Imagery and Sport

Imagery  involves  internally  experiencing  a  situation that mimics a real experience without experiencing the real thing. As a conscious process that is deliberately employed by an athlete or exerciser to serve a specific function, it is distinctly different from  daydreaming  or  just  thinking  about  something. The terms mental rehearsal and visualization are  sometimes  used  to  refer  to  imagery,  but  this can be misleading for two reasons. First, although imagery is a popular type of mental rehearsal, this term  encompasses  a  variety  of  mental  techniques athletes  and  exercisers  employ  such  as  observation and self-talk. Therefore, imagery and mental rehearsal  are  not  synonymous,  but  imagery  use does fall within the category of mental rehearsal. Second,  the  term  visualization  implies  that  imagery  only  contains  a  visual  component.  However, it is well known that mentally simulating an experience  can  involve  multiple  sensory  modalities. As well as being able to see the scenario, imagery allows an individual to feel associated movements and bodily sensations, and experience the sounds, smells, and even tastes related to the actual situation. Consequently, imagery is the most appropriate term to describe this cognitive process.

Imagery  is  deliberately  employed  by  athletes and exercisers to achieve a range of affective, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes. When used effectively, this technique results in better performance, both  directly  and  indirectly  via  improvements  to, among  other  things,  motivation,  confidence,  and attentional  focus.  Moreover,  the  frequency  of imagery use is a marker of success in sport as well as  level  of  engagement  in  physical  activity.  It  is well established that athletes competing at a higher level and more active exercisers report greater use of  imagery.  Consequently,  imagery  has  emerged as a popular topic within sport and exercise psychology  and  is  extensively  researched.  This  entry summarizes key research findings including (a) the main  imagery  modalities  and  perspectives  characterizing  athletes’  and  exercisers’  imagery  use, (b)  the  functions  and  outcomes  this  imagery  use can serve, and (c) how imagery can be used most effectively.

Imagery Modalities and Perspectives

Although  imagery  can  be  experienced  through different  sensory  modalities,  within  movement domains such as sport and exercise, the two most commonly  used  are  visual  and  kinesthetic.  The visual modality refers to what the individual sees in  the  image  and  is  therefore  commonly  referred to  as  the  mind’s  eye.  Visual  imagery  can  be  performed from either a first-person perspective or a third-person perspective. In a first-person perspective,  also  referred  to  as  an  internal  visual  imagery  perspective,  the  individual  views  the  scenario through their own eyes as if they were performing the movement. An athlete who is imaging herself kicking  a  ball  from  this  perspective  may  see  the ball down on the ground, her feet running toward the  ball,  her  foot  making  contact  with  the  ball, and  the  ball  rising  up  in  front  of  her.  In  a  third person perspective, also referred to as an external visual  imagery  perspective,  the  individual  views the  movement  as  if  they  were  adopting  someone else’s point of view to see the scenario. This can be done from different viewpoints or angles, with the most common being in front, behind, the side, and above.  Returning  to  the  ball-kicking  example,  if the athlete was to view herself from a third-person perspective, she may see her entire body performing the kicking movement.

Kinesthetic imagery refers to how it feels when experiencing  the  situation.  Most  commonly  this internal  sensation  refers  to  the  muscles  associated with performing a movement. A runner may image how his legs feel while performing the running  action.  However,  kinesthetic  imagery  can also  encompass  other  bodily  feelings  including body  limb  positioning,  tactile  information  (e.g., the  feet  make  contact  with  the  ground),  physiological responses (e.g., an increase in heart rate, pain,  fatigue),  and  emotions  (e.g.,  excitement, anxiety).

