Last Updated 20 Apr 2022

Imagery in Sports

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Athletes are always on the look out for techniques that will allow them to get better at their game. Whether it is a golfer who is looking to break his best score or a hockey goalie who is trying to get a shutout in the next game he plays, amateur and professional athletes are constantly trying to find ways of improving their performance. One performance enhancing technique that has been the subject of many empirical studies and theoretical speculation is the practice of imagery. Defined in its most general sense, imagery is "an experience that mimics real experience.

We can be aware of 'seeing' an image, feeling movements as an image, or experiencing an image of smell, tastes, or sounds without actually experiencing the real thing… it differs from dreams in that we are awake and conscious when we form an image. " (Munroe-Chandler & Hall, 2011, p. 370) Applied to the basic problem of improving athletic performance, imagery exercises might consist of visualizing a hole in one for a golfer, or imagining what it feels like to play the net in the next game for a goalie.

Imagery is connected to but distinct from the technique known as 'mental practice,' where an athlete rehearses his or her strategy in competition. There are many various kinds of imagery techniques that exist, but the question of whether imagery really helps athletes to improve is still a matter of some debate, as is the question of how imagery works. The following paper will look at the research that exists on imagery as a technique athletes can use to program their minds.

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It will conclude, on the basis of this research, that imagery can indeed help people's athletic performance, but that it should be considered as a complement rather than a substitute for practice and training. In order to rigorously understand the various ways that imagery can interact with and potentially improve athletic performance, some kind of standard benchmark is required. It was for this reason that the Sport Imagery Questionnaire (SIQ) was designed. The SIQ is an analytic tool that allows sports psychologists to make fine distinctions between the various functions of imagery as it is employed by athletes (i. . motivation versus concentration) and the levels at which imagery works (i. e. specific versus general). (Hall, Mack, Paivio, & Hausenblas, 1998, p. 74)

This analytical framework is used by many other researchers in the field to quantify and make predictive claims about the effects of various kinds of imagery on athletic performance. Weinberg (2008) defines imagery as “using all the senses (or at least all the senses that are appropriate) to create or re-create an experience in the mind. (p. 2) Weinberg is careful to distinguish between earlier techniques of ‘mental practice’ that involved the review of particular strategies and thinking about performance and current techniques of mental imagery, writing that “it is very different, for example, if a tennis player simply went over his strategy for how he would like to play an upcoming opponent versus actually imagining himself performing certain skills and strategies against a specific opponent. ” (Weinberg, p. )

In essence, mental practice is a ‘3rd person’ technique in which an athlete verbally rehearses to himself how he is going to perform and what he is going to do if his opponent does a particular action, while imagery is a ‘1st person’ technique where an athlete lets go of words and tries instead to place himself in the performance situation mentally. Needless to say, the hard and fast division between the two is difficult to observe or even practice in reality.

Most people in their daily thoughts entertain both images and talk in their minds, and the same applies to athletes using various imagery or mental practice techniques. Using mental practice, an athlete ‘talks himself through’ a performance scenario, proposing various courses of action based on an opponents previous history. Using imagery, an athlete rehearses the various body movements that are to be used in successfully performing the sport they are training for in their minds eye.

A tennis player using mental imagery might imagine how the court will feel under his feet and how the ball will bounce. He will envision himself running up to or away from the net to return the various volleys of his opponent. Both mental practice and imagery, according to Weinberg, did in fact prove successful for athletes in improving their performance, but many of the gains that athletes experienced were solely anecdotal; in other words, their performance was not subject to detailed empirical scrutiny, nor was the technique of mental practice developed to a very great degree.

As Weinberg notes, “the effectiveness of imagery, per se, is... difficult to tease out, because the meta-analyses typically combined effects from studies that used various forms of mental practice to arrive at one overall effect size. ” (p. 2-3) Weinberg also notes that the field of mental imagery in sports has become more rigorous in the past decade or so, noting that “current imagery research (as well as the practice of imagery in the field) often involves detailed scripts that focus on achieving particular outcomes... arlier mental practice research was generally not this rigorous in this regard or simply was not interested in this type of mental preparation. ” (Weinberg, 2008, p. 3)

Post, Wrisberg, and Mullins (2010) describe the results of a study on imagery where basketball players on a girls’ highschool team were asked to participate in a guided imagery exercise before half of the games the girls played during their season. The authors collected data on both the victories that the girls’ team had won and also the number of made versus missed free throw shots.

