Imagery has many uses not just in sport, but pretty much any occupation where motor (learnt) skills need to be performed to a high standard (such as surgery), as well as something as mundane as trying to remember a shopping list. Within sport it can be used for many different tasks from mental rehearsal (practicing your ‘lines’) to past performance accomplishments (mental highlights reel), to correcting mistakes, to ‘downloading’ what you have learnt in training that day. It is one of the most powerful and effective tools available to athletes and sport psychologists.

How does it work?

When we are born we have all the brain cells we will ever have and these start to die off straight away. However, we do have billions of cells (about 10,000 per cubic millimetre), so no need to panic.

When we learn new skills our brain cells form new connections with other groups of cells and also the amount of myelin (white fatty tissue) surrounding the new connections increases. This acts as insulation and prevents the signals from ‘leaking out’, improving memory and therefore skill. Specific sections of the brain, responsible for certain skills have actually been found to be larger in experts. For example, the parts of the brain responsible for directions and geography are likely to be larger in London cab drivers than in the rest of the population. This shows the effects of increased myelin and groups of brain cells binding together.

Dan Coyle (author of the Talent Code):

“This process of learning skills changes the hardware in which knowledge is stored in our brains – the more we learn the more it changes. It is also like downloading new software meaning the inner circuitry of your PC (brain) becomes upgraded from Pentium 1 to Pentium 4. Experts possess the most up to date software… you can only get this upgrade by thousands of hours of practice.”

Imagery can give you a short-cut by helping reinforce these groups of brain cells responsible for new skills simply by just thinking about those skills.  Done in the right way it can be a close second to actual physical practice as shown below by an experiment where 3 groups were given a new task to perform: one with no practice; one with mental practice only and a third with physical practice only. The ‘no practice’ group improved very slightly. The ‘physical practice’ group improved the most, but the ‘mental practice’ group improved nearly as much over 10 days. This shows how massively important mental practice (imagery) is. If combined with physical practice the line would have been higher still. So the obvious implication is that if you do both and your opponent does not, you have an obvious advantage already in terms of practice hours and therefore preparation. With sport science ‘levelling the playing field’ in terms of human performance, every slight advantage you can get is vital. The higher up you go in sport, the more important mental factors will become, as technical, tactical and physical attributes will be more even.

There are many different uses for imagery, some of which are mentioned below:

  • Past performance accomplishments: Imagine/recall yourself doing your previous best performances, e.g. the best bits from your last competition or in training. This is especially good ‘pre-competition’ with music – or if suffering a confidence crisis. Remind yourself how good you really can be if you apply yourself.
  • What if’s: Use imagery to mentally practice all possible scenarios before your next fight – the “what if’s” e.g. what happens if I have transport or relationship issues? You can also practice using all the mental toughness exercises (e.g. positive self-talk) to overcome any problems e.g. research alternative transport or how to deal with relationship troubles. This also counts for what might happen in the competition (e.g. how to deal with a hostile crowd)
  • Dealing with pressure: During the fight – practice how to react to situations that may cause a breakdown in discipline i.e. how you will react to showboating/bad refereeing/concentration lapses/making mistakes, by use of mental exercises such as self talk.
  • MENTAL REHEARSAL: Practice the technical/tactical areas you identified in the goal-setting/performance profile ‘in your head’.
  • Downloading information: Rehearse the technical/tactical information you have taken on during the day from a training session and try to add it into your current knowledge. This way it will boost the groups of brain cells and myelin responsible for those skills.
    Try to remember where you went wrong in previous fights/training or when making mistakes during the fight if you have time and focus. How can you avoid those mistakes again? Remember; don’t dwell on the mistakes (TEA time), just concentrate on putting them right and imagining yourself doing the correct technique.

The 3F’s

To be used during imagery (mental practice) and after mistakes to prevent you from thinking negatively

  1. Fix it: What did you do wrong and what can you do next time to reduce the chances of making the same mistake?  This helps you rehearse the correct way to do things and this correct way should be used in future imagery/ performance, and not the mistake
  2. Forget about it:  There’s no point dwelling on mistakes (remember TEA time – maintain positive thoughts), just learn from them and move on. This way you can avoid being negative about your performance and treat mistakes as they should be treated, as a part of the positive learning experience.
  3. Focus: Get back on track, re-focus your mind on the task in hand (self-talk might be used here).Put it behind you, but also get your mind back on to the job in hand. CONCENTRATE!!!

BUT… imagery needs to be done correctly to be effective. There are certain rules you need to follow. Effective imagery needs to be as close to the actual competition conditions as possible in order to be stored in the correct way in our brains. Working with a sport psychologist can help you to determine the best ways of implementing imagery. A top athlete should really be doing at least 30 minutes ‘structured’ imagery practice every day where they purposefully put aside some mental training time for this.