If you do anything to work on the mental side of your sport, it better be mental imagery. Why, you ask. Because there is no more powerful mental tool than mental imagery and it can have a huge impact on your sports performance.
I say this with such conviction because it had that effect on me when I was a young athlete at Burke Mtn. Academy, a private boarding school in Vermont devoted to developing world-class ski racers (it was also the first full-time sports academy in the U.S.) One summer I took a course at a local college that introduced me to the power of mental imagery. I applied it to my sport as part of my final project for the class and then continued to use it throughout the following fall and into the competitive race season. The results were nothing less than spectacular. From doubt came confidence. From distraction came focus. From anxiety came intensity. From timidness came aggressiveness. From inconsistency came consistency. And, most importantly, from decent results came outstanding results.
When I studied mental imagery in graduate school, I learned why it is so powerful. Imagery is used by virtually all great athletes and research has shown that, when combined with actual practice, improves performance more than practice alone. Imagery also isn't just a mental experience that occurs in your head, but rather impacts you in every way: psychologically, emotionally, physically, technically, and tactically. Think of mental imagery as weight lifting for the mind.
In my more than 25 years of work with professional, Olympic, collegiate, and junior-elite athletes, mental imagery is the tool that I emphasize the most with them and the one that I have seen have the greatest impact on their performances. Here’s the bottom line. If you aren’t engaged in a consistent mental imagery program, you’re not doing everything you can to achieve your athletic goals.
Keys to Quality Mental Imagery
There are four factors that impact the quality of mental imagery: perspective, control, multiple sense, and speed. You can develop each of these areas so you can get the most out of your imagery.
Imagery perspective. Imagery perspective refers to where the “imagery camera” is when you do imagery. The internal perspective involves seeing yourself from inside your body looking out, as if you were actually performing your sport. The external perspective involves seeing yourself from outside your body like on video. Research indicates that one perspective is not better than the other. Most people have a dominant perspective with which they’re most comfortable. Use the perspective that’s most natural for you and then experiment with the other perspective to see if it helps you in a different way.
Control. Have you ever been doing imagery and you keep making mistakes, for example, a basketball point guard sees the ball stick to the court while dribbling or a golfer sees her ball pop out of the cup? This problem relates to imagery control, which is how well you’re able to imagine what you want to imagine. It’s not uncommon for athletes to perform poorly in their imagery and it often reflects a fundamental lack of confidence in their ability to perform successfully (when I started using imagery as a youth, I couldn't go three gates in a ski race course in my head without falling!).
If mistakes occur in your imagery, you shouldn’t just let them go by. If you do, you’ll further ingrain the negative image and feeling which will hurt your performances. Instead, when you perform poorly in your imagery, immediately rewind the “imagery video” and edit the imagery video until you do it correctly.
Multiple senses. Good imagery is more than just visual, that's why I don't like to call it visualization. The best imagery involves the multi-sensory reproduction of the actual sport experience. You should duplicate the sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that you would experience in an actual competition. Visual imagery involves how clearly you see yourself performing. If sounds, such as the quarterback calling the play at the line of scrimmage, are important, you would want to generate them in your imagery. If you get nervous before an actual competition, you should get nervous in your imagery (and then take steps to relax).
The most powerful part of mental imagery is feeling it in your body. That’s how you really ingrain new technical and mental skills and habits. A useful way to increase the feeling in your mental imagery is to combine imagined and real sensations. Imagine yourself performing and move your body along with the imagery. You see world-class athletes doing this before competitions.
Speed. The ability to adjust the speed of your imagery will enable you to use imagery to improve different aspects of your sports performance. Slow motion is effective for focusing on technique. When you first start to work on technique in your imagery, slow the imagery video down, frame by frame if necessary, to see yourself executing the skill correctly. Then, as you see and feel yourself performing well in slow motion, increase the speed of your imagery until you can perform well at “real-time” speed.