Subjecting the data to a 2 by 2 chi-square analysis, these authors concluded that the imagery technique used by the girls before their games significantly improved their chances of winning and improved their chances of making free throw shots. With respect to their results, Post, Wrisburg, & Mullins (2010) write that “imagery alone or in combination with other psychological skills (e. g. , relaxation) can enhance the competition-related thoughts and emotions of athletes.

The documented effects of imagery include improved self-confidence, increased motivation, improved selective attention, and reduced or more effectively managed pre-competitive anxiety. ” (p. 2) Why this is the case is still a matter of much controversy, with explanations of the effects of mental imagery on athletic performance ranging from imagery as a rehearsal that prepares the body to imagery as a kind of attention focusing tool that makes athletes concentrate better. In the study these authors describe, 16 female varsity basketball players were asked to run through an imagery script created by the coach (Mullins).

The script was based on several recommendations from sports psychology literature, beginning “with a brief centering phase that involved deep breathing... followed by a stimulus proposition phase where players were instructed to re-create possible game situations surrounding the free throw shot and a response proposition phase that consisted of the actions of the entire shot from the time the player began her pre-shot routine until she saw and heard the ball swish through the net. ” (p. 6) Results reported by Callow and Hardy (2001) come to a similar conclusion with respect to the efficacy of mental imagery in improving athletic performance.

In their study, they apply Martin, Moritz, and Hall’s (1999) model to a sample of 123 female netball players in Wales. In their analysis of the positive results they found in using imagery in netball, Callow and Hardy distinguish between two kinds of confidence: sport confidence and self-efficacy. The first “refers to the belief that an athlete possesses about his or her ability to be successful in sport in general” whereas the second “refers to an individual’s belief in his or her capabilities to be successful in executing specific tasks and skills in specific situations... (Callow & Hardy, 2001, p. 2)

They propose that the mechanism by which imagery works to improve performance is directly related to the increase in the feeling of self-efficacy that athletes achieve through using directed imagery exercises. Using the SIQ framework designed by Hall et al. (1998), Callow & Hardy (2001) distinguish between five kinds of imagery: Cognitive General (CG; e. g. , I imagine executing entire plays/programs sections just the way I want them to happen in an event/game), Cognitive Specific (CS; e. g. I can easilty change an image of a skill), Motivational General-Mastery (MG-M; e. g. , I imagine myself working successfully through tough situations), Motivational General-Arousal (MG-A; e. g. , I imagine the excitement associated with competing), and Motivational Specific (MS; e. g. , I imagine myself winning a medal). (p. 2-3) These five types of imagery correspond to those employed by the Sport Imagery Questionnaire (SIQ) that Callow and Hardy used to monitor the effectiveness of imagery exercises amongst the study’s sample of female netball players.

The authors found not only that the use of different kinds of imagery contributed to greater athletic success, but also that different types of imagery were used by players of differing skills; in other words, lower skilled netballers tended to employ MG-M and CG more often than MG-A, while higher skilled netballers used MS. This indicates that different kinds of imagery possess differing levels of “pertinence” to an athlete. (p. 12) For instance, a higher skilled netball player will have been in a situation where they are close to winning a championship or medal, so this kind of imagery is something they can easily access.

