A Discussion of the Efficacy of Imagery Techniques
for Novice and Professional Athletes
Athletes are always on the look out for techniques that will allow them to get better at their game. Whether it is a golfer who is looking to break his best score or a hockey goalie who is trying to get a shutout in the next game he plays, amateur and professional athletes are constantly trying to find ways of improving their performance. One performance enhancing technique that has been the subject of many empirical studies and theoretical speculation is the practice of imagery. Defined in its most general sense, imagery is "an experience that mimics real experience. We can be aware of 'seeing' an image, feeling movements as an image, or experiencing an image of smell, tastes, or sounds without actually experiencing the real thing… it differs from dreams in that we are awake and conscious when we form an image." (Munroe-Chandler & Hall, 2011, p. 370) Applied to the basic problem of improving athletic performance, imagery exercises might consist of visualizing a hole in one for a golfer, or imagining what it feels like to play the net in the next game for a goalie. Imagery is connected to but distinct from the technique known as 'mental practice,' where an athlete rehearses his or her strategy in competition. There are many various kinds of imagery techniques that exist, but the question of whether imagery really helps athletes to improve is still a matter of some debate, as is the question of how imagery works. The following paper will look at the research that exists on imagery as a technique athletes can use to program their minds. It will conclude, on the basis of this research, that imagery can indeed help people's athletic performance, but that it should be considered as a complement rather than a substitute for practice and training.
In order to rigorously understand the various ways that imagery can interact with and potentially improve athletic performance, some kind of standard benchmark is required. It was for this reason that the Sport Imagery Questionnaire (SIQ) was designed. The SIQ is an analytic tool that allows sports psychologists to make fine distinctions between the various functions of imagery as it is employed by athletes (i.e. motivation versus concentration) and the levels at which imagery works (i.e. specific versus general). (Hall, Mack, Paivio, & Hausenblas, 1998, p. 74) This analytical framework is used by many other researchers in the field to quantify and make predictive claims about the effects of various kinds of imagery on athletic performance.
Weinberg (2008) defines imagery as “using all the senses (or at least all the senses that are appropriate) to create or re-create an experience in the mind.” (p. 2) Weinberg is careful to distinguish between earlier techniques of ‘mental practice’ that involved the review of particular strategies and thinking about performance and current techniques of mental imagery, writing that “it is very different, for example, if a tennis player simply went over his strategy for how he would like to play an upcoming opponent versus actually imagining himself performing certain skills and strategies against a specific opponent.” (Weinberg, p. 2) In essence, mental practice is a ‘3rd person’ technique in which an athlete verbally rehearses to himself how he is going to perform and what he is going to do if his opponent does a particular action, while imagery is a ‘1st person’ technique where an athlete lets go of words and tries instead to place himself in the performance situation mentally. Needless to say, the hard and fast division between the two is difficult to observe or even practice in reality. Most people in their daily thoughts entertain both images and talk in their minds, and the same applies to athletes using various imagery or mental practice...