Mental Game Toolbox

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Words of Wisdom provided by Angela Wilt (aka MotivGirl)

Mental Imagery

Mental imagery involves the athletes imagining themselves in a specific environment or performing a specific activity. The images should have the athlete performing these items very well and successfully. They should see themselves enjoying the activity and feeling satisfied with their performance. They should attempt to enter fully into the image with all their senses. Sight, hear, feel, touch, smell and perform, as they would like to perform in real life.

When an athlete is in a fully relaxed state, he/she is particularly receptive to mental imagery. The next stage is then to learn how to develop and apply mental imagery skills.

What can mental imagery be used for?

Mental Imagery can be used:

  • To see success. Many athletes "see" themselves achieving their goals on a regular basis, both performing skills at a high level and seeing the desired performance outcomes
  • To motivate. Before or during training sessions, calling up images of your goals for that session, or of a past or future competition or competitor can serve a motivational purpose. It can vividly remind you of your objective, which can result in increased intensity in training.
  • To perfect skills. Mental imagery is often used to facilitate the learning and refinement of skills or skill sequences. The best athletes "see" and "feel" themselves performing perfect skills, programs, routines, or plays on a very regular basis.
  • To familiarize. Mental imagery can be effectively used to familiarize yourself with all kinds of things, such as a competition site, a race course, a complex play pattern or routine, a pre-competition plan, an event focus plan, a media interview plan, a refocusing plan, or the strategy you plan to follow
  • To set the stage for performance. Mental imagery is often an integral part of the pre-competition plan, which helps set the mental stage for a good performance. Athletes do a complete mental run through of the key elements of their performance. This helps draw out their desired pre-competition feelings and focus. It also helps keep negative thoughts from interfering with a positive pre-game focus.
  • To refocus. Mental imagery can be useful in helping you to re focus when the need arises. For example, if a warm-up is feeling sluggish, imagery of a previous best performance or previous best event focus can help get things back on track. You can also use imagery as a means of refocusing within the event, by imagining what you should focus on and feeling that focus.

Mental imagery should not focus on the outcome but on the actions to achieve the desired outcome. How do I apply mental imagery?

Golfing great Jack Nicklaus used mental imagery. In describing how he images his performance, he wrote:

"I never hit a shot even in practice without having a sharp in-focus picture of it in my head. It's like a color movie. First, I "see" the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes, and I "see" the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behavior on landing. Then there's a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality only at the end of this short private Hollywood spectacular do I select a club and step up to the ball."

When should mental imagery be used?

To become highly proficient at the constructive use of imagery, you have to use it ever day, on your way to training, during training, after training, and in the evenings before sleeping. If you want to perfect and use mental imagery to your fullest advantage, you can start by doing two things. In every training session, before you execute any skill or combination of skills, first do it in imagery as perfectly and precisely as possible. See, feel, and experience yourself moving through the actions in your mind, as you would like them actually to unfold. In competitions, before the event starts, mentally recall the event focus plan, significant plays, skills, movements, reactions, or feelings that you want to carry into the event.

How can I stay focused?

I expect you have seen an athlete become angry at their performance (throw a tantrum, throw the racket on the floor, argue with the judge etc.). The problem here is that the athlete is focusing on the mistake (the past), something than cannot be changed, and not on the future (the next point). In young athletes, this can be hard to overcome not only because they are inexperienced but also because of peer pressure or the fear of losing.

In sports psychology "pattern breaking" routines are used to help prevent the athlete falling into this negative attitude. A "pattern breaker" can be a word or phrase shouted within the brain (not vocally) or something physical (pinging an elastic band on the wrist). The coach can use the "pattern breaker" in training or competition to refocus the athlete. This approach may not be suitable for a young athlete as it is specialized and will take time for them to master.

Many young athletes have their idol (role model) who they would like to emulate. You may see the athlete attempt to assume the identity and hallmarks of the role model when they perform. This is beneficial provided the role model is a suitable one. Watching the role model in action (video, television, live) will help the athlete see how their idol stays focused and how they react to their mistakes. The role model's name could become the "pattern breaker" phrase for the coach to use when their young protégée falls into the negative thoughts trap. On hearing their role model's name the athlete will shift their focus to how their role model would react and assume a positive (calm, composed and motivated) approach. What are the benefits?

Mental Imagery itself can be useful in a number of circumstances including:

  • developing self confidence
  • developing pre-competition and competition strategies which teach athletes to cope with new situations before they actually encounter them
  • helping the athlete to focus his/her attention or concentrate on a particular skill he/she is trying to learn or develop. This can take place both in or away from the training session
  • the competition situation

When combined with relaxation it is useful in:

  • the promotion of rest, recovery and recuperation
  • the removal of stress related reactions, e.g. increased muscular tension, etc.
  • the establishing of a physical and mental state which has an increased receptivity to positive mental imagery
  • the establishing of a set level of physical and mental arousal prior to warming up for competition

The "Quick Set" routine

Psychologist Jeff Simons developed a routine that would allow an athlete to achieve an appropriate mental arousal in the last 30 seconds before a competition. The "Quick Set" routine, which involves physical, emotional and focus cues, can also be used as a means of refocusing quickly following a distraction.

An example of this routine for a sprinter could be:

  • Close your eyes, clear your mind and maintain deep rhythmical breathing, in through your nose and out through your mouth (physical cue)
  • Imagine a previous race win, see yourself crossing the line in first place and recreate those emotional feelings of success (emotional cue)
  • Return your focus to the sprint start, think of blasting off on the 'B' of the bang with the appropriate limb action (focus cue)

"You only achieve what you believe"

Author: Brian Mackenzie, Mental Imagery