Jessica Ennis-Hill (Gold Medal winning Team GB heptathlete at the London 2012 Olympic Games), Johnny Wilkinson (Former England Rugby International Fly-Half and member of the 2003 Rugby World Cup winning England team), and Gabby Douglas (Double Gold medal winning US Gymnast at the London 2012 Olympic Games). Apart from being extremely successful sports people, a common association links the three – they have all supported the effectiveness of Imagery in facilitating improvements in their performance – improvements that have ultimately led to their success.

Imagery is a method through which the mind and body is programmed to respond optimally, providing athletes with the capacity to see and believe an optimal performance and giving them the confidence and focus to perform successfully (Vealey and Greenleaf. 2006). Through creating a desirable mental image it is believed that athletes can learn and practice sports skills and strategies, mentally correct mistakes, and psychologically prepare for upcoming competition and physical activity. In addition, many athletes use Imagery as an evaluative technique by mentally recreating their own performance post-competition and identifying strengths and weaknesses in the process.

There are many merits of utilising Imagery, the likes of which have been well documented in recent years. Taylor, Gould and Rolo (2008), investigated the difference in performance strategies of US Olympians in both practice and competition, discovering that Imagery use was one of the strongest predictors of successful Olympic performance. Furthermore, Vernacchia et al. (2000) conducted a study involving 15 Olympic track and field athletes, identifying numerous characteristics that led to success, one of these characteristics being the utilisation of mental Imagery and visualisation. As such, these days Imagery is a widely utilised technique by athletes hoping to develop that crucial edge above their opponents (Birrer and Morgan, 2010).

Imagery, then, seems an admirable technique to utilise to improve sporting performance. Regular implementation by coaches and support staff with their athletes, and by the athletes themselves, is therefore encouraged. In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the impact that Imagery can have on the athlete, it is vital to be aware of how Imagery actually works – that is, how the technique actually generates an improvement in performance. This knowledge can be useful for athletes and coaches, facilitating effective implementation of the mental technique.

Through attempts to aid understanding of Imagery and its underlying processes, various theories have been proposed. One such example is the Psychoneuromuscular Theory, proposed by Carpenter (1894). The central tenet underlying this theory postulates that vivid Imagery produces innervations in the muscles that are “identical in pattern but weaker in magnitude” to to those produced by actual movement (Hecker and Kaczor. 1988. p :364). During physical movements the brain has been shown to constantly transmit impulses to the muscles in order to generate muscular contraction and thus produce movement. The Psychoneuromuscular theory builds upon this notion. Carpenter’s theory suggests that the formation of mental images concerning physical actions, results in the brain transmitting impulses to the muscles that are identical to those transmitted during physical movement, only in this instance no physical movement will occur. During this mental practice, kinaesthetic and visual feedback is used to adjust components of motor performance and thus further optimise proficiency of the skill (Richardson. 1967). Through repeated mental imagery the transmissions will be rehearsed, and subsequently the muscle will be able to greater memorise the requirements of the respective actions. As a consequence, skills will be performed better. Jowdy and Harris (1990) and Jacobsen (1931) supported these ideas, reporting significant increases in muscular activity during mental imagery. Suinn (1985) provided further evidence through conducting research with downhill skiers, reporting that when performers were instructed to think about racing, their EMG recordings coincided with actual turns and jumps.

This theory is not without its faults, however. Although Richardson (1967) suggested that feedback is used to optimise the skill and thus improve performance, very little evidence has demonstrated that the innervations produced by Imagery contribute to improved performance levels. Furthermore, Hecker and Kaczor (1988) raised questions with regards to the processes outlined:

  • Are the adjustments made via feedback a result of conscious or unconscious cognitive processes?
  • If unnecessary muscles are activated, what mechanisms signal that this was an inappropriate response?

Little evidence exists that provides a response to these questions, and so the pair conclude that “Psychoneuromuscular view is perhaps best considered a description of an important aspect of effective imagery rehearsal… rather than an explanation of the processes involved in improved performance” (P:364).

