Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Imagery in sport

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Imagery in sport:
How can imagery techniques be used to improve sporting performance?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Imagery, also known as visualisation, is a fascinating area of sports psychology which studies the use of mental processes to manage and improve sporting performance. Imagery can be defined as a mental process involving all the senses to create or re-create ones[grammar?] experiences in the mind (Hale and Crisfield, 2005). The number of athletes who report using imagery techniques to increase their sporting performance is quite high. A survey of 235 olympic athletes found 99% of the athletes reported using imagery as a type of preparation strategy (Orlick & Partington, 1988).

Diver explains his imagery use:

"I did my dives in my head all the time. At night, before going to sleep, I always did my dives. Ten dives. I started with a front dive, the first one that I had to do at the Olympics, and I did everything as if I was actually there. I saw myself on the board with the same bathing suit. Everything was the same. I saw myself in the pool at the Olympics doing my dives. If the dive was wrong, I went back and started over again. It takes a good hour to do perfect imagery of all my dives, but for me it was better than a workout.

I felt like I was on the board. Sometimes I would take the weekend off and do imagery five times a day. I felt like I was on the board and I did each dive so many times in my mind." (Orlick & Partington, 1988).


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Key questions
  • Will imagery enhance athlete performance?
  • Can imagery be trained and improved?
  • Which theory explaining imagery has been most supported by literature?

What is imagery?[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Athlete performing mental imagery.

Imagery, also referred to as visualisation, mental rehearsal and mental practice is structured mental practice techniques that are used to create or re-create athletic performance and activities in one's mind as seen in figure 1 (Holmes and Collins, 2001).

There are multiple measurable components of imagery vividness, controllability, duration, ease of generation and speed of formation (Morris, Spittle & Watt, 2005; Vealey & Greenleaf, 2001). The two most influential components which have been investigated the most are vividness and controllability. Vividness is defined as the clarity and sharpness of the imagery (Richardson, 1988). This includes the involvement of senses, the colour of images, and the emotional and physical sensations which are experienced during imagery. A study proposed athletes which[who?] experience imagery which is more vivid will have greater improvement in performance than those who experience low vividness (Isaac, 1992). Controllability is the degree of control an individual has over what happens in the imagery,[grammar?] Smith (1987) suggests the more control an athlete has over their imagery the greater the benefit to improving their performance. Ease of generation is the ability to easily create images, this is important as it the start of the imagery process (Morris et al., 2005). Duration refers to the length of time an individual can hold the images clearly in one's mind (Denis, 1985). The speed it takes for someone to form images is also a dimension which can be measured, however there is little research that has investigated this component (Watt, Morris, & Anderson, 2004). When athletes use imagery skills they should attempt to use all the senses, this is due to the fact the effectiveness of imagery is increase when more senses are used (Pie et al., 1996)

Why is imagery used?[edit | edit source]

Imagery is often utilised as a part of athlete training as it has also been found to be an effective strategy for improving skill acquisition and performance (Martin, Moritz, & Hall, C. R. 1999). It is known by sports psychologists that imagery can not only increase athlete performance in sport tasks but additionally improves psychological variables that are associated with successful athletic performance (Morris et al., 2005; Munroe-Chandler, Hall, Fishburne, & Strachan, 2007). The variables which can be improved include confidence, motivation, self-efficacy, coping with injury and pain, regulating arousal as well as reducing competitive sport anxiety and stress (Munroe-Chandler, Hall, Fishburne, & Strachan, 2007; Martin et al., 1999). As a result of this information sports psychologists often include imagery in their psychological training programs (Morris et al., 2005).

What are the different imagery functions?[edit | edit source]

