Overcoming negative mental imagery: The key to success in the Rugby World Cup?1 Opinion
Imagery has proven to be successful in producing a range of positive outcomes, such as enhancing confidence, reducing anxiety intensity, perceiving anxiety symptoms as more facilitative, and improving performance (Nordin & Cumming, 2005; Short et al., 2002; Williams, Cumming, & Balanos, 2010). Despite imagery being helpful for most experiences, it can also be perceived as unhelpful (or debilitative; Short et al., 2002).
The imminent arrival of the 2015 Rugby World Cup will undoubtedly bring an impressive display of physical and psychological expertise, but in such a high pressure situation it is more than likely that some players will experience negative (or debilitative) images (MacIntyre & Moran, 2007).
Negative mental imagery: An elite example
Even some of the best players could experience these types of images in the upcoming tournament. One previous high profile example is ex-international England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson. Although his imagery experiences were mainly facilitative, when he did experience more debilitative images and the associated emotions, he took extreme measures to try and deal with them.
The quote below is taken from his autobiography (Wilkinson, 2012) and refers to when Wilkinson used to submerge himself under water and scream because it was the only way to deal with the pressures he experienced:
“I cannot find any other way of dealing with this non-stop barrage of thoughts and negativity”.
It has been reported in the literature that negative (or debilitative) images can be more powerful than positive (or facilitative) images (Nordin & Cumming, 2005), and this seemed to be the case for Jonny Wilkinson.
This doesn’t mean that athletes should stop using imagery, but rather athletes should continue to explore their own imagery experiences. If they do realize that they are experiencing debilitative images then they might need to find strategies to alter them or overcome them completely.
So the key to success for teams at the Rugby World Cup might be the most points scored, the least tries conceded, or the most confident team, but could it also be the team who can effectively handle any debilitating images that they experience? Please comment below to let us hear your thoughts!
MacIntyre, T., & Moran, A. P. (2007) A qualitative investigation of meta-imagery processes and imagery direction among elite athletes. Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, 2, 1-20. doi:10.2202/1932-0191.1022
Nordin, S., & Cumming, J. (2005). More than meets the eye: Investigating imagery type, direction, and outcome. The Sport Psychologist, 19, 1-17.
Short, S. E., Bruggeman, J. M., Engel, S. G., Marback, T. L., Wang, L. J., Willadsen, A., & Short, M. W. (2002). The effect of imagery function and imagery direction on self-efficacy and performance on a golf putting task. The Sport Psychologist, 16, 48-67.
Wilkinson, J. (2012). Jonny: My Autobiography. London: Headline Publishing Group.
Williams, S. E., Cumming, J., & Balanos, G. (2010). The use of imagery to manipulate challenge and threat appraisal states in athletes. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 32, 339-358.
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About Mary Quinton
I am a final year Sport and Exercise Psychology PhD student at the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences (University of Birmingham)