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).
Table 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.
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.
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