Be Realistic in Your Imagery
Imagine realistic conditions. Imagine yourself performing under realistic conditions, in other words, always do imagery under those conditions in which you normally compete. That is, if you're usually competing in difficult conditions (e.g., cold or hot weather, snow or rain), imagine yourself performing under those conditions. Only imagine yourself performing under ideal conditions if you typically compete in ideal conditions.
Imagine realistic performance. If you're a young athlete, don't imagine yourself performing like a pro or Olympian. Instead, imagine yourself performing the way you normally do, but incorporate positive changes that you are working on.
Developing An Off-sport Imagery Program
The key to getting the most out of mental imagery is consistency. You wouldn't expect to get stronger by lifting weights once every few weeks. You wouldn't expect to get better technically by practicing your sport once in a while. The same holds true for mental imagery. The only way to gain the benefits of mental imagery is to use it consistently in a structured way.
Set imagery goals. Set specific goals for what areas you want to work on in your imagery. Goals can be technical, tactical, mental, or over-all performance. For example, you might focus on some technical change, being more relaxed and focused, or just going for it in your sport.
Climb imagery ladder. Create a ladder of practice and competitive scenarios in which you will be performing. The ladder should start with practice in a simple setting and progress to more demanding practice situations, less important competitions, and increase through more important events up to the most important competition you’ll be in this year.
Begin your imagery on the lowest level of the imagery ladder. Stay at that rung until you reach your imagery goal. When that is achieved, stay at that step for several imagery sessions to really reinforce and ingrain the positive images, thoughts, and feelings. Then work your way up the ladder until you're performing the way you want in your imagery at the very top of the imagery ladder.
Training- and competition-specific imagery. Select practice and competitive situations that are appropriate for your level of athletic development. In other words, if you're a high school soccer player, don't imagine yourself playing in a World Cup game against the world’s best soccer players. Also, choose a specific competition in a precise location under particular conditions for each imagery session, thus reaching their imagery goals in a variety of competitions, settings, and conditions.
Imagery Content. Each imagery session should be comprised of your pre-performance routine and your performance in practice or competitions. If you compete in a sport that is short in duration, such as sprinting or wrestling, you can imagine an entire performance. If you compete in a sport that is lengthy, for example, golf, tennis, or soccer, you can imagine yourself performing in four or five key parts of the competition.
Imagery sessions. Imagery sessions should be done 3-4 times per week (imagery shouldn't be done too often because, as with any type of training, you can get burned out on it). Set aside a specific time of the day when you'll do your imagery (just like you do for your physical training). I recommend that you set your smartphone calendar to send you a reminder. Find a quiet, comfortable place where they won't be disturbed. Each session should last about 10 minutes.
Imagery journal. One difficulty with imagery is that, unlike physical training, the results aren't tangible. An effective way to deal with this problem is to keep an imagery journal. These logs should record key aspects of every imagery session including the quality of the imagined performance, any thoughts and feelings that occur (positive or negative), problems that emerged, and what you need to work on for the next session. An imagery journal enables you to see progress in your imagery, thereby making it more rewarding.
The Power of Mental Imagery
So, here's the deal. I can't guarantee that an mental imagery program is going to result in a quantum leap in your sport like it did for me in my ski racing so many years ago. But I will say that if you commit to a mental imagery program, there's a darned good chance that you will be much better prepared mentally than you were last year. And if you combine the imagery program with an intensive physical conditioning regimen and quality practice time, then I can say with confidence that, after a few months of committed imagery, when you head out to the field, court, course, or hill, you'll be able to say, “I'm as prepared as I can be to perform my best and achieve my goals.”
This is, more than ever, a multisensory endeavor, which is why the term “imagery” is now often preferred to “visualization.”
“Visualization, for me, doesn’t take in all the senses,” said Emily Cook, the veteran American aerialist. “You have to smell it. You have to hear it. You have to feel it, everything.”