A popular concept develop by Paivio (1985) proposes two functional roles of imagery, one motivational and one cognitive. Each of these operates at a specific and a general level and are further represented by four effects of imagery (Paivio, 1985). These imagery functions were labeled as cognitive specific (CS), cognitive general (CG), motivation specific (MS), and motivation general (MG). CS is the component of imagery related to developing and producing sport skills for example executing a basketball shot while jumping, CG is related to competitive strategies, tactics and game plans for example team formation in football (Paivio, 1985). MS is the function of imagery which involves specific goals and goal-oriented behaviours an example being a player imagining a penalty kick in football and setting a goal of success rate (Murphy, Nordin, & Cumming, 2008). MS has been found to help athletes cope with difficult situations and to have greater resilience in overcoming obstacles as a result of the imagined scenarios keeping them motivated to achieve their goals (Murphy et al., 2008). MG relates to general emotional arousal as well as physiological arousal for example increased perspiration or heart rate (Paivio, 1985). The development of the Sport Imagery Questionnaire (SIQ) revealed two different MG types, motivational general arousal (MG-A) and motivational general master (MG-M) (Hall, Mack, Paivio, & Hausenblas 1998). MG-M is the action of an athlete imagining being confident, controlled, focused and resilient whilst in a challenging situation, for example keeping composure while under a time constraint in a game (Murphy et al., 2008). MG-A is the type of imagery which is related to emotional and somatic experiences during sport such as feelings of relaxation such as in figure 2, arousal and competitive stress/anxiety (Murphy et al., 2008). MG-A imagery helps athletes reach their optimal arousal level through either relaxation or psyching up, it has been found to be the most used function of imagery by athletes (Arvinen-Barrow, Weigand, Thomas, Hemmings, & Walley, 2007; Gregg, Hall, & Nederhof, 2005). The framework created by Paivio has provided a reliable guideline for imagery interventions, to enable athletes to use an imagery function which matches their purpose (Holmes & Collins, 2001).

Figure 2. An athlete feeling relaxed before before performing in his sport.

Imagery theories[edit | edit source]

There have been multiple theories developed to try and explain the mechanisms of how imagery affects performance. The theories have been summarised into four categories: early theories, cognitive, neurophysiological, and psychological explanations (Morris et al., 2005). The early theories developed attempt to explain why mental practice works rather than imagery itself. Cognitive theories focus on the mental process which is involved in imagery. Psychological theories stress the importance of the influence from psychological states including arousal and motivation.

Table 1

Imagery theories

Category Theories
Early theories Psychoneuromuscular, symbolic learning
Cognitive Bio-informational, triple code
Psychological Attentional-arousal set theory, self-efficacy
Neurophysiological Functional equivalence explanation


Early theories[edit | edit source]

Carpenter (1894) developed psychoneuromuscular theory also known as muscle memory. The theory proposed imagining movements produces nerve impulses from the brain to the muscles to perform the task just as if the movement were to performed physically only the nerve signals would be weaker in magnitude (Carpenter 1984). A study which looked at leg muscle activity in skiers while they used imagery to create a downhill run supported Carpenter's theory (Suinn, & Dickinson 1978). Feedback to the pre-motor cortex is provided by muscle activation during imagery [grammar?] this facilitates motor performance via visual and kinaesthetic information (Guillot, Lebon, & Collet, 2010). Muscle activation may be dependent on the skill level of the athlete performing the imagery, Harris and Robinson (1986) found beginner athletes had less electromyography (EMG) muscle activity in comparison to more skilled athletes.

A second early theory is that of Sackett's (1934) symbolic learning theory. This theory suggests imagery creates a mental blueprint of the skills being learnt by the athlete in the mind. Put it other words by Arvinen-Barrow et al., (2007) individuals symbolise a motor program in the central nervous system, which leads to familiarisation with the skill. This prior rehearsal readies the body for physical execution of the skill. A result of this familiarity with skills enables the athlete to learn a skill while correcting mistakes. Symbolic learning theory may provide athletes the ability to change skill behaviour as a result of feedback from imagery (Corbin, 1972).

Cognitive[edit | edit source]

The bio-informational theory suggests an image should be viewed and classified as products of the brain's information processing capabilities (Lang, 1979). If an athlete is to watch a stressful situation this will induce feelings of anxiety (Lang, 1979). Two types of information are available when engaged in general imagery scenes: stimulus and response information (Lang, 1979). The stimulus information are descriptive aspects of a stimuluses features of during a visualised scenario for example the textured feeling of the knurling on an olympic weightlifting bar or the atmosphere at a venue (Weinberg, & Gould, 2007). The response information relates to statements which describe the athlete's response to the imagined scenario, the purpose is to produce a physiological response for example an athletes feeling's of arousal, confidence, excitement and muscle tension (Weinberg, & Gould, 2007). This theory has been the most supported in sport psychology literature.

