Updated: May 18
Imagery is a process used to create or re-create an experience in the mind. It involves using memories and senses to create an experience. Imagery allows us to perform “mental practice,” and can help increase motivation, improve concentration, control emotions, and cope with pain or injury. It can be used before practice, before competition, and even during competition. Imagery works by recreating experiences, producing an effect on our nervous system that is similar to an actual experience.
There are four types of imagery: visual, kinesthetic, auditory, and olfactory. Visual imagery includes actual images, things that we can see. For instance, a soccer player might visualize themself performing a skill move in a match before doing so. Kinesthetic imagery is feeling, sensation; what kind of sensations are we feeling in our body when we perform an action? Auditory is what we hear, perhaps we can hear the crowd noise, or the coach giving instruction. Olfactory imagery is what we smell. When athletes combine visual, kinesthetic, auditory, olfactory, tactile, taste, and emotional input into their imagery, this is called a polysensory experience. The more senses involved, the more powerful and effective practicing imagery becomes.
Theories of Imagery
The most effective practice of imagery includes a combination of these types of imagery, in order to create the most real experience we can in our mind. This is the basis of the psychoneuromuscular theory of imagery, which is that vividly imagined events muscles in the same way that physical practice does. Another theory, symbolic learning theory, postulates that imagery helps athletes understand their movement patterns by creating a motor program in the central nervous system, and then successfully performing the movement, creating a blueprint for movement. Bioinformational theory posits that imagery is made up of two statements: stimulus propositions, which include environment-specific features of the imagined scenario, and response propositions, which describe the athlete’s response to the scenario. Triple code theory includes the ISM model, which suggests three parts to effective imagery: I-The realness of the image, S- psychophysiological changes, M- the meaning of the image.
Vividness & Controllability
Two of the keys to effective imagery are vividness and controllability. Vividness is the degree to which the imagined experience feels real. In order to increase vividness of imagery, athletes should involve as many senses as possible, as well as the emotional climate associated with the action they are imagining. Vividness is particularly effective when used in practice, away from competition. One way to practice using vividness is by imagining a positive performance. What are you seeing, touching, feeling, smelling, tasting, experiencing emotionally in this moment? Consider how you look, the sounds you hear, your self talk, your emotions, and sensations. Controllability is an aspect of imagery that can be useful in competition. It involves the ability to control the images we see. Think of a striker who constantly imagines their self missing shots. These images can be harmful to confidence and performance, but they can be controlled. By imagining themselves being cool, calm, and collected in front of goal, they can control the negative images that threaten their performance.
Another aspect of imagery is the perspective from which the image takes place. The perspective can be either internal or external. Internal imagery is experienced from the athlete’s own eyes, as if they are performing the actions themselves. Internal imagery is associated with skill execution and takes into account changing environmental conditions (Condie, 2021). External imagery, on the other hand, is experienced from outside the body, or the third person point of view. External imagery is best suited to evaluating and refining form (Condie, 2021).
Developing Imagery Skills
There are a few ways to develop imagery skills, the first of which being developing sensory awareness. This has to do with the awareness of information provided by our senses. While vision is our go-to sense when we imagine things, athletes can develop sensory awareness by making an effort to draw from other senses prior to vision. Another key to developing imagery skills is setting goals which are based on the quality of imagery. Athletes can set difficult but attainable goals, and progressively improve their imagery skills as they accomplish their goals of seeing more vivid imagery (Condie, 2021).