Imagery: – all top athletes throughout the world use Imagery. It is a proven method of increasing performance and reducing nerves (especially important to divers) and should therefore be practiced. It is not always easy at first and so takes daily practice.
Introduction to Imagery
Your body is a beautifully evolved sporting machine, comprising, among other things, muscles that can be trained to a peak of fitness and nerves that control the muscles. The nerves are massively linked in your brain: vast numbers of nerve cells are linked with a hugely greater number of interconnections. Part of the reason that human children take so long to reach maturity relative to animals is that we have many more nerve cells in our brain. Initially our brains are very disorganized. Much of the process of growing up, being educated, and becoming mentally mature is the process of organizing the vast chaos of the interconnectedness of the nerves in our brain into useful pathways.
Much of the process of learning and improving sporting reflexes and skills is the laying down, modification, and strengthening of nerve pathways in our body and brains. Some of these nerve pathways lie outside out brain in nerves of the body and spine. These need to be trained by physical training. Many of the pathways, however, lie within the brain. These pathways can be effectively trained by the use of mental techniques such as imagery. These are explained below. Imagery is the process by which you can create, modify or strengthen pathways important to the co-ordination of your muscles, by training purely within your mind. Imagination is the driving force of imagery. Imagery rests on the important principle that you can exercise these parts of your brain with inputs from your imagination rather that from your senses: the parts of the brain that you train with imagery experience imagined and real inputs similarly, with the real inputs being merely more vividly experienced. So in its least effective form you can use imagery merely as a substitute for real practice to train the parts of your mind that it can reach. Even at this inferior level of use imagery is useful training where: An athlete is injured, and cannot train in any other way
- The correct equipment is not available, or practice is not possible for some other reason
- Where rapid practice is needed However just to use imagery for the reasons above is to undervalue its effectiveness grossly. Unleashing the Power of Imagery – The real power of imagery lies in a number of much more sophisticated points: Imagery allows you to practice and prepare for events and eventualities you can never expect to train for in reality. With practice it allows you to enter a situation you have never physically experienced with the feeling that you have been there before and achieved whatever you are trying to achieve.
- Similarly imagery allows you to prepare and practice your response to physical and psychological problems that do not occur normally, so that if they occur, you can respond to them competently and confidently. Imagery can be used to train in sports psychology skills such as stress and distraction management.
- It allows you to pre-experience the achievement of goals. This helps to give you confidence that these goals can be achieved, and so allows you to increase your abilities to levels you might not otherwise have reached.
- Practicing with imagery helps you to slow down complex skills so that you can isolate and feel the correct component movements of the skills, and isolate where problems in technique lie.
- Imagery can also be used to affect some aspects of the ‘involuntary’ responses of your body such as releases of adrenaline. This is most highly developed in Eastern mystics, who use imagery in a highly effective way to significantly reduce e.g. heart beat rate or oxygen consumption.
What to Use Imagery For
- You can use imagery in a number of important ways: To feel and practice moves and routines perfectly within your mind. This helps to program and strengthen the nerve pathways within the brain that control the correct execution of the skill – remember that your mind is the control centre of your body in performance.
- To prepare for events that cannot be easily simulated for in practice. This gives you both the confidence to deal with these events as they arise, and the self-confidence that comes with preparation for any reasonable eventuality.
- To experience achievement of a goal In your mind before you physically achieve it. This helps you to build the confidence that that goal can be achieved and expand your perceptions of the boundaries of your abilities.
- To get a feeling of experience and ‘having been there before’ the first time you compete at a higher level.
To practice and program your mind when you cannot practice and program mind and body together:
- When you are physically tired, or do not want to tire yourself before a performance
- When the correct equipment is not available
- When weather is too bad to train
- When injury stops normal training
- When you do not have the time to practice a particular skill physically
- To practice a particularly boring skill many times – concentrating your mind on imagery of the skill forces concentration on the skill.
- To study your technique in your mind, either reducing complex movements to simple skills, or slowing the movements down to analyze them for faults in technique.
- To relax – by imaging and enjoying a pleasant, quiet scene. This can be used most effectively in conjunction with biofeedback.
- Imagery works best as a way of practising and improving known skills, with known feelings and body positions. Whether or not it is an effective method or acquiring completely new skills is a matter of debate
Using Imagery in Training
- You can significantly improve the quality of your training sessions by effective use of imagery. By performing the skill being practiced in your mind before you execute it, you can focus on all the important parts of the skill. For example, if a golfer images a perfect golf swing before he actually carries one out, he is more likely to remember all the points that go into making a good swing, and maintain focus throughout it. Imaging of an activity before its execution has the following advantages: It forces focus and concentration on execution of skills when otherwise you might just be tempted to go through the motions.
- It allows you to slow down and analyze fine skills or complex techniques to form as perfect a model of the technique as possible.
- It reminds you what to concentrate on to execute the skill perfectly.
- It allows you to compare how the physical movement compared with the perfect image. This helps you to detect faults in technique. Alternatively if the technique was better than the image, the image can be adjusted.
- In addition imagery can be used in training to practice sports psychology skills. For example, you might imagine appearing before a large hostile crowd, and experience the stress and anxiety symptoms that you might expect. Within your mind you can practice the stress management skills that will be explained later. You might use imagery to practice pushing through pain barriers, or might practice keeping technique good when you imagine that your limbs feel exhausted. Alternatively you might use imagery to rehearse and perfect strategies that will be used during a real performance
Learning to Use Imagery
The following points will help with learning to use imagery effectively: Imagery should be as Vivid as Possible a strong and potent image will be more effective and ‘real’ than a weak one when it is presented to the appropriate nerve pathways in your brain. Images can be made more real by: Using all your senses in an image. Touch, sound, smell, taste and body position (kinaesthesia) should be combined with visual imagination to create highly ‘real’ images.
- Observing detail of sensations such as the feeling of the grip of a bat, the texture of clothes, the smell of sweat, the feeling and flow of a karate punch, the sound of a large crowd, or the size and shape of a stadium in which you will compete. These can be observed in detail in reality, and then incorporated into imagery later to make it more vivid.
- Imagining yourself within your body feeling and sensing all going on around you rather than looking on at yourself from a remote position. If you imagine yourself within yourself, then the image is more connected, realistic and involved than a remote view.Start Gently and Use Imagery Systematically with most sports psychology techniques, it is often best to start gently so that the basic skills can be fully learned in a low stress environment. This means that you can be more confident of the effectiveness of these skills when you need to put them to the test. Initially start using only 5 minutes of imagery a day, perhaps when you have just got into bed, or when you wake up in the morning. The number of minutes can be expanded as time goes on: typically many champions will do 15 minutes/day, although this may go as high as 1 hour/day just before a major competition. Similarly, start using imagery in a quiet, relaxed environment in which there are few distractions. Slowly experiment with using it in increasingly disturbed situations until you are comfortable with using imagery in the most distracting environments such as high level events. It is important too to use imagery systematically: get into the habit of practicing techniques in your mind before executing the in practice, and of using stress management imagery routinely. A habitual routine use of imagery will bring its benefits almost automatically when you are under stress.
Improving Imagery Technique
- Imagery can be used effectively in improving technique, particularly when used in conjunction with close study of the technique of high-level performers in your sport. By selecting athletes whose performance you admire in a particular exercise, and either watching or videoing them executing technique, you can build see how they execute every stage of a skill. Using a video recorder you can slow the action down so that the components of the skill can be isolated. Once you have done this you can practice these components of the skill being observed, and can build them up into a complex action or a good image of the skill as it should be executed. Alternatively you can video your execution of a skill, and compare your technique as it is with how it should be or how better performers carry it out.