The triple code theory pays attention to the personal meaning which is attached to a image (Ahsen, 1984). This theory highlights three components of an image: the image itself, the somatic response, and the meaning of the image for the athlete (Ahsen, 1984). The image is defined as the event, situation or movement which has been developed in the mind and includes as much information as possible including sensation which the activity would provoke making the imagery as realistic as possible (Ahsen, 1984). The somatic response includes the psychophysiological changes which occur including emotions, heart rate increase, muscle tension (Mulder, 2007). The last aspect the meaning of an image is different from one athlete to another and will depend on one's background, experience, and prior expectation of imagery (Weinberg, & Gould, 2007). Kornspan, Overby, & Lerner, (2004) found an athletes individuals belief and previous experience were crucial factors to the creation of imagery experiences.

Psychological[edit | edit source]

Psychological theories investigate the athlete's psychological state and any consequences which their state creates for imagery. [grammar?] behaviour, feelings and thoughts (Morris et al., 2005). The attentional-arousal set theory considers imagery as a tool that athletes use in order to focus attention on upcoming competition (Janssen, & Sheikh, 1994). This theory suggests imagery functions as a type of preparatory skill which helps athletes to reach optimal levels of arousal, [1] this level allows the athlete to keep focus and to screen out any irrelevant stimulus which would distract from their performance (Weinberg & Gould, 2007).

Perry and Morris (1995) take the stance that increases in self-efficacy are associated with imagery use, [grammar?] the increase in self-efficacy may possibly be associated with an increase in performance. Self-efficacy is defined by Bandura (1997, p. 3) as "an individual's belief in his or her own ability or organise and implement action to produce the desired achievements and results". This theory is backed by performance increased from self efficacy based on work by Bandura (1977). There is literature to support the positive correlation between increasing self-efficacy and sport performance (Koehn & Morris, 2011).

Neurophysiological[edit | edit source]

This theory is known as the functional equivalence explanation. Those who follow this theory suggest imagery and actual perception and motor control, share some neural networks (Holmes, & Collins, 2002; Kosslyn, Ganis, & Thompson, 2001). This theory states cognitive simulation processes such as imagery share certain representations, neural structures and some mechanisms with motor preparation and execution of movements (MacIntyre, & Moran, 2010). In this model the brain during imagery will execute processes which are necessary to trigger the physical movement even without actually performing the physical movement (MacIntyre, & Moran, 2010). Literature has found imagery training to produce similar neurophysiological mechanisms in comparison to when the movement is performed, [grammar?] multiple researchers have shown similar brain activity during imagery and physical performance of a task (Holmes, & Calmels, 2008; Klein, Paradis, Poline, Kosslyn, & Le Bihan, 2000). To increase the effectiveness and similarity between imagery and physical performance an athlete should incorporate any relevant cognitive, sensory, motor, and affecting elements of a scenario,[grammar?] this greatly increases the vividness of imagery (Holmes, & Calmels, 2008).


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Quiz Time!

1 How many different function of imagery are there?

2
5
4
6

2 Which theory is has become known as muscle memory?

Bio-informational
Attentional-arousal
Functional equivalence explanation
Pychoneuromuscular

3 Can imagining movements produces nerve impulses as if the movement were actually performed?

Yes, however they would be weaker in magnitude.
No.
Yes.

How to to improve imagery skills[edit | edit source]

Imagery is a trainable skill, and as such it can be trained and improved through practice (Cumming, & Ste-Marie, 2001; Rodgers,Hall, & Buckolz, 1991). One method suggested by researchers to improve imagery ability involves components of Lang's bio-informational theory adding stimulus in layers (Cumming, Olphin, & Law, 2007; Williams, Cumming, Balanos, 2010). Studies have been done[Rewrite to improve clarity] investigating the effect of layered stimulus response training (LSRT). An athlete includes a stimulus they find easy to imagine (e.g. seeing a football), the athlete is then to add additional stimulus and response information as well as meaning propositions (e.g., the feeling from the image such as being in a state of flow) on top of the original image in individual layers (Cumming et al., 2007; Williams et al., 2010). Research has found that layered imagery training has improved both imagery ability and also increase the performance of the imagined task (Williams, Cooley & Cumming, 2013). Williams et al., (2013) underwent a study comparing LSRT, motor imagery (MI) practice, and visual imagery (VI) practice on golf putting. The VI group visualised the ball rolling into the hole, the LSRT and MI groups visualised successfully performing a golf putting task. Over a period of four sessions the LSRT group was asked to add elements which they felt would make the imagery more realistic, participants in the other two groups underwent no change in their imagery scripts. The study revealed participants from the LSRT group alone made significant improvements in their kinaesthetic imagery ability as well as actual putting skill (Williams et al., 2013).