Imagery has seldom been more in evidence than in Sochi, where the starting areas have been full of Olympians going through the motions, figuratively or literally. “Oh, yeah, it’s ridiculous; we’re all up there flapping our arms,” Cook said. “It looks insane, but it works.”
From mountain cluster to coastal cluster, from slope to speedskating oval, athletes are closing their eyes (or not) and seeing the near future. It is a vast parallel sporting universe of hope and occasional misery.
“Sometimes their eyes go back a little so that their whites show, and it’s really kind of creepy,” Erin Hamlin, the American bronze medalist in the luge, said of her fellow competitors. “Some people get really into it, and because we paddle to start, they’ll paddle really hard on the bench and all of the sudden you’ll be sitting there really quiet and someone will hit the bench really hard, and it will kind of startle you.”
The Winter Olympics are full of events that are contested in controlled, fairly predictable environments. Consider aerials and ski jumping. The wind or weather patterns may shift. The crowd noise may vary. But there is no direct competitor to change the dynamic, and in contrast to Alpine skiing events, no setting of gates to change the geometry.
But the most predictable Olympic environment is the sliding track. There are limited training runs during the Olympics, but Rush said that before competing, he had mentally driven the Sochi course hundreds of times from start house to finish.
“I’ve tried to keep the track in my mind throughout the year,” he said. “I’ll be in the shower or brushing my teeth. It just takes a minute, so I do the whole thing or sometimes just the corners that are more technical. You try to keep it fresh in your head, so when you do get there, you are not just starting at square one. It’s amazing how much you can do in your mind.”
Leading Winter Olympic nations clearly agree. The Canadian team came to Sochi with eight sports psychologists. The Norwegians came with three, including Britt Tajet-Foxell, who has worked with the cross-country star Marit Bjorgen as well as dancers at the Royal Ballet in London.
The French Olympic team, perhaps more inclined to self-analysis, came with none, according to one of its press officers, although its athletes do work with sports psychologists based at the national high-performance institute in Paris.
The United States brought nine sports psychologists, including five for its ski and snowboard program.
“The U.S. team has been engaged with sports psychology for a long time, and it’s really starting to get attention from other nations, so now you see they carry far more psychologists than they used to,” said Luke Bodensteiner, executive vice president at the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. “But for us it’s a pretty intense endeavor. We had 93 athletes here in our sports, and there’s no way one person can cover 93 athletes.”
The psychologist Detling, an assistant professor at the University of Utah, worked with the aerialists here after working with the short-track speedskating team in 2010. Detling has collaborated with Cook since 2002, when Cook was recovering after a crash that left her with broken bones in both feet.
Imagery has long been one of their focal points, and when Cook was in the midst of an injury layoff that lasted more than two years, she and Detling first used imagery to see and feel her bones heal.
They also created imagery scripts, highly detailed written accounts of the competition process from “Point A to Point Z.” Each jump sequence lasts about 10 seconds but packs a great deal of action into that small window, particularly in the air with the flipping and spinning. But Cook broke it all down and then recorded the script.
“I would say into the recorder: ‘I’m standing on the top of the hill. I can feel the wind on the back of my neck. I can hear the crowd,’ ” Cook said. “Kind of going through all those different senses and then actually going through what I wanted to do for the perfect jump. I turn down the in-run. I stand up. I engage my core. I look at the top of the jump.
“I was going through every little step of how I wanted that jump to turn out.”
Cook then played the recording back as she relaxed, eyes closed, feeling her muscles firing in response. She said that such mental work helped her return to the sport a better jumper and that she also had used imagery to break the cycle of negativity. Whenever fear surfaced, she would picture herself pricking a big red balloon with a pin.
“That sound and that immediate switch would kind of snap me out of it,” she said, adding, “The last couple years, I’ve definitely gotten to a point where when I’m on the hill, it’s very quick for me to switch from a negative thought to a positive one.”