Novice netballers, on the other hand, will be more concerned with the execution of basic moves and strategies, and will focus their mental resources on this aspect of the game. Similar findings of the positive effect of imagery on athletic performance are reported by MacIntyre & Moran (2007), who define the process of mental imagery as "a cognitive performance-enhancement technique that is used extensively by athletes, coaches and psychologists to facilitate skill learning and performance. (p. 1)

The authors go on to state that imagery techniques in enhancing athletic performance have become so prevalent that they are now considered to be a "central pillar" of psychology in sports. (MacIntyre & Moran, 2007, p. 1) They divide the history of imagery research into two 'waves,' one wave consisting of empirical research into the success of 'mental practice,' defined as "the systematic use of mental imagery in order to rehearse physical actions. " (p. )

While this first wave went far in demonstrating a connection between using mental practice and athletic success, it was weakened by the fact that it had no theory to guide its findings. In response to this lack of theory, the second wave MacIntyre and Moran describe attempts to connect the success of mental practice with a larger model or taxonomy that categorizes different types of imagery and different imagery methods. Despite this new trend in sports psychology research, findings in imagery studies continue to suffer from some significant drawbacks that undermine their conclusiveness.

One drawback MacIntyre and Moran (2007) point out is that most of the imagery studies that exist have used beginner athletes rather than professional or 'elite' athletes. This is a problem because it is difficult to generalize about the success of mental imagery in creating better performance in athletes in general from only a particular set. Beginning athletes, simply by virtue of their novice status, might demonstrate significant athletic performance gains with or without imagery.

Another weakness of most studies these authors point out is that they do not take into account beliefs athlete's have about their own imagery processes. In other words, many imagery studies do not take into account the 'meta-imagery' that athletes might engage in concerning how successful their imagery techniques will be in improving their performance. This is clearly a drawback with respect to drawing conclusions about the ultimate efficacy of imagery, because it might not be the activity of imagery per se that helps an athlete succeed, but rather their belief that their imagery techniques will help them.

Findings presented in Kim and Giacobbi (2009) suggest that beliefs about the efficacy of imagery as a technique are just as, if not more important in predicted better athletic success than the technique itself. 16 middle-aged participants between 35 and 65 were asked specific questions about the use of imagery in connection with exercise. Questions concerned "where, when, what (content), and why (function)… [participants used] exercise imagery. " (Kim & Giacobbi, 2009, p. 5) In addition to these questions about imagery content, participants were also asked about their own feelings concerning the impact imagery had on their exercise routines.

On the whole, imagery was believed to be an activity that improved participants' concentration and performance. (p. 18) The foregoing studies suggest a number of conclusions about the use and effectiveness of imagery for athletes who are looking for techniques to improve their game. One of the most obvious conclusions is that imagery does appear to enhance athletic performance, but the degree to which it does so depends in large part upon the pre-existing skill level of the person being considered.

For beginners or novices at a particular sport, imagery can have a dramatic effect on performance, while for athletes who are more advanced and at a higher skill level, the effects of imagery in performance are less pronounced. A second conclusion concerning the use of imagery in sports is that the effect imagery has on performance depends to a large degree upon the beliefs of the individual with regard to the technique's effectiveness – a person who believes that imaging a performance will help them creates, in a sense, a self-fulfilling prophecy of their own success.

This is somewhat equivalent to the 'placebo effect' that is common in the use of drugs. Third, various studies have shown that different kinds of imagery are used by athletes at different skill levels. Beginning athletes will use imagery to create scenes of successfully blocking a shot, or making a basket, whereas advanced athletes image instead the winning of a competition or event. One aspect of imagery in sports psychology that remains an issue of contention is the precise mechanism by which imagery is able to assist athletes perform better.

As discussed above, different studies have proposed different ways in which imagery is effective, but none of these proposed mechanisms have been demonstrated unequivocally as being the only correct one. Most likely, the mechanism by which imagery operates is a complex one that involves not only the inner rehearsal of actions, thereby amounting to a kind of 'practice without practice,' but also involves the heightening of concentration for the athlete.

Regardless of its mechanism of action, it is clear that imagery is a technique (or rather, family of techniques) that promises much for athletes' performance. Needless to say, imagery cannot ever be used as a full substitute for physical training and practice. Imagine how a football team would perform if, instead of practicing, they merely 'imagined' practicing for the week before their big game! However, used in conjunction with rigourous training programs, imagery is an excellent psychological complement that can help athletes improve.

Imagery in Sports essay

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