Mental imagery, defined as ‘the ability to simulate that is not currently being perceived by the sense organs’ (Moran, 2004, pg. 131) is one of the most commonly utilised mental skills used in applied sport psychology. A cursory google search of the terms ‘mental imagery’ or ‘visualization’ will produce hundreds of quotes from successful athletes proclaiming a pop psychology narrative of the ‘power’ of visualization, in a generalised way, which ultimately miss the point and misrepresent the processes that make mental imagery an effective mental imagery for performance enhancement.
What we know:
Mental imagery works. A widely cited meta-analysis conducted by Driskell, Copper and Moran (1994) found that mental practice has a moderate, significant effect on performance and suggested that tasks with a cognitive component would particularly benefit from the systematic use of imagery as part of a training programme. Studies examining imagery’s efficacy in specific tasks has demonstrated significant improvements in Golf (Smith et al, 2008), Tennis (Robin et al, 2011) and Table Tennis (Caliari, 2008) amongst a plethora of other sporting and motor skills.
Why and How imagery works:
The efficacy of imagery is rooted in the concept of functional equivalence (Jeannerod, 1994). Essentially, the neurophysiological activation seen during the physical execution of a skill is also present during observation and crucially, imagination of that same skill. Rizollatti et al. (1996) provided support for the mechanism underlying functional equivalence, finding that neurons in area F5 of the monkey premotor cortex discharged during both task execution and task observation. These shared neural processes between physical, observed, and imagined actions allows the performer to elicit a similar physiological response from the imagined action as would be present during actual physical execution.
Essentially athletes can use imagery to prepare for a number of performance related situations including dealing with nerves/anxiety, motor skill acquisition and using imagery to prepare for individual skill executions during competition as part of a pre-performance routine.
Future Research in Imagery
The future of research in imagery is rooted in conducting more robust, reliable research through the use of appropriate populations, materials and controls. Improving the quality of the experimental research in the area will help to solidify imagery’s position as an effective and useful performance enhancing intervention.
Eoghan McNeill is postgraduate student in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences Department, in the area of Sport and Performance Psychology.