Examples of imagery use in sport.

What is Imagery?

Imagery is using all of your senses to visualise or recreate a specific situation. It incorporates, physical sensations and envisaging your performance environment as if it were occurring in reality. It may be an event that has been perceived in the past or an event that may occur in the future. Imagery takes place in absence of external stimuli. This means you do not perceive your tangible surroundings. What you can hear, see, smell and feel are all of the mind, not your physical environment.

Types of Imagery

Motivation General Mastery

Manage thoughts that influence psychological skills

e.g. Elevate confidence

Motivation General Arousal

Regulate mood, anxiety and arousal

e.g. Reduce pre-performance anxiety

Motivation Specific

Achieve set outcome goals

e.g. Getting a promotion at work

Cognitive Specific

Learn and improve execution of a specific skill

Improve speech fluency for a presentation

Cognitive General

Learn and improve game plans and strategy

Learning a new set piece play e.g. free kick corner

What is the theory behind Imagery in performance?

Dual Code Theory (DCT)

DCT suggests that you have two ways of learning and storing information: verbal representations and visual representations. Both forms of coding information are distinct from each other and use different channels in the brain to process, store and retrieve.

For example, you have stored the concept ‘cat’ as both the word ‘cat’ and an image of a cat. When it is necessary to recall the stimulus ‘cat’ you can do so in either verbal form, visual for, or both at the same time. You ability to code the concept ‘cat’ in two different way increases your ability to recall it, as opposed to coding it just one way.

A skier may use imagery to visualise and feel her course before competition. She would run through the entire course in her mind, the terrain, the turns, the jumps and slopes. She could do this visually, seeing the turns and feeling them as she would if she were performing and she could do this verbally, running through a list of turns and jumps and her direction e.g. right hand bend then jump.

Triple Code Theory (TCT)

TCT outlines three components of imagery that relate to performance: the image itself, somatic changes and meaning of the image.

The image itself, represents the outside world, the course, track or conference room where your performance would take place. Somatic responses or physiological changes occur due to activation of the image e.g. increased heart rate or sweating. Lastly, the meaning of the image will be unique for every individual as they bring with them their own fears and history. Understanding the meaning of the image enables the performer to manipulate their use of imagery to develop a more optimal method.

For example, a group of elite rowers have all been told to imagine a ball of electric energy expanding and building inside them to generate physical energy, ready for performance. Some rowers manage this successfully and maintain a radiating ball of energy in them. However, others perceive the energy in a negative context and visualise the ball bursting inside of them or creating a deep vacuum within their bodies. The differences in imagery give different outcomes due to the rowers’ distinct perceptions and anxiety.

TCT highlights the importance of ensuring you understand the semantics behind the image itself in order to create imagery scripts that produce minimal negative connotations and arousal.

Bioinformational Theory

This theory explains the use of imagery in terms of stimuli, responses and meaning propositions.

Stimulus PropositionsResponse PropositionsMeaning Propositions
Heart rate
Muscle tension
Helpful v unhelpful
Challenge v threat
Anxiety v energy

During imagery, stimulus characteristics or propositions are generated which, describe the content of the image e.g. what you can see, feel, smell, touch and taste in the physical environment. In turn, response propositions are activated which, describe the reaction to that stimulus. For example, hearing the crowd roaring (stimulus proposition) can trigger an increased heart rate or sweating (response proposition). The meaning proposition describes the significance of the response in relation to your own perspective. In this example, the meaning may be unhelpful, pose a threat to elite performance or cause anxiety.

For imagery to facilitate peak performance, response propositions must be understood and strengthened to develop more favourable response characteristics. Over time, working on changing the associations between stimulus and response will lead to changes in meaning. As you improve your imagery practice, your performance can benefit.

Skill Matching

Practicing imagery can help to enhance the following psychological skills:

Imagery can be used to plan for setbacks or worst case scenarios that the performer may experience. For example, a ballet dancer can use imagery to run through his routine. The imagined experience may include potential falls for difficult moves, allowing the dancer to prepare and understand what they would have to do next to recover or avoid the situation entirely. The ballet dancer could then repeat their imagined routine until they perform it successfully.

References, Resources and Reading

Ahsen, A. (1985). ISM: the triple code model or imagery and psycho- physiology. Journal of Mental Imagery, 8 (1), 15-42.

Cumming, J., Cooley, S. J., Anuar, N.,Kosteli, M. C., Quinton, M. L., Weibull, F., & Williams, S. E. (2017). Developing imagery ability effectively: a guide to layered stimulus response training. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 8(1), 23-33.

Lang, P. J. (1979). A bio‐informational theory of emotional imagery. Psychophysiology16(6), 495-512.

Martin, K. A., Moritz, S. E., & Hall, C. R. (1999). Imagery use in sport: A literature review and applied model. The Sport Psychologist, 13(3), 245-268.

Paivio, A. (2017). A dual coding perspective on imagery and the brain. In Neuropsychology of visual perception (pp. 203-216). Routledge.

Vealey, R. S., & Forlenza, S. T. (2015). Understanding and using imagery in sport. Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance, 240-273.