Consider the amount of “stuff” an athlete cannot control – the weather, the opponent, the field, the outcome (largely), the crowd, the coach, the refs. That leaves only a few items that are controllable, one of which is the ways we prepare ourselves mentally. What kind of words, images, and ideas do you put in your head prior to competition? Do you choose, for instance, to think and prepare in such a way that aids you feeling frustrated, or embarrassed, or eager, or powerful? Emotions don’t simply arise without warning; they are preceded by how we think, and the types of language or pictures on which we choose to focus.
The most recent survey identifies that between 90-95% of North American Olympic athletes report using imagery in their sport. Consider this in a different context: if 95% of the world’s best athletes reported drinking a certain post-workout shake, or using a particular piece of equipment, chances are the majority of people in that sport would soon be seen gulping that same shake, or swinging that same bat. I would imagine, with knowledge that the most successful international athletes use mental imagery, most of us would wish to model this behavior as well.
Mental imagery is simply creating, or recreating, experiences in the mind to help one feel a certain way. Imagery can be used to practice skills, to gain confidence for competing, to correct mistakes, and to overcome obstacles, among others. Miraculously, the same neural pathways in the brain are activated when you physical execute a skill as when you mentally rehearse that same skill. In other words, go out onto the court and hit 5 forehands. Then, put your racquet down, close your eyes and simply imagine hitting 5 forehands. Your brain does not know the difference between these two activities, and will respond identically to both the physical and mental rehearsal of the forehand. It will consider both modalities of practice nearly equally beneficial.
Researchers recently chose three groups of college students at random to take a test of free throw percentages in basketball. None knew about the techniques of mental imagery. The first group practiced free throws each day for twenty days. The second was tested with free throws on the first and last days but did nothing in-between. The third group was also tested the first and last days, but instead of physically practicing spent 20 minutes each day mentally imaging shooting free throws. On the twentieth day the percentage of improvement for the group that practiced daily was about 24 percent. The second group did not improve at all. The third group, which had only visualized improving but did not actually practice, did about 23 percent better! This type of research has been replicated with darts, piano playing, archery, and even muscle development.
Ultimately, the goal of using imagery prior to competition is for an athlete to walk into his or her competitive environment and be able to say, “Wow, I feel like I’ve been here before.” Consider how powerful an advantage a player has when s/he has mentally rehearsed that which will be actually experienced on game day.