Wasting Time On Mental Imagery

Mental imagery… perhaps the piece of sport psychology that has made the greatest inroads into mainstream society and pop culture.  It’s hard to find an Adam Sandler movie with some entertaining use of visualization… the ultimate likely being his “Happy Place.”

In a different, but equally humorous vein, be sure not to miss Hank Hill’s visit to the sport psychology consultant in the King of the Hill Episode: How to Fire a Rifle Without Really Trying.  The trip to the sport psych office is great and the line, “Visualization is probably the only legitimate part of what people like myself practice,” reminds us how goofy mental imagery can be.

Mental imagery is popular for better and for worse.

First year graduate students (and beyond), are enamored with the idea of having athletes use visualization in one form of the other to improve performance.  Could this mental skill be useful?  Yes, but too often it is employed without rhyme, reason, or nuance.

Sports coaches can be seen preaching about the value of mental imagery to athletes in preparation for a game.  Do their athletes play better?  Yes, when the coach artfully applies the idea or when the athlete has some natural talent for visualization.  Nonetheless, it is also often avoided by sports coaches as it appears to be warm and fuzzy mumbo jumbo for which they have little time.

“Hypnotherapy” (or mental imagery on steroids) has gained a loyal following.  Is it valuable?  Perhaps – guided hypnosis conducted by a skilled practitioner has been shown to help people lose weight, quit smoking, and build healthy habits.  Its potential for long term behavior change has mixed results.  It is more likely an intervention that requires periodic “tune ups” for the client.  A valuable tool for some, but too often oversold as cure all by its less professional practitioners.

Considering all of the above, I often find mental imagery a skill that too often falls short of its potential and is a waste of time for an athlete.  This is often because there is a lack of understanding of the basic principles and necessities of mental imagery:

1.  Have a purpose – A collegiate hockey player approached me a few years back and told me he was thinking of trying mental imagery.  I told him it sounded like it could be a good idea and asked why might he be using it.  His response, “Because I heard it was helpful.”  Simply engaging in mental imagery does not make a player better – engaging in targeted, purposeful mental imagery does.

2.  Make a commitment – Mental imagery is a skill.  It is not a magic wand (i.e. just give a try and it will work wonders).  I can take a little while to learn effective use of mental imagery.  Yes, some are more gifted daydreamers than others, but most need to be educated on how to develop vivid mental movies, practice doing it, and then put into action again and again.  It is reasonable to expect that it requires a handful of weeks to learn and to make mental imagery “work.”  Mental imagery requires the ability to relax, recall, emotionally engage, and learn… all of these things take time.

3.  Get engaged – The best mental imagery engages the mind, body, and senses.  Simply “thinking” about an upcoming game or a skill you would like to learn has little power, but images that engage the heart and emotions, not only simulate real life, but also lead to solid mental skill development.

These are basic principles that many know, but perhaps out of human nature or simply the desire to play better “now” they are neglected.  When this happens, the athlete is simply “wasting time on mental imagery” or as the prominent sport psychologist Adam Sandler would suggest leads to one’s unhappy place.

With this all being said, I am not convinced that mental imagery is always a good use of an athlete’s time.  Ericsson’s tenent that quality practice is the key to achieving excellence at a skill applies to mental imagery.  “Unquality” use of mental imagery does not move an athlete towards higher performance or high development.  It is a powerful skill, but there are many powerful sport psychology skills for one to embrace.  The key is to learn them well and use them wisely.

I do however think that the principles of mental imagery can be used quite regularly throughout a sport psychology consultant’s practice.  When debriefing after a competition or when helping an athlete recollect other past performances – cuing accurate memories by encouraging the athlete to paint the seen through the variety of senses is powerful.  Similarly, remembering that relaxation should always precede mental imagery, highlights how settling the mind for a moment or two allows one to take in and process most clearly and effectively.  Elaborate imagery scripts many help some, but for many others either simply taking a few moments to engaging in vivid thoughts heightens awareness or consciously allowing a moment or two to clear the mind to take in new information are powerful performance enhancers.

To often, the use of mental imagery is seen as an either or proposition (i.e. “You must see success before a game in order to play well.” or “Lying on my back in a dark room and breathing just creeps me out and is a waste of time.”).  There are simply too many nuances and reasons to use mental imagery to either accept or reject its use outright.  The athlete/sport psychology consultant that considers both the elements of the skill itself and the purposes for which it can be used reaps many benefits.


2 Responses to “Wasting Time On Mental Imagery”

  1. 1 whywegolf November 10, 2011 at 8:53 am

    I agree that mental imagery has been oversold. Having said that, it is still a good antidote to an overly mechanical approach to a game, particularly golf where the player plans and executes as opposed to reacting and executing. It is, then, as with so many other things, a matter of striking the right balance between understanding the particulars of what you’re doing while competing (the mechanical) and seeing the act in its ‘organic’ entirety (visualization).
    There is another aspect to this that you touch on in this piece that I would emphasize. Our minds are, by nature, pretty messy, disorganized places. Ask anybody who’s meditated. Any discipline of mental focus takes LOTS of practice. There is no switch that we can flick and automatically summon a powerful image that will guide us. This is one of the things that I’ve discussed in my own blog, whywegolf.wordpress.com.
    Good luck with the presentation. Visualize doing well!

  1. 1 Is Your Cart Before Your Horse? « Professional Sport Psychology Symposium Trackback on February 25, 2011 at 11:31 am

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