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1)      What is mental imagery?

Mental imagery is using your imagination to see and experience positive things, imagining success and positive outcomes. Mental imagery is one of the many techniques used to get certain things under control and improve performances. The idea of mental imagery is one that has been around for a very long time in sports and sports training, but one that only now are athletes starting to incorporate into their training programs. Mental imagery however does not need to be restricted for athletes and sportsmen and sportswomen. We can use it in our everyday lives. Below, most examples refer to sporting conditions, but if you think about it for a second longer you will see how you can apply mental imagery to your own life to improve your current lifestyle. Imagery is founded on the well known psychological thought processes of “conceive, believe and achieve”. If you can conceive the idea of doing something, and you believe you can achieve it, only then will you be able to achieve it. If there is no positive attitude with positive though processes, it is less likely it will happen.


2)      Why should you perform mental imagery? What is it used for?

  • To develop and/or improve self confidence
  • To see success. “See” yourself achieving your goals on a regular basis, both performing skills at a high level and seeing the desired performance outcomes.
  • To motivate. Calling up images of your goals for that session or of previous achievements. The training intensity can be increased when being reminded of the outcome when achieving your desired goal.
  • To perfect skills. Mental imagery assists learning and acquiring finer skills and skill sequences. Allow for intricate focus on that specific skill.
  • To familiarise. Mental imagery can be effectively used to familiarize yourself with all kinds of things, such as a competition site, a difficult question asked in an interview, familiarising yourself with error movements in your sport and how to correct them, a complex play routine, a pre-competition plan, a media interview plan,  or the strategy you plan to follow
  • To set the stage for performance. Mental imagery is often very important in pre-competition planning. It allows for practice of achieving on the big day. It allows you to develop pre-competition and competition strategies, preparing you to expect and cope with new situations before they actually encounter them.
  • To refocus. If needed, you can use mental imagery to refocus during an event, by imagining what you should focus on and feeling that focus.
  • Using mental imagery during rest or when away from the activity allows one to feel like they are “still in the game”. It can therefore be used when training is not possible (injury) or when physical rest from the activity is required.
  • Mental imagery can help deal with and improve stress related reactions, e.g. increased muscular tension, cramps, severe pain etc
  • When injured, the athlete may also benefit from using imagery to guide the healing process as it occurs within the body. This is commonly termed “healing imagery”.


3)      How does one perform mental imagery?

i)                    One of the most basic ways to train yourself to do mental imagery effectively is to actually sit down and write out a

scene as you want it to happen.

ii)                  Read the scene aloud a few times to get it.

iii)                Read it silently to yourself a few more times to absorb the knowledge.

iv)                Then sit back, close your eyes, relax and try to imagine the scene in your mind in as much vivid realism as possible.


4)      What is important for successful mental imagery and how often should it be used / practiced?

To be effective, like any skill, imagery needs to be developed and practiced regularly. There are four important elements to mental imagery – Relaxation, Realism, Regularity and Reinforcement (the 4Rs)

  • Relaxation

It is important to have a relaxed mind and body so you can become involved in the imagery exercises, “feel” your body moving and experience any emotions generated. It may help to use a relaxation technique prior to imagery training.

  • Realism

It is important for your mental imagery to be realistic in order for you to believe you are actually executing the skill. To obtain the most realistic imagery possible, it must be clear, vivid and you must be able to control it.

  • Regularity

Spending between 3 and 5 minutes at a time on imagery seems to be most effective (10-15 minutes a day). The more often you use and practice mental imagery, the better you will become at it.

  • Reinforcement

Writing imagery scripts will help you plan the content and timing of your imagery training.

For example, if your scene is scoring the winning goal in a hockey game, then actually sit down and write out what happens in the scene. Describe the fans and how they were acting, the atmosphere within the arena and generally be as detailed as possible about the scene.

5)      Examples of using mental imagery?

i)                    Example One

For someone who is in severe pain, let’s use a wound which feels like hot and burning pain. Mental imagery can be used for pain management if the patient imagines the wound being hot and red, using his/her imagination to see the wound as becoming yellow as it slowly cools, hearing the sound of something cool and soothing like the sound of running water. Imagining through the range of colours from warm to cool, eventually seeing blue and imagining the wound to be cool and no longer painful. During this mental imagery the client will be able to deal with their pain a lot better.


ii)                  Example Two

In cricket, a sportsman who is attempting to perfect the skill of bowling. The sportsman should use mental imagery to break down the movement of the bowling action into small clips. The sportsman should then mentally practice each clip, perfecting each step in his head. He can also use this to realise where he is making errors which can be bettered. The sportsman should then start adding the clips together slowly, until mentally he has mastered the movement.


iii)                Example Three

In disabled patients, if a patient has had a stroke and lost use of the left hand. He/she can use mental imagery to keep the “mind-body” connection between the brain and the hand. The patient should close his/her eyes and imagine being able to move the fingers. This is used in rehabilitation for stroke patients and a mirror can be used to increase the realism of the mental imagery. What is done is the client places their left hand behind a mirror; the mirror is facing the right hand which has 100% functionality. The client then imagines lifting the index finger of the left hand, and lifts the right index finger. Looking into the mirror creates the illusion of the left index finger being lifted. This use for mental imagery has a remarkable impact on rehabilitation.


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