Introduction to Mental Imagery


There are many different training techniques available for athletes who are interested in improving their skills; and indeed many of these methods are very successful in providing the desired results. Really, any training technique that has been certified as safe and effective will work, but almost any technique will still require a lot of effort on the part of the athlete to produce results. Training in sports is not an easy task, nor are the athletes at the top of their sport there by mere luck. They might have some natural talent, but the vast majority of them are also very hard workers that have trained hard in the past and continue to train hard to keep their high level of skill sets intact.


Mental imagery is just one of the many techniques used in sports training and has been used successfully by many professional athletes in order to help them get certain things under control and ultimately better improve their performances. The idea of mental imagery is one that has been around for a very long time in sports and sports training, but one that only now are athletes starting to incorporate into their training programs. Imagery is founded on the well known psychological thought processes of  ‘conceive, believe and achieve.’ It is intended to help an athlete both conceive of being able to do something as well as believing that they can do that very same thing. One of the more interesting things about imagery is that many athletes have actually reported it helping them in their overall performance and the positive results they have gotten from it means that they are going to continue doing it in their workouts.


Types of Imagery


There are five different types of imagery, all of which are going to be used to help you as an athlete to develop your skills either in a general sense or to focus them on a very specific sense.


Motivational Specific Imagery (MS Imagery): It is where you visualize yourself either exceeding your expectations at an event or outright winning it. It can be crossing the finish line first at the race you’re about to run or scoring the winning goal in your hockey game or anything else that might apply directly to you.


Motivational General Mastery Imagery (MG-M Imagery): In this technique you see yourself overcoming adversity in some way and ending up being successful in the end through your ability to face challenges and beat them.


Motivational General Arousal Imagery (MG-A Imagery): This is where you visualize lots of positive thoughts and emotions in relation to some kind of sports event, it does not have to be a specific one that is coming up for you. Thinking of yourself as being elated going into the competition or feeling great that you are spending your life as an athlete are both examples of MG-A imagery.


Cognitive Specific Imagery (CS Imagery) is where you picture yourself doing certain movements within your sport. A hockey player might see themselves taking a slapshot, a golf player a putt, etc.


Cognitive General Imagery (CG Imagery): In CG Imagery you visualize general strategy and tactics involved in your sport such as a field placement in cricket or a cross-court passing strategy in basketball.




Mental imagery is usually applicable in the timeframe leading up to an event and this is what separates it from other imagery techniques. The best way to go about doing it is to incorporate a short visualization timeframe that helps your focus, both physically and emotionally. 


One of the most basic ways to train yourself to do mental imagery effectively is to actually sit down and write out a scene as you want it to happen. For example, if your scene is scoring the winning goal in a hockey game, then actually sit down and write out what happens in the scene. Describe the fans and how they were acting, the atmosphere within the arena and generally be as detailed as possible about the scene. Once that is done, read the scene aloud a few times to get it and then read it silently to yourself a few more times to absorb the knowledge. Then sit back, close your eyes, relax and try to imagine the scene in your mind in as much vivid realism as possible.


Another good example would be to start by clearing your mind and breathing heavily in and out to establish your physicality. Then imagining a recent success in your mind (which should be clear of all other thoughts if you have accomplished the first step in this sequence). This will establish your emotionality, finally ending off by visualizing yourself getting off to a great start in this upcoming competition will end off the training by establishing your focus.


Advantages of Imagery


MS imagery has the possibility to boost the motivation of an athlete and make them work harder as well as be more responsible about setting goals and working towards them.


MG-M imagery has helped athletes increase their self-confidence level as well as assisting them in developing positive attitudes that can ultimately aid them in becoming more successful at their chosen sport.


MG-A imagery has been employed by professional sports psychologists as a technique to psych athletes up before a particularly important or potentially emotional event.


Finally, both CS and CG imagery are excellent at helping athletes develop understanding and proficiency in skills, tactics and application of both within the field of play itself.


There are many of advantages involved in mental imagery. The first one is the big potential effect in can have on an athlete that learns to do it well. A lot of coaches tend to discount the high power of sports psychology in deciding the final outcomes of sporting events, but just as with any other profession, athletes are like employees, and employees that have a higher morale are going to be more productive and perform their jobs at a higher level. Mental imagery can be used in this sense to help get athletes to that high level of mindset that they need to perform well.  

Additionally, once the athlete has become proficient at mental imagery techniques, their daily training in mental imagery can be done in as little as just a few minutes each day.


Disadvantages of Imagery


Imagery has not proven to be completely successful with some athletes and others still report that it did not help them at all. In a large amount of cases, the jury is still out on imagery as a working technique and because of this some coaches may be reluctant to start using it in their training regimens. Furthermore, athletes do not have the ability to train endlessly for hours on end, so the time spent doing imagery exercises (which is usually at least 15 minutes a day) could, in the opinion of many coaches, be better spent either resting from exercises or else doing additional stretching drills.


While mental imagery can be a powerful way to augment a training regiment, it is obviously not going to be effective by itself. It can train the mind, but only conventional workout practices can help to train the body. Additionally, when a player is just starting their mental training workout for the first time, the technique of it can be a little bit difficult to get down. Being able to mentally visualize a scene is a difficult skill to become proficient in and thus can potentially lead to frustration on the part of the athlete if they lack patience and ultimately be detrimental to their overall training.




This can be a very powerful technique if applied properly and because of that many athletes have used it to great success. It is important to be very patient in building up your skills at mental imagery; otherwise the training could have the opposite effect of the one that was initially intended. Just like any other type of sports training, imagery is an acquired skill that will take time to develop and even more time to master. Do not be discouraged if your images seem clouded at the start; I’m sure you were not able to bench press 200 lbs the first time you tried, so do not think that your mental imagery ability needs to be instantaneous.