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How Mental Imagery Helps Athletes Succeed

What is Mental Imagery?

Classically, mental imagery has been defined as:

  • The ability to form mental images of things or events
  • By repeatedly calling up images in your mind and rewiring the circuits of your mind toward a realization of those images. The remarkable feature of imagery work is that it can be accompanied by physiological changes.
  • Experience that resembles perceptual experience, but which occurs in the absence of the appropriate stimuli for the relevant perception.
  • Involves focusing your mind to visualize yourself in a certain situation and doing well in that situation.
  • A cognitive psychological skill in which the athlete uses all the senses to create a mental experience of an athletic performance

There’s nothing mystical about mental imagery. Simply put, it’s a visualization exercise that helps not only athletes but anyone who desires increased success and performance. There’s multiple ways to practice it and it can be done in short spurts or for a long duration.

How Mental Imagery Works

When an athlete imagines himself performing to perfection, he is physiologically creating neutral brain patterns that are similar to small tracks engraved in the brain cells. This enables the athlete to perform athletic tasks by mentally practicing those tasks first in his mind. Mental imagery is intended to train the athletes’ mind, thus teaching the muscles to perform exactly how he wants them to perform.

Practical Application of Mental Imagery

It’s true that we move closer to what we focus on. If an athlete imagines missing a shot, or how good the other team is, or even fears injury, it harms his game concentration and affects the outcome. It’s absolutely essential that athletes visualize success and victory.  Steven Balzac, a psychology professor and former nationally ranked fencer says, “If we imagine success, we prepare ourselves for success because that’s what’s in our heads.”

It’s important to remember that athletes use imagery in different ways. Their imagery may not involve just visual images, but sounds, smells or touch. It really depends on the person. Another important aspect of mental imagery is for the athlete to watch and study his sports heroes and imagine that he is making those same shots with precision. Does this mean the athlete will always perform at top level? No…we’re human and we all have bad days on occasion. But visualization and mental imagery increases the chance of increased and sustained success.

Results of Mental Imagery

Of course physical practice is always the best way for an athlete to improve his skill level and race to the top of his game. However, mental imagery is better than no practice at all and, incorporated with physical practice, is the best way to see optimal results.

Continuous studies are always being conducted to determine just how much mental imagery plays into the increased success of athletes. And, for the rest of us, imagining ourselves more successful is never a waste of time if we are also spending equal or more time physically developing our skill set. The time spent in mental imagery is beneficial not only to the athlete but to the business person, the student, the entrepreneur, and anyone else who desires to develop and increase their level of play.

The more mental imagery is studied; more effective techniques can be developed and adapted by athletes…and the rest of us.

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Image by jayhem

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9 Responses to How Mental Imagery Helps Athletes Succeed

  1. Tia Singh July 28, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    I've actually read some reports where athletes who practiced mentally came out ahead of those who practiced just physically! Cos when they finally got down to it, they were so clear and focused, that bam. Go figure huh.

    The biggest challenge in doing this is consistency. I've tried to do it 21 days, 30 days, one day at a time and always get bored after a while. So my suggestion would be to switch it up with affirmations, subliminal recordings, vision boards etc and visualise when you're feeling good.

    Years ago my dad asked me to close my eyes and simulate driving a car – moving between the accelerator and clutch, over and over again – before he'd let me actually get in the car and learn. I said nah, forget it, that's too much work. LoL!

    Imagine being taught this powerful tool at an early age and realising its power then.. nice. @TiaSparkles

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