We often hear about how athletes visualize, or use imagery, to help with their on field sport success, but for many young athletes there is still confusion and uncertainty about how to develop this mental toughness skill. Imagery is defined as visual symbolism that evokes a mental picture or other kinds of sense impressions. Put more simply, imagery occurs when think about things in our mind (i.e. staying calm in a pressure situation) and use our senses (i.e. visual, tactile, olfactory, auditory, and kinesthetic) to mimic as closely as possible what the real experience would be like. From my clinical experience, I find that oftentimes athletes steer clear of using imagery because they feel they don’t know how, or they fear that by doing it wrong they could make their situation worse. Ironically, imagery “works” not so much from an exact way of doing imagery, but instead because of the discipline and focus it requires to think about developing a skill and/or overcoming a challenge, and training your mind and body to work in synchrony together for future success. So don’t shy away from using imagery, but instead look for creative ways to add this mental toughness tool to your arsenal.
Why imagery works
Establishing the validity of a mental toughness skill is not easy, as there are many variables at play that determine athletic success. Natural size, physical strength and speed, and personal motivation are just a few examples of factors that impact what happens on the field, making it incredibly difficult to isolate and measure the effects of imagery alone. Still, there does appear to be validity with respect to the idea that when we mentally practice, or rehearse a skill, we in turn more quickly establish muscle memory (similar to classical conditioning). In theory, by mentally practicing running out plays or experiencing success on the field, neural connections become stronger and automatic movements occur more quickly and naturally. There certainly seems to be merit to this approach, as it is built on solid theory that has shown us in other examples that mental rehearsal can lead to more efficient movements in the future. Additionally, athletes who try imagery will not lose their natural skills, so this really is a risk-free tool to try.
Use imagery at bed time
Athletes can use imagery at any time they like, but one time of the day that I have found to be most effective is at night when going to sleep. What is nice about using imagery at night is that there are usually few distractions (assuming you sleep in an environment that is relatively quiet), and you can intentionally direct your thoughts to specific athletic movements and plays if you choose. Athletes can essentially doze off to successfully playing a game each night, and by doing so will strengthen neural connections and eventually on-field muscle movements. If you’re going to lay down and dream anyway, why not direct your thoughts (at least for a few minutes) toward future self-improvement?
Improve mental toughness by integrating imagery to your athletic training routine and enjoy the results of faster and more efficient muscle memory while competing. While you may be limited because of size and speed, athletes can make up ground on the competition by embracing holistic training that includes mental toughness skills like imagery. Remember, there is no wrong way to use imagery, and there are no side effects to worry about, either. It is for these reasons that all athletes should work on using imagery as part of their training regime.