As previously mentioned vividness is an important component of imagery. Calmels, Holmes, Berthoumieux (2004) designed a study to examine the effects of structured imagery intervention on self-reported vividness of movement. Intervention sessions involves the athlete to practice with a ten minute audio taped imagery program which described various situations they may encounter during their sport. The first 10 sessions the athlete imagined multiple environment conditions, the next 4 they imagined performing successfully in any situation that they are exposed to during their sport. [grammar?] The last 14 sessions the researchers progressively added stimulus information images related to the sport. The results from the study showed increases ranging from 5.6% to 32.3% compared to baseline for all participants (Calmels et al., 2004). This research suggests vividness can be trained and improved through an effective imagery training program.

Effectiveness of imagery[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Olympic lifter Lasha Talakhadze lifting 258 kg at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio.

A survey of athletes from the U.S. Olympic Training Center reported 97% of athletes rating imagery techniques as extremely effective and 100% of coaches rated it as an effective technique (Murphy, 1994). Many athletes at the top level have stated they feel they could have reached that level of performance had they worked on strengthening their mental skills earlier on in their sporting careers (Orlick & Partington, 1998). Some of these athletes have said they already had the technical and physical skills perfected yet they were unable to maintain focus in competitions, they said it wasn't until their focussing skills had been refined that they reached peak performance (Orlick & Partington, 1998). A study which interviewed 38 Olympic level athletes found there was a link between the quality of mental imagery and performance in Olympic percentile rank (Orlick & Partington, 1988). Many athletes who perform at an extremely high level such as Lasha Talakhadze seen in figure 3 and Michael Phelps have used the techniques of imagery to improve their athletic performance.

Hegazy, Sherif and Houta (2015) performed a study to investigate the effect of imagery on learning tennis and hockey strokes. The study involved 24 males, the experimental groups were exposed to 16 sessions which utilised different components of imagery relaxation imagery, visualisation and concentration-attention control. The results showed significant improvements in learning forehand and backhand hits in tennis and push pass in hockey. This study suggests a combination of imagery and physical practice leads to the greatest improvements in performance and learning.

A study underwent the task of examining the effectiveness of imagery and coping strategies in a wide variety of sports (Volleyball, futsal, football, hockey and archery) and included 106 participants (Omar-Fauzee, Wan Daud, Abdullah, & Rashid,2009). The results found a relationship between imagery skill and coping strategies with both of these skills having a positive effect on sporting performance. There were significant differences in the ability to cope with adversity which translates to the ability to remain positive and enthusiastic while competing even when things aren't going to plan, as well as the skill to bounce back from any mistakes or setbacks.


Case study
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John is a elite rugby union front-row forward, he was followed over a 14-week period during the competitive season. John used imagery to improve his scrummage/defensive, tactical and training area skills. As a result of his imagery training John reported improved clarity, detail, control over his anxiety, motivation levels, activation, and an increased ability to generate confidence before games. SIQ scores demonstrated a improvement in all function from his baseline scores. John focused on technical and tactical images which increased his confidence and helped him control his anxiety levels while also helping him prepare effectively for games. This resulted in an improved performance[spelling?] while playing. (Evans, Jones, & Mullen, 2004)

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

From the literature to date it can be ascertained that imagery is an effective skill for improving a number of mental components including: confidence, motivation, self-efficacy, coping with injury and pain, regulating arousal as well as reducing competitive sport anxiety and stress. As well as the capacity to improve the ability to learn and master physical skills for example[grammar?]: golf putting, tennis strokes, hockey passes, diving technique and ball skills. Due to the nature of mental imagery being in the mind it does cause physical fatigue, therefore program change for athletes should be minimal as all is required is a set time for imagery practice.

Imagery is both an effective and easy tool to implement for athlete skill development which should be seriously considered by both athletes and coaches as a integral component of athlete development and training.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ahsen, A. (1984). ISM: The Triple Code Model for imagery and psychophysiology. Journal of Mental Imagery, 8, 15-42.

Arvinen-Barrow, M., Weigand, D. A., Thomas, S., Hemmings, B., & Walley, M. (2007). Elite and novice athletes' imagery use in open and closed sports. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19, 93-104.

