Imagery involves creating or recreating an event or a scene in one’s mind. For example, an athlete can use imagery to create a perfect swim performance, or he or she can call to mind a past successful performance. Imagery involves all the senses. When athletes are using imagery they should try to not only see but also to hear, feel and smell all that is going on in the imagined situation. For maximal benefits, the image needs to be as close to reality as possible. Research shows that imagery, if used purposefully, is a skill that enhances performance. But if the imagery becomes negative it can be a detriment to performance.
Make athletes aware of the numerous ways that imagery can be used to help performance. Having this understanding will enable them to obtain the maximal benefits from imagery and will also enhance their motivation to practice and use imagery. Specifically, athletes can use imagery to do the following:
- To see and feel success. Athletes can use imagery to see and feel themselves achieving goals and performing as they are capable of doing. Imagery also helps enhance self-confidence.
- To motivate. Images of past and future competitions can be called upon to maintain persistence and intensity level while training and competing. This type of imaging provides an incentive for continued hard work.
- To manage arousal. Athletes can use imagery to increase or decrease arousal. For example, athletes can visualize a peaceful, relaxing scene to decrease arousal whereas motivating images can be used to increase arousal as needed.
- To learn skills and techniques. Athletes can use imagery as an additional form of practice to help them master a skill. For example, athletes can visualize themselves doing a perfect flip turn prior to actual execution.
- To refocus. During practice and competition, many distractions and situations arise that prevent an optimal focus. Athletes can refocus themselves by using specific images to achieve the focus needed for optimal performance.
- To prepare for competition. Athletes can use imagery to familiarize themselves with the competitive environment and to rehearse their performance or key elements of their performance. In addition, they can use imagery to prepare for various situations that may arise so they can develop strategies to cope with these stressors. If the situation does arise they will have rehearsed it in their minds and will know how to deal with it.
Imagery is best learned and practiced in a quiet environment when the athlete is relaxed. It may be beneficial, therefore, to first discuss simple relaxation skills so that athletes learn how to relax their minds and bodies prior to learning how to use imagery. It is helpful to develop imagery skills by initially using non-threatening, non-stressful images. For example, direct athletes to imagine being on a beach: encourage them to see, smell, hear and feel the scene. The athlete can then progress to visualizing swimming skills and, finally, to imaging competitive situations. With a little forethought, imagery training can be easily incorporated into physical training instead of making it a separate component of preparation. For example, coaches can direct athletes to visualize the technique they are working on prior to executing the drills, to imagine hard repeats to help prepare them for the challenge, or to visualize upcoming competitions to enhance practice motivation.
Athletes need to work on the following two components of imagery: control and vividness. Teach athletes to control their imagery (for example, seeing and feeling a perfect start as opposed to visualizing the slow start that has plagued them in past races) and to make their images clear, vivid, and as close to reality as possible (for example, smell the chlorine, hear their parents in the stands, and feel the muscle fatigue in the last 50 meters). With continued practice athletes can manipulate images to see and feel the perfect race and see and feel themselves responding to any adverse situations. They should be able to incorporate performance cues into their visualization to create a vivid image of how they want to perform.