Imagery is using the mind to create or recreate an experience using as many senses as possible. The human brain does not differentiate between a real experience and a vividly imagined one. Therefore, experience can make an athlete better and imagery can, too… in exactly the same way. The great thing about imagery is that it is free, always available, and (with practice) completely controllable.
One consistent characteristic of leaders in athletics is that they are consumed with excellence. They think about winning and how to win more than average performers. Usually a lot more. They may even go overboard in the sport/lifestyle balance issue because they are so consumed with their sport. They imagine greatness in their sport so often that they arrive at both practices and performances with clear goals. Plus, they have already seen themselves achieving these goals in their heads. They begin with their end in mind.
Imagery can be used in many specific ways. It can be used to learn a new skill, to rehearse a skill or pre-performance routine, or to create an ideal state. Before a big game, an athlete may imagine her personal past peak performance (P.P.P.P.) to increase her confidence or a day at the beach to help her relax and slow the game down. Imagery can be used during a game to program the body and mind, like when a pitcher images the precise trajectory of her pitch. It can be used after the contest to help make appropriate adjustments. Imagining what happened helps athletes recall what went right and what went wrong. Then, imagining what they would like to happen the next time that situation occurs links their positive response to a good next approach. Both scientific research and experiential evidence indicate that using imagery enhances performance. As with any skill, improvement at imagery comes from quality practice.
Most thinking is done with words. Imagery is not done with words; it is practiced by imagining a scenario with any or all of the senses. Since a majority of information is taken in through the eyes, much of the power of imagery comes via visualization. Adding other senses strengthens imagery’s impact. One at a time, an athlete can add in how it smells, feels, tastes, and/or sounds. Typically, emphasis for an athlete is on how it feels and looks.
Everyone can benefit from imagery and everyone daydreams, which is a basic form of imagery. Quality practice is the key to maximizing the benefit of this free, universally available training tool. A primary goal of imagery is to feel the experience happening, rather than merely thinking about it. With practice, component skills such as number of senses used, vividness, controllability, and self-awareness will improve. So, too, will the ability to stay with the imagined experience longer.
Images should be positive. Recalling peak performances and personal triumphs does wonders for an athlete’s confidence. Imaging future good behavior programs the body and mind, increasing the chance of executing that skill. Imaging negative experiences can have the expected effect of degrading a performance, although this does not mean that athletes should only image perfect performances. A huge part of being an effective athlete is being able to effectively deal with adversity. Therefore, leaders also image their desired behaviors following a mistake or bad luck.
It can be beneficial for an athlete to image significant past personal experiences. Both positive and negative experiences can help bring strong emotions and intense energy from the past to the present. She may have to spend some time searching her personal database of memories to dig up the experiences that will help her the most. She should look for the events that motivate and generate energy. If she chooses to recall a negative experience, she should remind herself of how she overcame or was able to move beyond this adversity. She will gain energy and determination from the negative image while still leaving the practice on a positive note.
Most professional and Olympic athletes use imagery systematically to enhance their performance. Learning imagery can initially be intimidating, but it should not be. It simply takes quality practice and experimentation! Of course, a beginner is not particularly skilled at imagery, but this is good news because there is plenty of room to learn and receive imagery’s benefits! It is a good idea to designate a specific spot exclusively for practicing imagery and other mental skills. It does not have to be fancy, just secluded. For example, facing the opposite direction in bed might be a place that works. This designated mental practice spot should be normally available, private, quiet, and comfortable.
Consistent practice will pay off. First, practice simple scenes in real time. Control an image much like operating a remote control, trying not to use the fast forward button too much. Images can be in the first person, meaning that the athlete sees the scene as she will see it in real life, or in third person, meaning that it appears as if it is on a movie screen. When using third-person imagery, the perspective can be from in front, behind, Imagery can be incorporated into an athlete’s routine plan for each play. Immediately before each play, a quick image or two of what should or could happen next allows the body to be truly prepared to act or react aggressively, under control. This commits the body to a specific plan, allowing instincts to take over during the action. For example, an outfielder may see herself making a great catch to rob a home run. Next, she could imagine herself cutting off a single in the gap and making a great throw to second base. Then, she might include one of two reactions to a looping liner in front of her that she may be able to catch. If she is in a “no doubles” defense, she would imagine slowing down to keep the ball in front of her. If an out is more valued than keeping the batter to a single, she would see herself making a great diving catch.
Imagery helps the mind and body cooperate with each other. Without it, an athlete may hear instructions to do something and even tell herself to do it. Then, she may do the exact opposite of what she just agreed to do. For example, the first base coach may say “freeze on a line drive.” The runner may nod in agreement, and then make the mistake of running a couple steps toward the next base when that line drive is hit. It is not that the runner is purposefully ignoring the instruction, but rather that she never fully committed her mind to that plan. Imagery ensures this commitment and adds a bonus of a mental rehearsal of the play, too.
Incorporating imagery into a routine of preparation and/or reflection is an excellent way to practice it. Typically, imaging appropriate attitudes, postures, and behaviors before performing helps enable that “green light” “Go, go, go!” feeling. Various external images can be tried. The image of a glass lake helps many to quiet their conscious mind. The image of Supergirl, Rocky, or their favorite player helps many to feel powerful. The brief image of a strong, shiny, silver spring all coiled up and waiting to pounce can be a powerful image for athletes like hitters who use quick, explosive movements. The calmness and beauty of the image just before a perfectly synchronized explosion of resources helps the athlete to stay patient, then explode. Often, players image an entire performance before it happens so that they will feel like they have been there before when it actually happens. This is a bit like taking a Mulligan in golf… without cheating.
After performing, imagery can promote effective adjustments. Pausing during an inning to mull over what just happened, especially if it was a mistake, is usually not a good idea. During the game, athletes want to stay in the present by releasing mistakes and trusting their ability. Later, imaging what happened can aid their powers of recall, helping them to not miss the opportunity to learn and grow. A leader picks out which behaviors to repeat and which to change, and then images herself executing the corrections.
An athlete's performance, in imagery as in sport, is her responsibility. To approach her potential, she will have to figure out how to maximize imagery's benefits. No single formula works for everyone. With motivation and the courage to try new strategies, she will develop her skill and awareness, practicing what works and enjoying the effects of tapping into the power of her mind.
|Aaron Weintraub holds a B.A. from Emory University (1993) and a M.Ed. from the University of Virginia (2000). He served as an assistant baseball coach for 13 years before starting www.CoachTraub.com, a consulting business whose mission is to over-deliver value on goods and services designed to help you win the mental side of the game. He works with teams and individuals, adding clarity to help them get what they want for their sport. CoachTraub.com also runs camps and clinics and has an online store.Weintraub is the author of Coaches Guide to Winning the Mental Game (Coaches Choice, 2009) and An Elite Athlete’s Manual for Training Mental Skills (self-published, 2011). He lives in The Colony, TX with his wife, Nicole, and their four children.|
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