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by Karlene Sugarman, M.A.

Updated 08/25/11

"If you can imagine it you can achieve it. If you can dream it you can become it." --William Arthur Ward.

One of the most powerful tools an athlete can use is imagery. The body cannot distinguish between something that is really happening, and something that they are visualizing. Since the mind leads the body, this is an invaluable tool if it is done correctly and on a consistent basis.

Imagery is a skill, a cognitive process in which you use your mind to create an experience that is not unlike the physical event. The goal is to use your mind to work on all aspects of your performance. For example, recalling your best performance, correcting technical errors and putting yourself in different situations under all sorts of conditions to help take away the element of surprise.

Every person has the ability to visualize success, it's just a matter of doing it. Imagery provides the strength, energy and motivation for upcoming events by recalling, step-by-step, the feelings of success. The purpose of imagery is to achieve in your mind exactly what it is you want your body to do. Here are some key elements to consider when using imagery:

  1. Use all of your senses: The better and more detailed the image, the better your body can understand what it has to do. You need to make sure you are adding in not only what you see; but also what you hear, smell, taste, and what you feel.
  2. You are in control: You need to be able to control the images you create in your mind. You control the movements and the outcome. You want to make sure you are only visualizing the positive.
  3. Consistent practice: Just as with physical training, mental training should be done habitually. It should become a regular part of your practice schedule. You need to make the commitment and take the time to utilize this skill. It's your choice to make this a priority or not. Practice is always in season, your mind is your practice field any day, any time, any place - it is always accessible.
  4. Real time: If you participate in a sport that is timed (track, swimming, speed skating, skiing, figure skating, etc.), your imagery of a particular race should be equal to the time of the actual event.
  5. External vs. internal imagery: You can visualize from either an internal or external perspective. For the most part, it is best to try and be the person actually going through the motions so that you have a keen awareness of how it feels to do things the correct way. External imagery (as if you are a spectator or watching a video of yourself) is good for error correction, this way you can see what it is you are actually doing wrong, as would your coach.

The more you practice executing your skills in your head, the more it becomes a conditioned response, second nature. Which is exactly what you want your skills to be - instinctive. This also increases reaction time because there is no thought process, just action. This will help increase your self-confidence and keep you motivated to reach your goals. Doesn't it seem beneficial, then, to use this skill to help enhance your athletic performance? As an athlete, it would seem that you would want every possible edge you can get!

[Adapted from Winning the Mental Way, a book on team building and mental training. For information on obtaining your copy, please contact Step Up Publishing at (650) 347-0826 or write 1312 Drake Avenue, Burlingame, CA 94010.]

Karlene is a Mental Training Consultant in California and works with athletes and teams teaching mental training techniques and team building strategies. She works with athletes and teams in all sports and levels. She has worked with the University of San Diego baseball team since 2000. Karlene is the author of the book, Winning the Mental Way: A practical guide to team building and mental training. She is a Professor in the Sport Psychology Program at John F. Kennedy University. She is a member of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), and co-presented at the 2009 conference in Salt Lake City, UT; and the 2011 conference in Honolulu, HI. She is also a member of IDEA Health & Fitness Association.

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