Historically,  there  has  been  some  confusion related to the concept of imagery perspective and the  terminology  used.  Initially,  the  first-person– internal  visual  imagery  and  third-person–external visual imagery perspectives were known simply as internal  imagery  and  external  imagery.  However, these terms and how they were defined conveyed the  impression  that  kinesthetic  sensations  could only  be  experienced  using  internal  imagery.  By confounding perspective with modality, this led to the assumption that internal imagery was the more effective way to image by providing the individual with  a  realistic  and  complete  sensory  experience (i.e., a movement could be both seen and felt). It has now been established that kinesthetic imagery can  also  accompany  visual  imagery  performed  in the third person. Furthermore, adopting the position of an observer appears to be particularly beneficial when imaging tasks with a focus on form or body positioning. This allows the individual to see information that otherwise would not be available from the first person perspective. If a figure skater is  trying  to  improve  her  performance  of  a  spiral, imaging the scenario from a third-person perspective is likely to help her better see the arch in her back, the height of her leg, and whether her toes are  pointed.  Alternatively,  a  first-person  perspective  is  considered  more  beneficial  when  perception  and  timing  are  important  to  the  skill  being performed.  A  canoeist  might  view  his  slalom  run from  a  first-person  perspective  to  determine  how to time the turns needed through different gates on the course. In other words, the benefits of imaging from  a  particular  visual  perspective  will  depend partly  on  the  demands  of  the  task  being  imaged and/or reasons for imaging.

Individual  preferences  also  appear  to  matter, with some favoring a first-person perspective while others prefer a third-person perspective. It is likely that adopting the preferred visual perspective will make it easier to generate more vivid and controllable images, which in turn, would result in greater benefits  from  imaging.  Individuals  able  to  easily switch  between  perspectives  would  be  able  to maximize the benefits of imagery by appropriately matching  the  visual  perspective  to  the  task  being imaged. Moreover, while the visual and kinesthetic senses  can  be  used  in  isolation,  combining  these will create more effective images. During such multisensory imagery, individuals can experience both modalities simultaneously or switch their attention between  what  they  are  experiencing  visually  and kinesthetically to focus on a different modality at a particular time.

Imagery Use and Outcomes

Due to imagery’s flexible nature, it is used at different  times  and  in  various  locations.  The  most frequent occurrences for athletes are just prior to competing  or  during  training,  but  they  will  use imagery  throughout  the  season  including  during the  off-season.  Exercisers  similarly  report  using imagery  during  an  exercise  session  but  will  commonly use it beforehand. Both types of individuals will typically image within the sport and exercise environment  where  the  benefits  of  this  technique are  maximized;  for  example,  it  would  be  more effective  for  a  swimmer  to  mentally  rehearse  her race  start  by  adopting  the  appropriate  position on the starting block at the swimming pool, compared  with  sitting  on  a  chair  at  home.  However, athletes  and  exercisers  should  still  be  encouraged to  use  imagery  in  other  locations,  particularly when  injured,  ill,  or  traveling.  Indeed,  imagery  is reportedly used at home, work, and school and in rehabilitation sessions.

Similarly  to  when  and  where  imagery  is  used, what is imaged may vary greatly between individuals. Common images range from skills and strategies  to  those  involving  thoughts  and  emotions  as well  as  one’s  own  appearance  and  health.  This content  can  be  very  specific  and  short  in  duration  (e.g.,  imaging  the  action  of  throwing  a  ball) or  be  more  complex  and/or  longer  by  combining different  types  of  content  (e.g.,  imaging  an  entire gymnastics  floor  routine  with  the  appropriate attentional  focus  and  emotions  associated  with best  performances).  Alongside  the  duration  and complexity  of  the  image,  this  content  can  take on  different  characteristics  including  the  sensory modality, visual perspective, viewing angle, agency (e.g.,  imaging  oneself  vs.  imaging  other  individuals),  and  timing  (e.g.,  slow  motion  vs.  real  time). For example, a basketball player might image his teammates and therefore hear them calling for the ball during the scenario.

When   deliberately   employed,   the   imagery content  is  usually  intended  to  serve  a  particular function or functions. These are most typically categorized  as  being  either  cognitive  or  motivational that,  in  turn,  are  classified  at  specific  or  general levels resulting in five main functions: (1) cognitive specific,  (2)  cognitive  general,  (3)  motivational specific,  (4)  motivational  general-arousal,  and (5)  motivational  general-mastery  (see  Table  1  for definitions and examples).

imagery-and-sport-sports-psychologyTable 1    Cognitive and Motivational Imagery Functions

