To be a successful athlete there are thousands of individual elements, all making a difference. The basic physiological attributes you are born with, the sporting skills and techniques you learn, the personality traits that push you towards perfectionism, mental toughness or resilience and the social environment in which you grow up and develop your mindset on how much you can achieve. Some of these are fixed, and some can be developed and adapted with the right support, training and education. There are also a set of mental skills you can learn which everyone can benefit from; whether for sport, for work, for other hobbies. One of these, tested in depth by sports psychologists, is imagery.

Imagery is known by a number of terms (so you may hear it talked about as mental practice, visualisation, covert practice, mental rehearsal or symbolic rehearsal) but all describe a form of stimulation that allows you to recreate positive elements from memory to prepare for a performance. The stimulation can be through sight), hearing or even smell but one of the most important for athletes is thought to be kinaesthetic (tactile) as it involves feeling the body in the patterns and shapes that are required when you perform.

Imagery can work in two ways:

  • Motivational – used to visualise goals and goal orientated behaviours around performing really well, to relax or psych up and the specifics of your sport.
  • Cognitive – focuses on motor skills, games plans and strategies.

Both can improve self-confidence and then ultimately performance.

Researchers trying to understand why imagery works have devised a representational theory suggesting that, through imagery, neuronal groups interactively fire in defined patterns, structurally modifying themselves in a way that makes them more effective. Through this it is suggested that we gain functional equivalence with the same areas of the brain firing whether a skill is actually performed or just imagined. So while imagery can’t replace physical practice, only supplement it, this functional equivalence means an athlete benefits from the extra ‘imagined’ practice but without the additional risk of injury or fatigue.

The use of imagery has been found to work particularly well for those wishing to improve their self-confidence. In 2012 Williams and Cumming published a study of 207 athletes where they found that those using motivational imagery had higher confidence. 2002 research from Abma and colleagues split 111 athletes into those who had high confidence and those with low confidence and found those high in confidence used all types of imagery significantly more than those with low confidence. Both these studies highlight that athletes wanted to boost self-confidence will benefit by using imagery.

But there are some caveats you need to keep in mind if you planning to try imagery to build your self-confidence. The more skilled and experienced in your sport the better you tend to be at using imagery for the right effect. The type of imagery you use is also important. Research by Callow and Hardy in 2001 found that doing imagery around game strategies was only effective in lower standard athletes and imagery related to the emotions of playing can impact confidence negatively. Research has also found that using imagery focusing on a negative outcome is detrimental to levels of confidence and to levels of performance so it is essential you imagine what you want to happen, not what you are trying to avoid. Finally, the better your imagery skills are, the better you will be at using it effectively. So like everything – practice!

If this has tempted you to try imagery there is a worksheet here which explains how to go about it.

To read more about imagery…

  • Abma, C. L., Fry, M. D., Li, Y. Y., & Relyea, G. G. (2002). Differences in imagery content and imagery ability between high and low confident track and field athletes. Journal Of Applied Sport Psychology, 14(2), 67-75.
  • Callow, N. N., & Hardy, L. L. (2001). Types of imagery associated with sport confidence in netball players of varying skill levels. Journal Of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(1), 1-17.
  • Holmes, P. S., & Collins, D. J. (2001). The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: A functional equivalence model for sport psychologists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(1), 60-83.
  • Moran, A. P., & MacIntyre, T. (1998). There’s more to an image than meets the eye: A qualitative study of kinaesthetic imagery among elite canoe-slalomists. The Irish Journal of Psychology, 19(4), 406-423.
  • Vealey, R. S., & Walter, S. M. (1993). Imagery training for performance enhancement and personal development. In J. M. Williams (Ed.) Applied sport psychology, 2nd edition (pp. 220-224). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
  • Williams, S. E., & Cumming, J. (2012). Sport imagery ability predicts trait confidence, and challenge and threat appraisal tendencies. European Journal of Sport Science, 12(6), 499-508