Imagery has been described as “an experience that mimics real experience, and involves using a combination of different sensory modalities in the absence of actual perception” (Cumming & Ramsey, 2009, p.5).

Imagery is a psychological technique which has demonstrated its effectiveness in sport through positively affecting psychological states, such as decreasing anxiety and enhancing self-confidence, self-efficacy and concentration (Garza & Feltz, 1998; Post & Wrisberg, 2012). It is also beneficial for use as a coping strategy, maintaining existing skills, and reviewing past performances (Thelwell & Maynard, 2002; White & Hardy, 1998).

Imagery is popular among all athletes, from grassroots level up to elite sports personalities. For example, Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho employs imagery for game preparation and strategy purposes:

“When I train, one of the things I concentrate on is creating a mental picture of how best deliver the ball to a teammate, preferably leaving him alone in front of the rival goalkeeper. So what I do, always before a game, always, every night and every day, is try and think up things, imagine plays, which no one else will have thought of, and to do so always bearing in mind the particular strength of each team-mate to whom I am passing the ball. When I construct those plays in my mind I take into account whether one team-mate likes to receive the ball at his feet, or ahead of him; if he is good with his head, and how he prefers to head the ball; if he is stronger on his right or his left foot. That is my job. That is what I do. I imagine the game”.

Former England rugby international fly-half, Jonny Wilkinson, also uses imagery as an important mental preparation technique. He talks about how he listened to a pre-recorded imagery script (another method of employing imagery) before the 2003 World Cup Final:

“I surface for my usual pre-match ritual of a shave and shower before settling down to listen to a mental rehearsal CD. The script is prepared by myself and [my coach] but read by him. This visualization technique is a sort of clarified daydream with snippets of the atmosphere from past matches included to enhance the sense of reality. It lasts about twenty minutes and by the end of it I feel I know what is coming. The game will throw up many different scenarios but I am as prepared in my own head for them as I can be. If you have realistically imagined situations, you feel better prepared and less fearful of the unexpected” (p.49).

The PETTLEP model of imagery

So how does imagery actually lead to such performance benefits? In 2001, Holmes and Collins proposed a model of imagery that highlights the link between physical and imagined movements. The model is based on work by Jeannerod (1994; 1997) which proposes that there are certain shared areas in the brain that are activated during both physical and imagined movements. This is defined as “functional equivalence” and is hypothesised as the means by which imagery can improve performance. It is suggested that if there is a greater similarity between the image and the physical movement (i.e. a greater degree of functional equivalence), it may help to add more detail to the image and enhance the vividness of the image.

PETTLEP is an acronym which stands for 7 key elements to include during imagery to create the most functionally equivalent image possible. Using the example of a footballer, the specific details to include would be:

Physical – image the relevant physical characteristics. For example, a footballer would image dressed in their kit with the football at their feet.

Environment – if possible, image in the environment where the performance takes place e.g. football pitch.

Task – try to image details relevant to the task (e.g. attentional demands) and image at the appropriate level of expertise for the performer (i.e. a novice footballer should avoid imagining an elite level player as it is not as functionally equivalent).

Timing – the most functionally equivalent approach is to image in ‘real time’, but ‘slow motion’ imagery can be used to emphasise and perfect more difficult aspects of a skill (O & Hall, 2009). For example, a footballer may wish to ‘slow motion’ image a particularly tricky piece of footwork.

Learning – the imagery should be continually adapted and reviewed over time to match changing task demands and the experience level of the athlete. For example, as a novice footballer progresses and masters a skill, they should adapt the imagery to reflect their improvement in performance.

Emotion – include the same images that would be felt in the physical situation. However, try to avoid debilitative emotions (e.g. fear, panic). For example, a player imaging taking a penalty would include feelings of confidence and adrenaline rushes.

Perspective – the imagery perspective can be first person (through your own eyes) or third person (like watching yourself on video). However, one perspective may be more advantageous depending on the task characteristics. A first person perspective (or internal visual imagery) may be more beneficial for tasks including open skills and with a focus on timing (e.g. tackling). On the other hand, a third person perspective (or external visual imagery) is preferred for tasks where form and positioning is important, such as heading the ball or kicking technique (Hardy & Callow, 1999).

Here’s an example video showing how the PETTLEP model can be applied in golf:

To summarise: the more PETTLEP elements included in the image, the better. Previous research that has included all seven elements has seen performance benefits when compared to non-PETTLEP imagery interventions (Smith, Wright, Allsopp, & Westhead, 2007).

Imagery can be used at any time, whether it is pre-match, during performance, or post-match. It can even be the last thing you do before bed. Try to incorporate PETTLEP imagery into your sport routine and see if you notice the benefits!