Not all athletes have acquired the same faculty. Jacqueline Hernandez, an American Olympian in snowboard cross, said she had struggled with recurring images of crashing after she fractured an upper-arm bone and ended up with significant nerve damage.
“I’ll see myself fall because that will happen in my visualization, and then I have to make sure I clear that out before I go,” she said after arriving in Sochi. “It can be hard, sometimes really hard.”
Asked if she always succeeded, Hernandez paused before answering, “Yeah, I mean, mostly.”
Several days later, Hernandez crashed during her first qualifying run on the Rosa Khutor course, briefly losing consciousness before being transported down the mountain, where she was treated for a concussion and released.
“In images, it’s absolutely crucial that you don’t fail,” Detling said. “You are training those muscles, and if you are training those muscles to fail, that is not really where you want to be. So one of the things I’ll do is if they fail in an image, we stop, rewind and we replay again and again and again.”
Some sports are better suited to A-to-Z imagery than others. How does an athlete imagine a snowboard cross final or a short-track race, where the action is so dynamic and unpredictable?
You do it by envisioning situations, Detling said.
“I had one skater in Vancouver who wanted to image every possible scenario, and you can’t imagine every possible scenario in short track,” she said. “So we would do the obvious ones and then maybe a couple of unexpected ones.”
The Canadian bobsledder Rush, now 33, said he used to imagine himself driving a course by using his hands to simulate holding the steering ropes. But he now deploys only his left hand to simulate the path of the sled itself.
“As I got older, I preferred to think about the bob and its angles and its pitch,” he said. “You can kind of create that feeling in your hand.”
Alpine skiers, including Lindsey Vonn of the United States, will use their hands to simulate the path of their skis. Other skiers thrust both hands forward, often while gripping poles shortly before the start, and see themselves skiing the course through their own eyes.
This is called internal imagery. External imagery is seeing your race as if you are watching a video of yourself competing. Both methods are valid, Detling said. But technology and the advent of cameras that can be attached to a skier’s helmet and record a run from the skier’s perspective are changing the game.
Video aids and video games are, for now, only out-of-competition tools. “When you are at the actual performance, you’ve got to be able to pull it from here,” Detling said, pointing to her head.
Detling said research had shown that athletes who were adept at imaginary play as children — “imaginary friends, make believe, things like that” — were better at imagery.
The consensus is also that experience helps, but Mikaela Shiffrin, the American 18-year-old skier, said she had already mentally simulated many aspects of her first trip to the Olympics and thus did not feel as much like a rookie. She certainly did not ski like one on Friday, when she won the slalom. She apparently has a gift for visualizing race courses, too.
Shiffrin said she typically visualized a course twice: once after inspection and once shortly before her run.
“Sometimes eyes closed, sometimes eyes open, but I’m always kind of zoned out,” Shiffrin said.
Some Olympians, though, warn that too much projection can lead to paralysis by analysis.
“You can get totally mad scientist about it,” said Heather McPhie, an American moguls skier. “You can forget the passion, the reason for starting.” She added, “Some of my best results have come when I’m crazy sick or there was some really weird variable, because all of the sudden I had to simplify.”
Still, even if a vast majority of athletes envision the perfect run and never achieve it, most find imagery both reassuring and empowering.
“I don’t think I could possibly do a jump, or especially a new trick, without having this imagery process,” said Cook, who finished eighth in aerials here. “For me, this is so very key to the athlete I have become.”
At 34, she has become an expert who includes imagery in her daily routine and her competition routine. Watching her simulate jumps away from the jumping hill was an intense experience as she cast her eyes downward, moved her limbs with robotic precision and absorbed the imagined impact of the landings. When she finished a session that required only about two minutes to complete, she was flushed with the effort.
Only then did she re-establish contact with the observers in the room.
“You guys,” she said, “just totally didn’t exist.”Continue reading the main story