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Imagery Training For Athletes

Updated: May 15, 2023


by Jimmy Yoo


Athletes who are focused on developing mastery, being the best versions of themselves, incorporate mental skills as a consistent part of their sports development. By dedicate time toward strengthening both mind and body, they perform with confidence, focus, and tenacity.


Coaches will often tell athletes to"keep their eye on the prize" or "visualize what you want to accomplish." However, they don't really explain how to do this effectively. The following tips will help you as athletes to learn how to better use the mental skill of Imagery!


I like to use the term imagery rather than visualization because they are different. Visualization involves seeing a picture of what you hope to accomplish. On the other hand, Imagery is like watching a video. It involves taking the time to answer the question of why you do it (motivation), what you want to accomplish (outcome goal), and how to do it (process goal). Therefore, imagery is action based while visualization is the picture you want to see, like a selfie one would post on social media.


Tips to develop and use imagery:

1. Different Perspectives - Imagery Point of View (POV)

It's important to note that there are different ways of imagining an action. Take a moment to think of a specific skill that you perform in your sport. For example, a golfer imagines how she would take a shot off the tee on her favorite hole, at her favorite golf course.

*Take note of the way you see it in your mind's eye.


Four different imagery perspectives:

a. 1st person perspective is the internal perspective where you see actions or skills as though you are looking out from your own eyes.

b. 2nd person perspective is an external perspective. With this perspective you are seeing the action as if you are standing behind or next to your body and watching yourself perform the action.

c. 3rd person perspective is also an external perspective. Unlike the second person, the third person involves seeing things like you are either watching it on TV or watching it from the stands.

d. Feeling and sensing it. This perspective is when you just feel your body go through the actions. You are feeling the right movements and sensing the muscles to use for a particular skill.


Of note, depending on the situation or skill being imagined, athletes have a tendency to switch between perspectives. For example, a golfer imagines standing behind her golf ball to set up her shot, sees her posture, and the placement of her club with a third person perspective. She then switches to a feeling and sensing perspective as she swings her club and makes contact with the ball. Lastly, after she makes contact, she then switches to a first person perspective to track the ball to see where it lands.


So, be aware of which perspective(s) you use depending on the skill, action, or scenario that you are imagining. Reason, it's your dominant perspective for that specific scenario.


2. Using All of Your Senses

It is helpful to associate all of your senses when using imagery. Not only should you see the action being performed, you should also hear, feel, and even smell the experience. While you may not actually feel, hear, or smell anything, take time to associate things that remind you of those moments. The goal is to capture all the things that will make what you imagine, as real as possible, and in real time.


To hear it, associate sounds like a tennis player hearing the sound of the tennis ball being hit off the racket or how her shoes sound when she sets her feet to hit a return.


Feel it, like feeling the tennis racket in your hands or the feeling of how your body moves when you hit a shot.


Smell it, associate things like the smell of the tennis ball or the different smells on indoor and outdoor courts. The more detail you can think of the better!


If you are having trouble imagining a certain game scenario or skill, try the following:

Close your eyes, take 3-4 deep breaths, and picture your favorite food.

a. What does it look like? Is it on a plate or wrapped in something?

b. What does it feels like, is it hot, cold, rough, or smooth to the touch?

c. What does it smell like, what are all the smells that you associate with that food?

d. When you bite into it, what does it taste and feel like, is the food crunchy or does it melt in your mouth?

e. What sounds do you hear as you bite into it, chew it, and swallow it?


If you were like me, your mouth is probably watering and you now want something to eat….like a burrito….


3. Imagining Success and Controlling the Controllables

A basketball player once told me that when he imagines shooting free throws, he feels good about how he steps up to the foul line, sets his feet, sets his elbows, flicks his wrist, and sees the perfect arch that the ball takes enroute to swishing the net. These are all the things that are controllable and helpful in the moment.


Everything sounds great to this point….. He then goes on to say that there are times when he sees the basketball hitting the rim and missing the shot or he completely air balls it. This is the moment when his thoughts take a turn and focus on distractions.


To be successful at using imagery, it’s important to focus on how you are going to be successful, not how you are going to fail. The more you focus on the positives and things relevant to your performance, the more you reinforce good habits and favorable outcomes.


To stay focused on the things relevant to performance, use the acronym WIN, "What’s Important Now."

In the heat of competition and even in practice, emotions and expectations can be a huge distraction! This includes things like the need to win a game, to play amazing to impress someone, or on past successes, e.g., "I use to be really good at doing this." Again, these thoughts are distractions or things that are not in your control. However, when you focusing on the things relevant in the moment, you are embracing WIN.


Lastly, checkout this Youtube video by Amy Cuddy, https://youtu.be/yWWGRXsKHZc. She talks about how body posture can help you to set your intention, thoughts, and attitude. It all comes down to your power pose!


