The Effects of Mental Imagery on Athletic Performance
By Annie Plessinger
[All emphasis added]
Mental imagery [is] also called visualization and mental rehearsal. [...] Whenever we imagine ourselves performing an action in the absence of physical practice, we are said to be using imagery. [...]
Many sports such as golf, tennis and skating, not only require physical skills, but a strong mental game as well. Most coaches preach the line that sports are 90% mental and only 10% physical. Especially in sports where hundredths of a second or tenths of an inch separate the champions from the mediocre athletes, an extra edge can be extremely crucial. Hence, numerous athletes are turning towards mental imagery to take their game to the next level. Different uses of imagery in sport include: mental practice of specific performance skills, improving confidence and positive thinking, problem solving, controlling arousal and anxiety, performance review and analysis, preparation for performance, and maintaining mental freshness during injury. [...]
In 1992, Anne Isaac conducted a study which examined the influence of mental practice on sports skills. While most of the previous studies on this topic showed positive effects of mental rehearsal, they were not performed in actual field context using subjects who learned actual sport skills rather than just novel motor tasks. Isaac eliminated this problem in her experiment. She also tested the hypothesis of whether people who have better images and control over their images result in better performances. Isaac tested 78 subjects and classified them as novice or experienced trampolinists. Then she further divided the two groups into an experimental and control group. She also classified the subjects as either high or low imagers based on initial skill level. Both groups were trained in three skills over a six week period. In order to prevent confounds, the imagery group was unknown to the experimenter until afterwards. The experimental group physically practiced the skill for 2-1/2 minutes, which was then followed by 5 minutes of mental practice. Lastly, an additional 2-1/2 minutes of physical practice followed the mental practice. Meanwhile, the control group physically worked on the skill for 2-1/2 minutes, which was then followed by 5 minutes of a session trying a mental task of an abstract nature, such as math problems, puzzles, and deleting vowels. Then, 2-1/2 more minutes were spent physically working on the skill again. The outcome of the experiment was as followed: there existed a significant difference in the improvement of the high and low imagers. In both novice and experimental groups where the initial skill ability was similar, the high imagery groups showed significantly more improvement than the low imagery group. Furthermore, there was a significant difference between the experimenter and control groups.
Not surprisingly, the experimental group had significantly more improvement than the control group. This study posits that despite the level of skill (beginner or experienced) visual imagery proves effective. (Isaac, 192-198).
In a recent experiment conducted by Roure et al., they found six specific autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses that correlated with mental rehearsal, thereby improving sports performance. The subjects were placed into an imagery group and a control group. The task measured in each group was based on their ability to pass an opponent's serve to a given teammate, in the sport of volleyball. The experimenters measured the variations of the ANS during the motor skill and during the mental rehearsing sessions. The ANS parameters tested included: skin potential and resistance, skin temperature and heat clearance, instantaneous heart rate, and respiratory frequency. The results of the test revealed a strong correlation between the response in the actual physical tasks (both pre- and post-test volleyball) and during the mental imagery sessions. There existed a difference in the skills between the imagery and the control group, the former being the better.
In addition, no clear difference was present between the pre- and post- tests in the control group. This study showed that mental imagery induces a specific pattern of autonomic response. These include: decreased amplitude, shorter duration and negative skin potentials when compared to the control group. As a consequence of the ANS, the imagery group was associated with better performance. In light of this experiment, Roure suggested that mental imagery may help in the construction of schema which can be reproduced, without thinking, in actual practice
Not only does mental imagery seem to enhance athletic performance, but it has been shown to enhance intrinsic motivation as well. A study in 1995 tested who would spend more time practicing a golf putting task and who would result in having higher self efficacy. Thirty nine beginner golfers were grouped into an imagery or control group. For 3 sessions, both groups were taught how to hit golf balls. The imagery group practiced in an imagery training session designed for this specific golf skill. As a result, the imagery group spent significantly more time practicing the golf putting task than the control group. In addition, the subjects in the imagery group had more realistic self-expectation, set higher goals to achieve, and adhered more to their training programs outside the experimental setting (Martin, 54-69). [...]
The reason visual imagery works lies in the fact that when you imagine yourself perform to perfection and doing precisely what you want, you are in turn physiologically creating neural patterns in your brain, just as if you had physical performed the action.
These patterns are similar to small tracks engraved in the brain cells which can ultimately enable an athlete to perform physical feats by simply mentally practicing the move. Hence, mental imagery is intended to train our minds and create the neural patterns in our brain to teach our muscles to do exactly what we want them to do
(Porter, 17). [...]
Suinn's visual motor behavior rehearsal (VMBR) model [posits] that imagery should be a holistic process that includes a compete reintegration of experience. This includes visual, auditory, tactile, emotional, and kinesthetic cues. He has demonstrated that physiological responses can result from athlete's usage of mental imagery.
Suinn's method is one of the few which has solid evidence to support its effectiveness.
A more recent model, which also places importance on psychophysiology, goes even further by including a specific meaning for an image. This model is know as Ahsen's Triple Code Model of imagery (ISM). According to Ahsen there are three fundamental parts to an image. The first part is that the image itself must be a centrally arousing sensation so it is more like the real world. It has all the attributions of a sensation, the only difference is that it is internal. This image provides the imager with so much realism that it can enable him or her to interact with the image as if it were the real world. Secondly, there exists a somatic response. Therefore, the very act of imaging results in psychophysiological changes in the body. Finally, the third part of the image is the actual meaning of the image. Every image has a significant meaning and that specific meaning can imply something different to each individual. Since every person has a unique background and upbringing, the actual internal image can be quite different for each individual, even though the set of imagery instructions are the same (Murphy, 153-172). [...]
Although it is not as beneficial as physical practice, visual imagery fairs better than no practice at all. Hence, a program with physical practice combined with mental training seems to be the best method. Virtually all of the studies show that mental training improves motor skills.
More recently a lot of studies go even further and prove that visual imagery can improve various skills related to sports in actual field contexts. Visual imagery seems to be beneficial to anyone who wants to improve at their sport. Whether you are a recreational athlete or a professional does not matter.
The benefits of mental imagery have proved successful at any level...
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###Works a treat on any desired set of skills or behaviors, not just sports.