As an athlete and a sport psychology consultant, I am a big fan of imagery and its benefits during performance.  For that reason I have split this blog into two parts. Part I will consist of the What, Why, When-Where.  There will also be some “homework” and things for you to think about before Part II comes out next week.  Part II will contain the nitty-gritty of imagery and how you can implement it into your training routines and competitions immediately.

This far along into your athletic career, you’ve probably heard the terms “imagery, visualization, and mental rehearsal,” but do you know what it means to actively use imagery, visualization and mental rehearsal as part of your training? While imagery can seem boring to some and cause anxiety for others, when done right, imagery is a great way to re-create past positive experiences on which to build, and to picture future performances on which you mentally prepare for your competition. It is also a useful tool for those of you who are anxious when thinking about a race. Imagery, will help you manage your anxiety.

What is Imagery?

I am going to do my best not to bore you with too many definitions or theories, but for the sake of helping you understand what imagery is, this section will contain just a couple, so bear with me.  Definition number 1: “Imagery is a form of simulation.  It is similar to a real sensory experience (e.g., seeing, feeling, or hearing), but the entire experience occurs in the mind” (Weinberg and Gould, 2007).  Although imagery occurs in the mind, when done correctly, your body will feel it.  In order to explain what I mean by that, we arrive at definition number two called the “ideomotor principle” which explains how vividly imagined events innervate the muscles in a similar way that physically practicing the movement does.  Our first imagery exercise will show you how the ideomotor principle works:

Close your eyes.  Take two deep breaths.  Now imagine yourself in your kitchen.  Go to your refrigerator; pull a lemon out of the refrigerator.  Now, go to your silverware drawer, and pull out a knife.  Grab a cutting-board out of the cabinet.  Cut the ends off the lemon.  Feel in your hands what it’s like to cut through the rind and into the citrus of the lemon. Can you smell the citrus as you cut through the rind? Now cut the lemon in half-length wise, and cut that half into thirds. Take one of those thirds and put the lemon in your mouth.  Feel the lemon in your mouth. Does your jaw start to water?  Do you make a funny face? Can you feel your cheeks tighten as the sourness of the lemon hits them?  This exercise is designed to show you how using imagery can make your muscles believe they are being asked to perform while simply sitting in a chair nowhere near a lemon. Over the next week, practice this exercise at least once a day.

Why Use Imagery?

As I said above, imagery offers another way to “practice” and refine your skills pre-competition, in order to ready you for a successful performance. Imagery can be used for a variety of reasons to help improve both mental and physical skills. Some of those skills include improving concentration, building confidence, controlling emotions, learning and practicing new sport skills and dealing with injury. Every athlete uses imagery for either cognitive or motivational purposes. An example of cognitive imagery is visualizing yourself keeping pace on a run either during training or competition. Motivational imagery would be visualizing winning at your next competition and standing on the podium receiving your medal.

When-Where to use Imagery:

For those of you who are just starting to experiment with imagery, you will want to be in a quiet, relaxed setting where there are fewer distractions and you can maintain a positive focus. For those of you who have experience with imagery, I am literally giving you an excuse to daydream at work. You can use imagery anytime, anywhere! While standing in line for a cup of coffee, when doing mundane household chores, while in the shower, lying in bed trying to fall asleep or wake up. Another obvious place is while training, and pre-competition.

This is your homework before Part II of the imagery comes out next week. Put some thought into these questions and write down the answers.

  1. What are some of the key terms your coach uses with you while training? Are there different key words he/she uses while you are running vs. while swimming? Have all of those key terms written down before next week’s blog comes out.
  1. Why are you a triathlete? Most of you have jobs, and a family so what drives you to be a triathlete?  Why do you get up before the sun rises to get in the pool?