I’ve written some pieces on how to improve your imagery abilities for peak sport performance. I wanted to expand on that tip, because imagery is such a powerful mental skill. Since the marathon is coming up here in Richmond in just a couple of weeks, I’ll use that for my examples, but what I’ll cover here will be applicable to all sports, particularly endurance events.
Imagery works to improve athletic performance in several ways. One way is by improving your muscle memory. Basically, if you think of performing a motor movement, the nerves controlling those muscles will fire just as they would if you were actually performing the movement (although at a much lower intensity). So, for example, if you imagine yourself running the Marathon using good technique, you will improve your muscle memory for this. Imagery also works by giving you a “mental blueprint” of an activity; that is, the more you imagine your performance, the more familiarity you will have with carrying out your plans at the event.
Imagery can be used to improve sport performance in many ways, from helping athletes recover from injury to improving confidence and motivation. In this newsletter, I’ll give you some tips on how to use imagery to prepare for a competition and to get you through the rough spots in a race (like between mile 20 and the finish of the Marathon). Before that, however, I want to mention two things you should know that will help your imagery be more effective.
In all the research done on imagery (and there’s been quite a lot of it), two factors have been consistently related to higher imagery effectiveness: vividness and controllability. Vividness refers to how clearly you use all your senses to imagine the scene you create in your mind. When you practice imagery, make sure you use not only your visual sense, but also include what you hear and feel in your images. The kinesthetic sense, that is, the feeling of your body as it moves through space, is particularly helpful in improving imagery effectiveness. Additionally, try to imagine your thoughts and feelings as vividly as you can. Controllability refers to getting your images to do what you want them to do. Consistent practice is the best remedy for problems controlling your images. Don’t be too concerned if you have problems in one of these areas; everyone has imagery strengths and weaknesses, and your weaknesses will improve with practice.
When you practice imagery, begin in a quiet place free of distractions. Start by taking a few deeps breaths to help you relax. Imagine the time before your race, for instance, imagine that you are arriving at the starting line of the Marathon. Visualize what you will look like, how you will feel, what the crowd looks and sounds like. Imagine yourself going through your pre-race routine – warming up, stretching, and so forth. Now imagine the beginning of the race. Feel yourself settling into a good rhythm. Imagine yourself excited but not anxious, confident, and ready to race. Playing this scene over in your mind will help you solidify your pre-race routine and get you in the best frame of mind for the start of the race.
Of course, completing a long race like the marathon is tough. It would be unrealistic to imagine yourself completing it without effort or fatigue. You can, however, use imagery to help you anticipate and cope with these challenges. As you imagine yourself at different sections of the race, practice imagining yourself getting tired, cramping up, or having any other problem that you have had in the past. Imagine as vividly as you can what you are thinking and feeling, what your body feels like, and what you see and hear around you. Now (and this is the important part), imagine yourself successfully working through this time. Maybe you will imagine saying things to yourself at this time to get you through. Maybe you will imagine refocusing your attention on your technique rather than on your pain. Maybe you will imagine yourself using energizing imagery to get you back on track.
The effectiveness of imagery improves with practice, so begin practicing today. Spent just three to five minutes practicing imagery several times a week (you can always find time at night when you go to sleep), and by the time you arrive at the starting line, your body and your mind will be in the best shape possible.
Sun, November 1, 2009
by Dana Blackmer, Ph.D, CC-AASP filed under