One of my favorite phrases I teach athletes I coach is “See it happen, make it happen.” Doing things successfully is implied, and there is plenty of research over the years that demonstrates nearly all athletes visulize themselves competing and performing. However, to make use of the formal practice of imagery effective, athletes are well served being taught to see themselves execute well in adverse and difficult situations. Implementing a structured process of imagery into your mental training has several benefits that promote higher levels of performance.
As I noted above, imagery is a natural mental activity. If you have ever caught yourself daydreaming or fantasizing about future events, altering past ones, or reliving things well done, then you have engaged in a natural state of visualization. Actively engaging in this type of activity can increase your performance as it elevates your creativity, enhances problem solving, and promotes higher levels of thinking. Each of these are valuable when it comes to critical moments in big competitions. No matter how many times you have practiced a skill, there are always unpredictable situations that require inspirational flare.
While innovative play and execution are valuable, the use of imagery requires a structured approach. Important considerations need to be addressed in order to “prepare” to perform well in stressful moments. Is the purpose of imagery to learn how to react with greater accuracy? If so, see yourself performing in novel situations. If you are looking to improve specific skills or plays, then visualizing “clean” execution. Each of these allows you to mentally practice physical skill sets in specific situations.
There are also elements of play and performance you have not yet experienced because they are new. As an example, you and a coach may have newly developed plays or maneuvers that you have not seen or done before. Such situations lend themselves perfectly to mental practice as you can visualize not only how to execute, but also how to do so in potential situations you feel may occur. Linemen learning to shed blocking techniques, point guards visualizing openings for passes against certain opponents, or tennis players mastering a new shot are all applications for the use of imagery as I’ve described here so far. Each allows the athlete to experience challenging scenarios that encourage creative problem solving.
Once the situational need for imagery is clear, the athlete is ready to execute. And having a specific technique for doing so allows you to apply this mental skill for nearly all situations you can think of. The first element to address is incorporating your natural senses and emotions. These are critical aspects of all of your experiences, and nature has developed these so that we can respond as needed to our environment. Utilizing them during imagery also allows you to manage them, as well as key in on those experiences most vital to what and how you want to execute. As an example, practiced visualization can help an athlete hear coaches and teammates over the noise of the crowd, recognize significant markers or obstacles in the field of play, or feel their body move precisely through space.
I also recommend a four-step process that can be adapted to any aspect of competition or performance. When working with athletes, I refer to this as GOAL Imagery. The acronym stands for the goal of action, the outcome benefit of executing successfully, recognizing any adversities that may occur while competing, and learning to overcome these challenges. This last element comes full-circle to what I discussed in the opening with regard to creativity. Allowing yourself to be “open” to ways of executing increases your knowledge and reactions. By practicing these steps in order for specific situations and scenarios, you develop a link between mental processes and physical execution.
Visualizing how to play is something sport psychology has advocated for decades, and the reasons for doing so can be somewhat obvious. Yet, few people realize that there is a need to be taught how to do so effectively. Similar to running, a natural ability that can be enhanced with quality coaching, imagery is a mental skill that most of us do naturally. But with proper guidance, the skill can be enhanced in a way that elevates your game. Hopefully this provides you with an initial plan to put impagery into your mental preparation. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.