Imagery and Visualization in Sports


Marilyn King was training for the 1980 Olympics when she was involved in a car accident which resulted in a back injury that left her bedridden for months. During her recovery, she spent hours using mental training techniques, watching films of Pentathlon, and visualizing herself competing. Although she was unable to train physically, her mental training helped her to place second at the 1980 Olympic trials.

When you use imagery, your brain is making a mental blueprint of your movements which helps those movements become more familiar and automatic. Imagery can be used to learn and refine skills, gain confidence, increase concentration, and……

….. help you to refocus and prepare for challenges.

The Basics

Clear Your Mind: To begin, either close your eyes or keep them softly focused on something in front of you. Take several deep abdominal breaths in order to slow your breathing, relax your body, and clear your mind. Make your exhalation a beat longer than your inhalation. If other thoughts come into your mind, focus on your breathing and let the distracting thoughts drift away. When you are first practicing imagery it is a good idea to find a quiet place to start. Once you master your imagery skills, you will be able to quiet your mind even on the lift or in the gates.

Using Your Senses: Incorporating the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste can help bring images to life. Hear the sound of the snow beneath your skis. See the trees on the side of the run. Feel the movement of your legs as they carve through a turn.

“Visualization sounds like you only see it. You visualize so when you get there it will not be a shock to you. It’s not just seeing it. When you are in an event you see, hear, and taste everything, you have a feeling in your stomach. These are all part of visualization.” – Kristina Koznick, U.S. Alpine Slalom Skier

Internal vs. External: Using imagery is like playing a movie in your mind. Some people will see the images as if they are watching a movie (external) while others will see them as if they are behind the camera (internal). Most of us are stronger in one type or the other. Using both types is beneficial. However, it is good to be able to see images as if you were behind the camera, in your own body, so you can feel yourself going through the motions in your mind.

When to Use Imagery

Getting Started: Like many skills, some people will pick up imagery faster than others. If you are just beginning to use imagery and are having trouble, try this exercise to help build your imagery skills.

Instant Replay: This activity involves performing simple tasks, then closing your eyes and imagining what you just did. Tasks should go from easy and short in length (i.e. bend and touch your toes, do a jumping jack) to more difficult and longer (i.e. tie your shoes, do the hand jive). You can also do this exercise on the slopes. Ski down one turn and stop. Then imagine it in your mind until you can link all of your turns and imagine a whole run.

Learning Skills: Whether you are learning to match your skis or carve a turn, imagery is a great tool to help master a skill. In order to do something fast, you must first be able to do it slow. If necessary, you can slow down the images in your mind while you are first learning, but remember to try them in real time. The closer your images are to real time, the greater impact they can have on your performance.

Seeing Success: Imagery can be a great confidence builder because you are filling your mind with positive thoughts and successful images. Imagery can be done before going to bed, while stretching, while on the ski lift, at the top of the run, etc… Use imagery to see yourself successfully skiing or snowboarding down the run. See yourself skillfully navigating the moguls or skiing through the gates.

Racer’s Tip: Imagery can also be used to plan your response to mistakes and unexpected challenges. Use imagery to see yourself refocusing and regaining confidence after a mistake.

Unless you plan to fly to New Zealand in the summer, skiing is not a year round sport. Imagery gives us the opportunity to train for snowsports year round. The ability to create vivid images that you can control is essential for imagery to be effective in enhancing your performance. Take it from Marilyn King; creating successful and positive images in your mind opens the door for you to then act out those images. Who needs Warren Miller when you can write your own script and star in your own ski flick!

The above article appears on Carrie Cheadle received her Masters degree in Sport Psychology and has a private practice in Sonoma County consulting with teams, athletes, and coaches on enhancing performance through mental skills training. She is available for workshops and individual consulting. Here’s the full article.

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