Calmels, C., Holmes, P., Berthoumieux, C., & Singer, R. (2004). The development of movement imagery vividness through a structured intervention in softball. Journal of Sport Behavior, 27, pp. 307-322

Carpenter, W. B. (1894). Principles of mental physiology.New York: Appleton.

Corbin, C. B. (1972). Mental practice. In W.P. Morgan (Eds.), Ergogenic aids and muscular performance (pp.93-118). New York: Academic Press.

Cumming, J., Olphin, T. & Law, M. (2007). Self-Reported psychological states and physiological responses to different types of motivational general imagery. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 29, pp.629-644.

Cumming, J. L., & Ste-Marie, D. M. (2001). The cognitive and motivational effects of imagery training: A matter of perspective. Sport Psychologist, 15, 276-288.

Denis, M. (1985). Visual imagery and the use of mental practice in the development of motor skills. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Sciences, 10, 4S-16S.

Evans, L., Jones, L., & Mullen, R. (2004). An imagery intervention during the competitive season with an elite rugby union player. The Sport Psychologist, 18, 252–271. http://dx.doi.org/10.1123/tsp.18.3.252 

Gregg, M., Hall, C., & Nederhof, E. (2005). The imagery ability, imagery use, and performance relationship. Sport Psychologist, 19, 93-99.

Guillot, A., Lebon, F., & Collet, C. (2010). Electromyographic activity during motor imagery. The neurophysiological foundations of mental and motor imagery, 83-93. Oxford University Press.

Hale, B., & Crisfield, P. (2005). Imagery training. Leeds: Sports Coach UK.

Hall, C. R., Mack, D. E., Paivio, A., & Hausenblas, H. A. (1998). Imagery use by athletes: development of the sport imagery questionnaire. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 29, 73-89.

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Hall, C., Munroe-Chandler, K., Fishburne, G. and Hall, N. (2009). The sport imagery questionnaire for children (SIQ-C). Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science, 13, pp.93-107.

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Hegazy, K., Sherif, A. and Houta, S. (2015). The effect of mental training on motor performance of tennis and field hockey strokes in novice players. Advances in Physical Education, 05, pp.77-83.

Holmes, P., & Calmels, C. (2008). A neuroscientific review of imagery and observation use in sport. Journal of Motor Behavior, 40, 433-445

Holmes, P., & Collins, D. (2001). The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: A functional equivalence model for sport psychologists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13, pp.60-83.

Holmes, P. S., & Collins, D. (2002). Functional equivalence solutions for problems with motor imagery. In I. M. Cockerill (Eds.), Solutions in sport psychology (pp. 120-140). London: Thomson Learning.

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Janssen, J. J., & Sheikh, A. A. (1994). Enhancing athletic performance through imagery: An overview. In A. A., Sheikh, & E. R. Korn (Eds.), Imagery in sports and physical performance (pp. 1-22). Amityville, N.Y.: Baywood

Klein, I., Paradis, A. L., Poline, J. B., Kosslyn, S. M., & Le Bihan, D. (2000). Transient activity in the human calcarine cortex during visual-mental imagery: An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12, 15-23.

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Munroe-Chandler, K. J., Hall, C. R., Fishburne, G. J., & Strachan, L. (2007). Where, when, and why young athletes use imagery. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 78, 103-116. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2007.10599408

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Omar-Fauzee, M. S., Wan Daud, W. R. B., Abdullah, R., & Rashid, S. A. (2009). The effectiveness of imagery and coping strategies in sport performance. European Journal of Social Sciences, 9, 97-108.

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Pie, J. S., Tenenbaum, G., Bar-Eli, M., Eyal, N., Levy-Kolker, N., Sade, S., & Landers, D. (1996). Imagery orientation and vividness: Their effect on a motor skill performance. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 19, 32-49.

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Smith, D. (1987). Conditions that facilitate the development of sport imagery training. Sport Psychologist, 1, 237-247.

Suinn, R.M., & Dickinson, A. (1978). Imagery training for performance enhancement. Paper presented at the Sports Psychology Institute, Portland, ME.

Vealey, R. S., & Greenleaf, C. A. (2001). Seeing is believing: Understanding and using imagery in sport. In J. M. Williams (Eds.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (247-272). Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield

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Williams, S., Cooley, S. & Cumming, J. (2013). Layered stimulus response training improves motor imagery ability and movement execution. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 35, pp.60-71.

External links[edit | edit source]

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