even in practice, emotions and expectations/outcomes can be a huge distraction!

Focusing on the things relevant to performance will allow you to perform at your best and to perform in the moment.

Also, checkout this Youtube video by Ann Cuddy, She talks about how body posture changes your thoughts and attitude as well. So, remember to take some time to power pose!

3a. Imagery As It Relates To Emotional Control

If you get nervous before competition, it is helpful to imagine yourself getting nervous and then, create steps to manage your feelings and anxieties. For example, if you need to feel relaxed before competition, you can turn on some relaxing music and imagine yourself going through your warm-up routine before your game/competition. You can also imagine how you look and feel when you are performing a particular skill well, like a serve in tennis, free-throw in basketball, or shot on goal in lacrosse.

4. Situation Specific Imagery

Think about the conditions at competition. For example, in tennis, think about the different conditions that exist when playing on outdoor courts versus indoor courts. For outdoor, consider the season or time of year that you are playing, different weather conditions you may face, and surface conditions. For example, weather in April is much different from weather in mid July.

5. Game Speed or Slow Motion

The great thing about imagery is that you can slow things down or see it at game speed. When thinking about improving skills or techniques, it's good to slow it down and see things step by step, paying attention to the proper execution of a skill and to see where you want your shot to land. Once you feel confident, start building up to real time or game speed. Game speed helps you to develop the muscle memory to act and react, rather than needing to think about what you need to do in the heat of battle.

6. Practice, Practice, Practice!

Consistency and repetition build confidence. If you are going to master a skill you need to practice it. Strengthening your ability to effectively use imagery takes practice as well. Create a consistent time before practice and before competition to use imagery, be it a specific skill you want to work on at practice, a certain strategy you want to use in competition, or a mental plan to stay calm, focused, and aggressive both in practice and in competition. It can take as little as 5 to 10 minutes daily.

A tennis player that I worked with would take 5-10 minutes to sit in her parent’s car before practice to reflect on her successes in the past week and then she would visualize her best serves, returns, footwork, and attitude so she could go into practice with the expectation to perform at her best. Over time, she recognized that her consistent use of imagery helped her to focus and not get upset when she made bad shots or mistakes. As a result, she felt like she was having more fun because she was more relaxed yet aggressive, and practiced with more purpose!

* This example was altered to protect the confidentiality of the athlete I work with.

A lacrosse player, I worked with, would do the following to prepare for competition. Before each game, he would get to the field early and find a quiet and/or secluded place to relax and warm up with a mental imagery session. He would think about past success, be it a certain skill or just the feelings he had after winning a hard fought game, and he would then watch a highlight video we created of his best plays. These thoughts helped him feel confident and energized because it reminded him of his past successes, what it takes to be successful, and what attitude and mindset he needs to perform at his best. * This example was altered to protect the confidentiality of the athlete I work with.

Lastly, a college wrestler imagined having all of his friends and family sitting in the stands cheering him on, even if they weren’t there. This image of all his closest friends and family in the stands made him feel excited because they reminded him that he was always supported and loved. He would then say out loud, “Play hard, stay focus on the things I practiced, and my friends and family love me no matter what, so go out there and just play!"

* This example was altered to protect the confidentiality of the athlete I work with.

7. Cue Words

Cue words are words, phrases, and acronyms that athlete and teams can use to help with motivation and focus. In situations when athletes make mistakes, cue words help them to bounce back from mistakes, frustrations, choking, and failure.

For example, a team I worked with came up with the cue word TEFLON. It was their reminder that when things get tough, they will remind each other to let the problem or mistake slide off them like a fried egg sliding off a Teflon pan.

Cue words are also useful to help remind athletes of their imagery session, and what it is they set out to accomplish in practice and competition. For example, a gymnast would write words on her body, like family, hard work, and entertain as her cue words. Family was her reminder of all the people who help and support her. Hard work was her reminder that she had put in the time at practice and she is ready to perform. Entertain is what she does when she is at her best. She puts on a show and entertains the crowd and the judges.

* This example was altered to protect the confidentiality of the athlete I work with.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to involve all your senses with imagery. Developing, writing down, and being able to see your cue words written down somewhere, like on your body (i.e., hand), on your equipment (i.e., tennis racket or your shoes). So, every time you see the cue word or words, it reminds you of What’s Important Now (WIN).

8. Journaling

There are a lot of things you can journal about as related to performance. Journaling how you use imagery is a great way to log and review the quality of each imagined performance. This includes writing down thoughts and feelings (positive and/or negative), problems and distractions that emerged, and all the things you noticed that made the imagery session successful.

I call it the Plus, Delta, How2 review. Review and reflect on things that were successful or a plus, things that were negative, and how to problem solve and improve on it the next time. Journaling your imagery sessions will help you to track and see your progress and in a way, measure your success. If you aren’t a writer, just record audio or even a video of yourself on your phone as a way to journal as well.

Strengthening Your Sport Mindset

In the end, like physical training, developing and using mental imagery takes consistent practice and dedication. If you are expecting to see immediate gains and success, you are most likely going to be let down. On the other hand, if you take the time to consistently work hard physically and mentally, you will be more focused, confident, and having fun because you are performing at your best and achieving your goals!

For more information schedule an individual session to strengthen your mental game

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