Alternative theories have been proposed that offer an explanation for the performance benefits attributed to imagery. Lang (1979) proposed the Bio-informational Theory of Imagery, through which mental images “can be understood as products of the brain’s information processing capacity” (Hecker and Kaczor. 1988. P:365). This theory posits that a mental image is an organised set of propositions or characteristics stored in the long-term memory. These propositions represent a blueprint for skills and actions and comprise either stimulus or response characteristics. Stimulus characteristics describe the content of the image whereas response characteristics describe the individual specific responses to stimuli. By internally generating information that matches a blueprint, for example recreating an action through imagery, the respective propositions are activated and processed. This activation allows the response characteristics to be modified, improved, and strengthened. Repeated practice and activation results in the responses to specific stimuli increasingly representing perfect control and execution. This mental creation of an optimal response can be drawn upon when physically presented with stimulus characteristics, and thus aids actual performance proficiency.

Hecker and Kaczor (1988) conducted research that offers support for the notions outlined by the Bio-informational theory. The pair assessed cardiac activity during imagery and identified that response information (for example heart rate increase) was activated during Imagery of scenes with which subjects had familiarity and which involved physiological activation (i.e. stimulus characteristics were identified). Contrastingly, imagery that did not appear familiar elicited no response information processing. These findings then, are consistent with the theory – upon identification of stimulus characteristics response characteristics are elicited. However, when response characteristics are absent subjects did not have a blueprint for responding  and thus response characteristics were not elicited. Although these findings do issue support for the theory in general, there is again little evidence to suggest that the theory and its processes provide ways in which performance can be enhanced. Further research should consider and investigate the bio-informational theory and its role in performance enhancement.

The performance benefits elicited by imagery are evident, and as a result the technique is being utilised more and more in current practice. Although alternative theories do exist, the two outlined above describe potential processes through which performance can be improved via imagery. The notions outlined can be incorporated into training to facilitate performance enhancements, for example ensuring that athletes have a blueprint upon which to base their imagery, and providing kinaesthetic and visual feedback to further enhance an athlete’s use of Imagery. Coaches should be encouraged to understand the processes that underlie the technique. This knowledge can be used to optimise the use of imagery and thus optimise an athlete’s performance.

ReferencesShow all

Birrer, D., & G. Morgan. 2010. ‘Psychological Skills Training As A Way To Enhance An Athlete's Performance In High-Intensity Sports’. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 20. p78-87.

Carpenter, W. B. 1894. ‘Principles of mental physiology’. New York: Appleton.

Hecker, J. E., & Kaczor, L. M. 1988. ‘Application of imagery theory to sport psychology: Some preliminary findings’. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. 10(4). p363.

Jacobson, E. 1931. ‘Electrical measurement of neuromuscular states during mental activities’. American Journal of Physiology. 96. p115-121.

Jowdy, Douglas P., & Harris, Dorothy V. 1990. ‘Muscular Responses During Mental Imagery as a Function of Motor Skill Level’. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. 12(2). p191.

Lang, P. J. 1979. ‘A bio‐informational theory of emotional imagery’. Psychophysiology. 16(6). p495-512.

Richardson, A. 1967. ‘Mental practice: A review and discussion’. Research Quarterly. 38. p263-273.

Suinn, R.M. 1980. ‘Psychology and sports performance: Principles and applications’. In R.M. Suinn (Ed.), ‘Psychology in Sport: Methods and Applications’. Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company.

Taylor, M.K., Gould, D., & Rolo, C. 2008. ‘Performance strategies of US Olympians in practice and competition’. High Ability Studies. 19. p19-36.

Vealey, R., & Greenleaf, C. 2006. ‘Seeing is believing: Understanding and using imagery in sport’. In J. M. Williams (Ed.), ‘Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance’. 5th ed. p285-305. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.

Vernacchia R A, McGuire R T, Reardon J P, et al. 2000. ‘Psychosocial characteristics of Olympic track and field athletes’. International Journal of Sport Psychology. 31. p5-23.