Imagery and visualisation are the most widely used psychological skill used by athletes. Despite that, without informed psychological skills training (PST), athletes can often fall into negative imagery coping mechanisms. It is therefore beneficial to understand and manage athletes imagery experiences to enhance performance and well-being. Studies have repeatedly found that imagery can increase attention, motivation, self-efficacy and arousal levels. Morris et al. (2005) defined this transitory process as:

“the creation or recreation of an experience generated from memorial information, involving quasi-sensorial, quasi-perceptual, and quasi-affective characteristics, that is under the volition control of the imager and which may occur in the absence of the real stimulus antecedents normally associated with the actual experience. (p.19)”

Assessment

All athletes are unique in the way they think and act. Thus assessment of an individuals imagery abilities can aid the formulation of an optimal imagery script. For instance, factors that affect the effect of imagery include: age, skill level, task type, frequency and duration of imagery script. The most established measure of an athletes imagery is the Sport Imagery Questionnaire (SIQ) developed by Hall, Mack, Paivio and Hausenblas (1998). It can measure imagery utilisation through a five factor model: Cognitive specific imagery, cognitive general imagery, motivational specific imagery and motivational specific imagery (split into management of arousal and experience of mastery).

The Sport Imagery Ability Measure (SIAM) developed by Watt et al. (2004) is another recognised assessment of imagery through the rating of four imagined common scenes in sport. The athlete is asked to rate the four scenes on five dimensions (vividness, controllability, speed, ease, and duration of imagery), six modalities (visual, kinaesthetic, auditory, tactile, gustatory and olfactory) and emotion.

Although assessing the athletes ability to execute imagery is important, other factors such as sport type can influence the preferred method of imagery. For example, if a floor gymnast scores high on visual and auditory components but low on kinaesthetic imagery does not mean visual and auditory imagery is the optimal modality. As floor gymnast’s perform complex moves at speed, kinaesthetic imagery would be more beneficial as this is the strongest association with executing the correct movements.

Application

Following the assessment of an athletes current capacity for imagery, it can be beneficial to demonstrate the power of imagery. For example, asking them to imagine biting into their favourite dessert and noticing the bodies reaction and emotions (i.e. salivation and pleasure). If an athlete scores low on the imagery measures, all is not lost, imagery is a skill that can be learned and mastered over time. Vealey and Greenleaf (2010) suggested a six-step program to enhance an athletes imagery ability:

  1. Find a quiet environment and comfortable position to become fully relaxed through deep breathing and progressive relaxation.
  2. Practice imagery by visualising a coloured circle that shrink to a dot and disappear. Then imagine the circle changing to a blue colour. Repeat seven times with different colours and remain relaxed.
  3. Create a three dimensional image of a glass in your mind and fill it with a colourful liquid. Add a straw and ice cubes, then formulate a caption to go underneath this image.
  4. Create diverse images with rich detail related to their sport (e.g. favourite golf hole, stadium, swimming pool etc.). Add strangers into the image such as the crowd or coach.
  5. Put yourself into a sporting setting of your choice. Imagine yourself watching others performing a skill of your choice. Now replace the individual performing the successful skill with yourself and repeat in varying sporting settings.
  6. Remain relaxed, slowly open your eyes and steadily adjust to the environment.

The functional equivalence hypothesis suggests that the actual physical action of a skill shares the same neurophysiological processes as the mental imaged action of a skill. This implies that imaging a well learned skill should be functionally equivalent to the actual physical action of the skill. To facilitate this functional equivalence, Holmes and Collins (2001) advised a seven-step imagery component checklist:

  1. Physical – imagery includes all physical sensations experienced in actual performance.
  2. Environment – imaged environment should replicate actual environment skill is executed in.
  3. Task – imaged execution of skill should include the same thoughts, feeling and actions as actual execution.
  4. Timing – imaged execution should be at the same speed and tempo as the actual execution.
  5. Learning – When skill level becomes autonomous, emphasis must be on the appropriate actions for the appropriate stage of learning.
  6. Emotion – image and feel the range of emotion you wish to feel whilst actually performing.
  7. Perspective – depending on the situation of the athlete, an internal or external visual perception can be utilised. For example, learning a technique for a skill may require an external perspective. Whereas rehearsing a well learned diving sequence, internal perspective would be more beneficial.

Imagery is a very powerful weapon to have in any athletes armoury. But used inappropriately, it can be vary debilitating to an athletes performance. For example, if a golfer has low confidence hitting over a lake that surrounds the green, they might start visualising past failures to make it over water. The golfer will then look to suppress these negative thoughts and avoid the water. This, in conjunction with the ironic phenomenon, will increase the possibility of them hitting the ball into the water. On that note, for imagery to thrive, a positive mindset must surround performance and well-being.