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