4. Imagery As It Relates To Emotional Control

If you get nervous before competition, it is helpful to imagine yourself getting nervous and then, create steps to manage your feelings and anxieties. For example, if you need to feel relaxed before competition, you can turn on some relaxing music and imagine yourself going through your warm-up routine before your game/competition. You can also imagine how you look and feel when you are performing a particular skill well, like how powerful your swim strokes feel, how effortless it feels to shoot a free-throw in basketball, or the laser guided focus you have when you pinpoint a shot on goal in lacrosse.


5. Situation Specific Imagery

Think about the conditions at competition. For example, in tennis, think about the different conditions that exist when playing on outdoor versus indoor courts. For outdoor, consider the season or time of year that you are playing, different weather conditions you may face (weather in April is much different from weather in mid July), and surface conditions.


6. Game Speed or Slow Motion

The great thing about imagery is that you can slow things down or see it at game speed. When thinking about improving skills or techniques, it's good to slow it down, see things step by step, and paying attention to the proper execution of a skill. Once you feel confident, start building up to real time or game speed. Game speed helps you to develop the muscle memory to act and react, rather than needing to think about what you need to do in the heat of battle.


7. Practice, Practice, Practice!

Consistency and repetition build confidence. If you are going to master a skill, you need to practice it. Strengthening your ability to effectively use imagery takes practice as well. Create a consistent time before practice and before competition to use imagery, be it a specific skill you want to work on at practice, a certain strategy you want to use in competition, or a mental plan to stay calm, focused, and aggressive both in practice and in competition. It can take as little as 2 minutes daily.


Examples:

A tennis player may take 5-10 minutes to sit in her car before practice. She takes time to reflect on her successes in the past week, this included imagining her best serves, returns, footwork, and attitude so she can go into practice with the expectation to perform her best. Over time, her routine (consistent use of imagery) is what helps her to focus and not get upset when she makes bad shots or mistakes. As a result, she is having more fun because she was more relaxed yet aggressive, and practices with more purpose!


A lacrosse player uses imagery to prepare for competition. Before each game, he makes sure to get to the field early and find a quiet and/or secluded place to relax and warm up with a mental imagery session. He thinks about past success as it relates to skills he worked on in practices and the feelings he has after winning a 50/50 contested loose ball. He then watches a highlight video of his best plays like his favorite shots on goal. These things are what fuel his confidence and get him energized to play because it reminds him of what he is capable of doing, and what attitude and mindset he needs to perform at his best.


8. Cue Words and Mantras

Cue words and mantras are words, phrases, and acronyms that athlete and teams can use to help with motivation and focus. In situations when athletes make mistakes, need to focus, or just be resilient, cue words help them to bounce back from mistakes, remember why they are competing, and to just play hard.


Examples:

A baseball team uses the cue word TEFLON. It's their reminder that when things get tough, they will remind each other to let problems or mistakes slide off them like a fried egg sliding off a Teflon pan.


A wrestler likes to wake up early before meets. He likes the quiet and calm of the early morning to do an imagery session. He imagines having all of his friends and family sitting in the stands cheering him on. This image makes him feel excited because they reminded him that he is always supported and loved. He then says out loud, “Play hard, commit to my game plan, and my friends and family love me no matter what, so go out there and wrestle!"


A gymnast, before meets, likes to write words on her body (under her suit). She writes word like family, hardwork, and entertain as her cue words. Family is her reminder of all the people who help and support her; hard work is her reminder of all the time and effort she has logged at practice and that she is ready to perform; entertain is what she does when she is at her best because she puts on a show to entertain the crowd and the judges. She touches each word to remind herself to smile and have fun!


Cue words and mantras are useful to help remind athletes of their strengths and what they are capable of doing. Developing and being able to see your cue words, like on your body (i.e., hand), on your equipment (i.e., tennis racket or your shoes) is another reminder to focus on What’s Important Now (WIN).


9. Journaling

There are a lot of things you can journal about as it relates to performance. Journaling is a great way to log and review the quality of each performance. This includes writing down thoughts and feelings (positive and/or negative); identifying problems and distractions that emerged and how you managed them; successes (all the little things you did well), and what you want to work on or improve before the next competition.


I call it the Plus, Delta, How2 review. Review and reflect on things that were successful (a plus), things that were negative (delta), and how to problem solve and improve on it the next time (how2). Journaling helps you to track and see your progress. If you aren’t a writer, just record audio or even a video of yourself on your phone.


Strengthening Your Sport Mindset

In the end, like physical training, developing and using mental skills takes consistent practice and dedication. If you are expecting to see immediate gains and success, you are most likely going to be let down. On the other hand, if you take the time to consistently work hard physically and mentally, you will be more focused, confident, and have more fun because you are prepared and know what it takes to perform your best and achieve your goals!


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