Mental Imagery, sometimes called visualization, has been used for a longtime mainly by elite athletes to improve their performance. Most common examples are related to sports where you have some complex body moves like divers or aerial ski jumpers, or to high speed sports like downhill ski or luge/skeleton. But it can be very useful for any sport. I myself used it when I was a swimmer. I actually didn’t really know much about it, it was just a way for me to prepare and even more important, feel ready for my swim.
Mental imagery is the most powerful way to train your body and neural pathways between physical practices, to prepare for a situation and / or to create the state of mind you need. It’s much more precise to send an image to your brain and body than to try and explain it with words.
What science says about visualization:
- According to neurosciences, mental imagery impacts many cognitive processes in the brain: motor control, attention, perception, and memory.
- Mental imagery activates the same zones in your brain and the same neural pathways as the real physical activity. If you would put sensors on your quad muscles and make measurements while visualizing yourself running, you would detect electrical impulses in the muscles, meaning you are activating the same circuits in your body. This doesn’t mean you can train only by staying in your couch (unfortunately for some 😊), because the strength of the activation is much lower, but it strengthens these neural pathways.
- Images may be an efficient way of coding or representing instructions for movement.
- Mental imagery is broader than just a visual representation and should bring in the 5 senses for more efficiency (visual, auditive, kinesthetic, smell, taste). We remember much more through senses. As an example, I did a lot of skydiving years ago and the memory is much more vivid with the smell of the gas of the plane, feeling the wind and the noise when the door opens, and feeling the sensations in my body when diving than with just seeing myself dive.
How can Mental Imagery be used:
- To rehearse some specific movements and strengthen the neural pathways involved in your activities
- To prepare for various situations that might happen: visualize the ideal scenario, how you want thing to happen but also scenario A, B, C which might occur during a competition (weather conditions, being down in a game, falling in your race, etc…). If you see it in your head again and again and again, then you will know what to do when it happens and not panic. This also enables to reduce the sensation of going into the unknown and therefore lowers your stress level.
- To strengthen your state of mind (confidence, thriving with pressure, focus, resilience, etc…) by (re)playing the way you want/need to.
- To focus on the positive and get rid of negative thoughts.
- To virtually practice during the off season or when injured (rehearsing your games, your moves, your meets on a regular basis) in order to come back a step ahead rather than a step behind due to the absence of training.
For those who want more, HERE is an interesting article related to mental imagery during 2014 winter Olympics.
You can start by visualizing yourself doing your race, playing your game, or focusing on a specific goal. And find your own way to do it. It might be hard at first and take time but that how it’s going to be the most effective. Note: this can be used in your life too, before a school test, or before an important meeting. See yourself doing great, getting the results you want, and also see how things can turn and how you want to respond when that happens.
My way to use mental imagery with the athletes I coach:
I create an audio MP3, using specific techniques and skills to guide them through a specific visualization to prepare for an important event, improve some mental skills or work on specific moves and I send this audio to them. They can listen to it whenever they want, on their way to practice, at night, before a game or competition. On the long term we build a playlist with different mental imageries with specific themes (peak performance, focus, confidence, free to fail, Keep Fun, prepare for meet A or game B etc…) and the athletes can pick in this library depending on their needs.
If you are interested in using mental imagery as a tool to improve your performance and keep fun, contact me and I’ll give you an example of what it looks (sounds) like.