Although  imagery  is  most  frequently  used  for motivational rather than cognitive functions, individuals typically use imagery for all five functions. Furthermore,  reasons  for  imaging  are  not  only limited  to  these  functions.  Additional  functions include those associated with injury rehabilitation (e.g., facilitate healing and pain management) and artistic  endeavors  (e.g.,  to  choreograph  a  routine and  understand  how  to  interpret  movements to  music).  The  different  imagery  functions  are intended  to  achieve  various  cognitive,  affective, and behavioral outcomes. An exerciser might use imagery  to  improve  his  weight  lifting  technique and  enhance  his  confidence  to  lift  a  particular weight  for  a  number  of  reps.  What  is  imaged  to improve  this  technique  and/or  raise  confidence will depend on both the individual and the situation. It is most common for individuals to closely match the content of their imagery to the function (e.g.,  image  the  skill  for  the  purpose  of  improving  that  skill),  but  this  is  not  always  the  case (e.g.,  image  the  skill  for  the  purpose  of  reducing anxiety). Furthermore, imagery content can mean different things to different individuals. An image of  winning  a  competition  might  be  used  by  one athlete  to  motivate  herself  to  train  hard,  but  the same image might be used by another to maintain focus. The same imagery content can also be used in  different  situations  to  achieve  varying  functions. For example, a gymnast might image herself performing a routine correctly at practice to help improve her performance but image the same scenario immediately prior to competition to improve her confidence.

Effective Imagery

When imagery is combined with physical practice it  can  lead  to  greater  improvements  in  the  performance  of  a  skill  compared  with  just  physical practice.  Additionally,  imagery  can  maintain  performance  levels  in  the  absence  of  physical  practice such as when injured or unable to train. The most contemporary explanation behind imagery’s effectiveness  is  based  on  the  partial  overlap  of certain  neural  networks  involved  with  the  planning  and  execution  of  motor  movements  during both  imagery  and  execution  of  a  particular  skill. More simply put, some areas of the brain that are active when a skill is imaged are also active when the  skill  is  physically  performed.  Researchers have described this partial overlap as a functional equivalence  existing  between  the  two  activities. These  similarities  have  also  led  to  the  suggestion that  imagery  might  serve  to  prime  performance of a skill by enabling neural networks to activate more  accurately  or  more  readily  during  actual performance.

Other  theoretical  explanations  to  imagery’s benefits  also  exist,  including  the  psych neuromuscular theory, the symbolic learning theory, the bioinformational theory of emotional imagery, the triple code theory, dual coding theory, the action-language imagination (ALI) model, and the arousal or  attentional  set  theory.  Each  theory  has  helped shape  our  understanding  of  imagery  in  different ways,  but  with  the  exception  of  the  bioinformational theory, few of these have received empirical support.

Beyond  merely  improving  the  physical  performance of skills and strategies, imagery also allows someone  to  rehearse  and  experience  a  scenario before it happens for real. This can help an individual  mentally  prepare  for  what  they  are  likely to experience in the actual situation. Imagery can therefore allow the individual to anticipate what to expect. For example, a long jumper preparing for his  first  national  championship  might  try  to  create  a  realistic  preview  of  demands  unique  to  this event by including in his imagery the presence of a loud crowd and distractions. By rehearsing how he will perform optimally in this situation, the athlete will likely feel prepared and more confident in his ability  to  cope  when  he  actually  experiences  the situation for real.

A  factor  strongly  influencing  the  effectiveness of  imagery  in  serving  its  intended  function  is  the individual’s ability to image. Although everybody has the capacity to image to some extent, this ability  will  vary  between  individuals.  For  example, elite  athletes  tend  to  display  a  better  imagery ability  compared  with  lower  level  athletes.  These differences  can  be  reflected  in  a  number  of  ways reflective  of  the  imagery  process,  including  how clear and vivid the image is, how realistic it is, and how well it can be modified and maintained once generated.  Consequently  there  are  a  number  of different  methods  used  to  assess  imagery  ability such as self-report questionnaires, computer tasks, and even brain imaging techniques. It is important to include some measure of imagery ability when conducting interventions because research demonstrates that individuals with higher levels of imagery ability experience greater benefits from imagery use  compared  with  their  lower-level  counterparts who can experience few or sometimes no benefits. Moreover, although termed ability, an individual’s capacity  to  create  and  control  vivid  and  realistic images can be improved or enhanced with invested time  and  effort,  similar  to  physical  skills.  It  is therefore thought that while some individuals may inherently  find  it  easier  to  image  compared  with others, imagery can be honed with practice.

