“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
— Henry Ford
Australian psychologist Alan Richardson conducted a now famous experiment with Basketball players. Richardson chose three groups of students at random. None had ever practiced imagery. The first group practiced free throws every day for twenty days. The second made free throws on the first day and the twentieth day, as did the third group. But members of the third group spent 20 minutes every day imagining free throws. If they “missed,” they “practiced” getting the next shot right.
On the twentieth day Richardson measured the percentage of improvement in each group. The group that practiced daily improved 24 percent. The second group, unsurprisingly, improved not at all. The third group, which had physically practiced no more than the second, did twenty-three percent better—almost as well as the first group!
Many athletes know this technique as visualization, but it’s important to note that visualization is picturing, or seeing, yourself, but imagery is not limited to vision. It can involve multiple senses: sight, feel (how muscles feel as they move), touch, sound, smell, and taste. Imagery may also include the emotions associated with the experience being imagined.
Imagery means using the senses to create or re-create an experience in one’s mind. Imagining a sport skill is similar to performing the skill, except that athletes experience the action only in their minds.
In essence, imagery is a product of your memory system. Your brain recalls and reconstructs pieces of information stored in your memory to build a meaningful picture. Through imagery, athletes can recall previous experiences in great vividness and detail: landing a perfect punch, hitting a flawless sweep, getting a great takedown.
Athletes can also create images of events yet to occur by piecing together bits of information already stored in their memory. A fighter can visualize fighting a new opponent by combining memories of previous fights. A wrestler can prepare for a new opponent’s moves by analyzing video footage then envisioning how he would handle situations likely to develop during the match. A Jiu Jitsu player can watch a World BJJ champion’s form and conceptualize pulling off techniques with that same form.
Imagery works because in many ways the mind cannot distinguish an image from the real thing. The central nervous system processes dreamed up information much as it does an actual experience. Thus clearly imagined events produce effects that are similar to, if somewhat weaker than, the effects produced by actual experiences.
Imagery is a skill. The more you practice it, the better it becomes. The difference between strong imagery skills and those without can be dramatic.
Athletes who are able to create accurate and lifelike images benefit more than those who can create only a blurry, fleeting ones. Athletes with strong skills in this area are able to create vivid and controlled images. Increasing vividness is like focusing a camera to fashion sharp, clear details. But athletes also need to be able to manipulate the content to create images that do what they want them to do.
Without strong imagery control, athletes, especially those low in self-confidence, may find themselves repeating mistakes in their mind. A fighter may unintentionally imagine “choking” at a critical point in the fight, a wrestler might see herself making a critical error during a match, or kickboxer might experience an overwhelming sense of fatigue in the last round of a bout. Such negative images are counterproductive, serving only to hurt performance.
Another important area to consider is that there are many perspectives when it comes to imagery. The two most common are internal vs external. With an internal perspective, athletes experience the event, seeing it through their own eyes and feeling the movements as if actually performing the skill. With an external perspective, they experience a performance from outside their body, seeing and hearing the image as if watching themselves on screen. In deciding which imagery perspective to use in a given situation, athletes should choose the perspective that helps them create the most vivid image possible.
Internal and external imagery each have unique advantages.
Athletes may find that an internal imagery perspective provides them with a greater kinesthetic feel than is possible with external imagery. It is difficult to feel the movements associated with perfect skill execution when viewing an external image. Internal imagery is effective in sports where the competitor must respond to a constantly changing environment, such as fighting, wrestling, BJJ or boxing/kickboxing, because it allows athletes to imagine changing environmental conditions and the exact timing at which various movements need to be initiated. A fighter might use an internal perspective to prepare to respond to a punch from a particular location and angle, seeing himself time his defense perfectly to land the counter punch.
External imagery is well suited to evaluating and refining form. To improve an athlete’s form, external imagery allows them to see their entire body and the position of various body parts in relation to one another. An external perspective allows the performer to image and rehearse the precise movements and positions used in a skill with greater detail than would be possible from an internal perspective. External imagery also enables athletes to see the “big picture”. For example, to win a decision in MMA, you don’t have to win 3 rounds; you just have to win 2 out of the 3 rounds. This can help athletes develop decision-making skills and determine which strategies and moves to use in various situations.
Finally, some athletes like to step out of their body and review an outstanding performance to enhance their confidence and motivation. Using external imagery can be like watching a highlight film without the actual footage.
In summary, both internal and external imagery are effective in enhancing performance, and many athletes report that they switch back and forth between the two. Thus, it is beneficial to help athletes learn to image using both perspectives.
Using Imagery to Learn and Master Physical Skills
Learning physical skills is one of the more commonly known uses of imagery. Athletes can mentally rehearse anything from shooting double legs to throwing kicks to escaping triangle chokes in order to learn, fine-tune, or automate these skills.
It’s important to consider integrating imagery into practice. For example, after listening to a coach’s instructions or observing a demonstration, athletes can imagine themselves performing a desired skill before physically practicing it. Immediately after executing a skill effectively, athletes can create a detailed image of their performance while it is fresh in their memory, thus helping etch the mental blueprint into the mind.
After a practice session, they can use imagery to review key points.
Imagery can also be used to help athletes correct mistakes and refine their form. Here are several strategies:
- Imagine what their form looks like and then imagine what the ideal or desired form looks like. By comparing the two, athletes develop awareness of what they need to do to correct their form.
- Watching video of someone else performing a skill, or watch a teammate who is technically sound, and then imagine themselves performing the skill with the desired form before practicing it physically.
- Imagine a skill you are struggling with. If you make a mistake or perform the skill incorrectly in your mind, stop the image and redo it correctly.
Using Imagery to Learn and Master Strategy
Imagery can be used to help athletes learn and master the strategic aspect of their sport. For example, many wrestlers will pace themselves so that in the 3rd period they are still fresh and strong while the opponent is wearing out; in doing so, they begin to form a strategy for competition. Fighters recognize that one key to success is to recognize situations and pick the smartest techniques, a process called “fight management.” Thus, fighters may go through a fight in their mind as they practice, envisioning various scenarios and the techniques they would need to make in each one. They then select a technique and hit the appropriate shot.
Coaches should help athletes learn the strategic side of their sport by using imagery in conjunction with chalkboard illustrations, video analysis, and walk-throughs. When viewing chalkboard illustrations, athletes find that imaging the X’s and O’s as players, rather than as symbols on the board, make the scenario more lifelike and meaningful. Before or after walking through a situation, athletes can image their role in the effective execution of that play. Imagery sessions also provide a great bridge between video sessions and practice. Rather than just watching video, using imagery helps athletes become more actively involved in developing strategy. For example, they can watch video of an opponent, and then image how they would respond to the opponent’s style of competition.
Even while sitting in the sidelines waiting to compete, athletes can imagine playing in the game and responding to various situations; this not only helps them improve their strategy but also keeps them in the flow of the game.
Using Imagery to Improve Mental Skills
So far, we have discussed how athletes can employ imagery to enhance their physical skills and use of strategy. It can also help them improve their mental game by developing self-awareness, enhancing self-confidence and motivation, managing stress and energy, and improving focus and concentration.
Imagery can help athletes become more aware of the psychological states they experience when competing. Ask athletes to recall times when they played very well, when concentration was automatic and events flowed easily, when self-doubt was nonexistent. Have them investigate these feelings and use the resultant images as cues to create the feeling they want as they enter competition. This process makes them more aware of what mental state helps them perform best and which strategies help them enter that frame of mind.
Athletes can also use imagery to help themselves develop key skills and qualities for becoming the type of performer they want to be: taking a calm, cool and collected approach to competition; developing the ability to maintain composure after mistakes; or demonstrating the demeanor required of a team leader. In this way, athletes can develop awareness of specific actions and attitudes to help them move toward their ideal image.
Internal imagery can be very useful when attempting to decrease stress. Manipulating the internal sense of feel (how your muscles feel when you move) to imagine yourself moving with the speed and strength of the Hulk or manipulating your sense of touch so that when you step onto the mat an electrical surge of energy continually feeds you more energy can help an athlete in many competition situations.
Similarly, external imagery can manipulate the sensual information. Through the manipulation of sight (imagine your opponent being ½ his size), sound (no matter how “hard” your opponent is staring you down it’s hard to be stressed if you imagine Larry the Cucumber singing “I Love My Lips”), smell (one of my athletes enjoys hunting, so the smell of wood is very calming), and taste (no matter how crazy everything around you is going, if you can imagine eating your favorite food, it’s hard to be stressed).
Imagery is a powerful tool whereby athletes can harness the near limitless power of their mind to help augment their considerable physical attributes. It goes beyond visualization, in the sense of just using your mind to “see” things and includes the use of all of your sense modalities. I hope that a better understanding of how to use your mind to achieve your goals will lead all of you to a better, more successful place in your competitive careers.
God bless you guys and girls out there!
— Coach Eric