Imagery Training for Performance

Performance & Sport

On March 11th, the World Health Organization declared the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic. Shortly after, on March 16th, Canada closed its borders, and the world began to shut down. Suddenly, practices were cancelled, and gyms were closed until further notice, as a mandatory 14-day isolation period began. Less than a week later, Canadian athletes got the call from Team Canada. The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) made the decision to not send Canadian teams to the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the summer of 2020 should they go ahead as scheduled.

Thankfully, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) made the quick decision to postpone the Games for one year. However, with everything closed and COVID-19 restrictions in place, how were athletes to stay ready during lockdown? There is no full replacement for physical training, but did you know that many elite athletes use imagery training to keep in top form when physical training is not possible?

What is Imagery Training?

So, what is imagery? It has been defined in sport psychology research as a mental experience that mimics real experience, where 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. In short, it is a mental process by which an individual rehearses or simulates a given action and is widely used in sport training as mental practice.

I’ve been using imagery training a lot more during the pandemic, since I can’t be on the mats wrestling physically. However, because I wanted to get creative in how I could overcome this new challenge in my preparation for the Olympic Games, I decided to learn more about imagery training as a mental performance technique and how it has helped other top athletes become successful. And I want to share some of that insight with you.

Motor imagery is now increasingly being studied using neuroimaging techniques and has been found to activate the fronto-parietal, subcortical, and cerebellar regions of the brain.1 This ‘motor imagery network’ includes regions involved during actual motor execution.2 In other words, the regions of our brain that fire, or are activated, when we are performing sporting tasks physically can also be activated when we are mimicking those tasks during imagery training. Thus, it is possible that imagery can be an effective way to train neural pathways in leu of physical training if done effectively and consistently.

The lab is one thing, but what about real-world application you might ask. That’s where the experiences of an avid imagery user come to mind. You may know this athlete as the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time – Michael Phelps. He used imagery extensively in his training and you may have heard the, now famous, tale of how imagery training helped him during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

If you haven't heard the story, as soon as Michael Phelps entered the water for his 200-meter butterfly race, his goggles broke and filled with water, he was swimming essentially blind. However, when he touched the wall and angrily ripped off his goggles at the end of the race, he had set another world record. He won 8 gold medals those Games and solidified himself as an Olympic legend. When asked about how he managed to perform so well in that race, after something that other swimmers would have considered devastating and crippling, he said that he had already prepared for it. He had done so many positive performance visualizations that he began to visualize what he would do if things went wrong, how he could carry on and perform under less than ideal circumstances.

How to Use Imagery Training for Performance

Based on that you may be wondering how to get started in your own imagery training. So, I’ve outlined some actionable tips to get you started and to make that training more effective:

  1. Start small but be consistent – Research suggests that beginners should start with brief sessions (approximately 5 minutes) but should practice daily. As you become more comfortable with the skill you can systematically increase your time.
  2. Start easy then slowly build on that foundation – You have to learn to walk before you can run so-to-speak. Start off with imagining just a piece of your sport equipment, for example the soccer ball. See and feel the ball, try to rotate it in your minds eye, feel its weight and the texture of the surface. From there you can start to increase the difficulty and begin to manipulate the ball in more complex ways, eventually building to seeing yourself make your way down the field passing multiple defenders and scoring a goal.
  3. It should incorporate all the senses – Try to make your imagery training polysensory by, for example if you are a soccer player: seeing the ball, feeling the ball, smelling the fresh cut grass of the field, hearing the crowd cheer, and tasting the sweat on your lips.
  4. Plan your imagery – To really benefit from imagery, you should plan the content of your imagery to meet your current needs. You can use imagery to practice skills, rehearse tactics and game plan strategies, and to increase self-confidence and decrease anxiety. Set goals for yourself and plan your sessions to meet those.
  5. It should be vivid and detailed and occur in real-time – Try to make your experience as realistic as possible when you are doing your imagery, including events unfolding how they would at a physical practice or event if you were performing in “real-time.” It can take practice and a lot of focus to achieve this, but intentional rehearsal will improve your skill.
It should have a positive focus – You should always try to have a positive outcome of your imagery. Even if you are preparing for when things go wrong, like Michael Phelps, you still want to envision the positive outcome. His goggles may have filled with water, but he still finished the race AND broke the world record!