Making Imagery Effective

When  imagery  for  skill  learning  and  development  is  used  to  best  effect,  it  will  closely  reflect the actual situation where the skill will take place. There are a variety of methods and techniques that can be used to improve imagery ability and maximize  imagery’s  effectiveness.  These  methods  can involve  certain  triggers  or  cues  such  as  physical performance,  sport  or  exercise  equipment,  observations  and  demonstrations,  and  imagery  scripts to help prompt or guide the imagery scenario.

Physical  performance  can  be  done  prior  to imaging  to  remind  an  individual  what  it  looks and  feels  like  to  perform  a  particular  movement or  action.  This  can  help  make  the  imagery  more realistic. A soccer player might physically perform a penalty shot, then use this experience to help her image herself taking a penalty in the shoot-out of a  championship  tournament.  As  well,  adopting physical characteristics associated with a scenario, actually incorporating certain pieces of equipment can  facilitate  more  effective  imagery.  A  javelin thrower who images himself throwing a personal best  while  holding  a  javelin  and  standing  in  the stance  he  would  adopt  before  his  run-up  would likely prompt certain feelings and sensations associated with the situation thus creating a more vivid and realistic image.

Similarly to physical practice, observation clips and demonstrations can act as a template for the image  and  provide  the  individual  with  specific information  or  details  about  what  the  imaged movement  or  situation  should  look  like.  Unlike physical  practice,  however,  this  can  be  done  for movements  the  athlete  is  not  yet  capable  of  performing.  A  novice  golfer  learning  to  perform  a tee  shot  may  use  a  coach’s  demonstration,  either performed live or played back on video, to remind him of the positioning of his grip or head during the swing and follow-through. Additionally, these prompts may also help the imager work out some of the feelings associated with the image. The novice golfer may watch the smooth swing action of a demonstration to work out the feelings he or she should  experience  during  the  swing  phase  of  the image.  A  few  studies  also  suggest  that  observations can also be used when trying to image certain situations. Showing a video of a group of athletes performing  a  ski  run  on  a  particular  course  may help athletes image themselves performing on the same course.

Imagery scripts are used by athletes and exercisers to help them keep more focused on the scenario they  are  imaging.  These  scripts  usually  provide details  of  what  and  how  the  individual  should image  and  guides  them  through  the  experience.

Although typically audio recorded, some individuals may prefer to have a written script. Regardless of  the  format,  scripts  provide  a  clear  beginning, middle,  and  end  to  the  scene  and  prompt  the individual to focus on specific modalities (e.g., by referring  to  your  heart  beating  faster  or  hearing your teammates call to you). This can be particularly helpful for individuals who find it difficult to control or focus their imagery appropriately.

Finally,  personalizing  the  imagery  can  make it  more  emotively  meaningful  to  the  athlete  or exerciser.  Including  the  relevant  emotions  in  an image  allows  the  individual  to  be  able  to  draw from  memories  of  their  own  real  experiences more  readily.  In  turn,  these  memories  help  make the imagery more vivid, detailed, and realistic. If an  athlete  or  exerciser  is  unable  to  relate  to  the scenario,  they  are  much  less  likely  to  be  able  to image  the  scenario  clearly,  making  it  unlikely  to be effective.


  1. Cumming, J., & Williams, S. E. (2012). The role of imagery in performance. In S. Murphy (Ed.), Handbook of sport and performance psychology (pp. 213–232). New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Hall, C. (2001). Imagery in sport and exercise. In R. N. Singer, H. Hausenblas, & C. M. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (2nd ed., pp. 529–549). New York: Wiley.
  3. Hall, C., Mack, D., Paivio, A., & Hausenblas, H. (1998). Imagery use by athletes: Development of the sport imagery questionnaire. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 29, 73–89.
  4. Holmes, P. S., & Collins, D. J. (2001). The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: A functional equivalence model for sport psychologists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13, 60–83.
  5. Martin, K. A., Moritz, S. E., & Hall, C. (1999). Imagery use in sport: A literature review and applied model. The Sport Psychologist, 13, 245–268.


See also: