Part 1 – Mind power:
By Dave Smith, Ph.D.
In collaboration with Stephen Walker, Ph.D. from Podium Sports Journal
Imagery in History
Sport psychology is a relatively new endeavour. Some would say that the study of the human mind is still in its infancy. When one considers human development however, imagery is one of the oldest methods ever used. Perhaps it deserves a new look and a new treatment. In both lab and field studies in the UK, one form of imagery is capturing the sporting world’s attention and initial results of one particular technique shows great promise as a tool for mental conditioning and peak performance.
Imagery, sometimes referred to as visualization, is a skill frequently used by athletes and performing artists to create or recreate a mental rehearsal of their performance. This technique in its earliest incarnations has been used for thousands of years and was once referenced in poetry written by Virgil in 20 BC.
Evidence for the Use of Imagery in Sport
The use of imagery in sport appears to have increased greatly over the past twenty years and has been accompanied by research into a wide range of mental conditioning skills designed to enhance physical performance in all manor of sporting endeavour. Surveys have shown that imagery is used in some form or another by the vast majority of elite athletes and most coaches. Virtually all sport psychologists are advocates of it as a key psychological technique.
Over one hundred studies have shown imagery to enhance the performance of just about every motor task imaginable. In our own research, we have found imagery to aid performance in basketball, karate, golf, field hockey, gymnastics and computer games. Is visualization and imagery effective? And how would bonafide research efforts in both the field and laboratory assess effectiveness….
Perhaps the most interesting of sports and exercise activities to use imagery and document the results of athlete performance is in strength training, body building and weightlifting. Not only does it provide an opportunity for both lab and field study, strength training gives us specific and incremental measures that we can use to assess its impact on performance.
Well known bodybuilders such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Platz, Arthur Jones and Ellington Darden have all advocated imagery as a means of enhancing muscle gains. But what does the research show?
Does Imagery Really Work in Strength Training?
In the published research, imagery has not always proved effective. For example, in 1995 a study conducted by a group of Israeli researchers, test subjects actually demonstrated a decrease in performance on the leg extension. Other findings in our review suggested imagery may not be useful for strength tasks. This review suggested that the result of imagery on strength building has been inconclusive.
As such, our labs at the University of Chester and Manchester Metropolitan University began to look more closely at the research design, specific descriptions of the type of imagery used and, other features that might be used to provide a better research design for our investigations.
In one paper, published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology in 2003, we found that, on average, a group of individuals who imagined performing strength training exercises achieved about 50% of the gains experienced by individuals who actually performed a strength training programme. In another study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology in 2004, we presented findings that showed no difference between the effectiveness of real and imagined strength training in improving strength in novices. Another group of researchers in Iowa (USA) have presented similar findings, that imagery can significantly enhance muscle strength. Most recently, in a study currently in press at the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology examining the effect of imagery on bicep curl performance, we found that a training programme consisting of one imagery session and one physical training session per week was actually more effective in enhancing biceps strength than two physical training sessions per week!
So why the different findings: why is it that imagery is sometimes effective and sometimes not?
New Tools Gave Science the Ability to Know When & How Imagery works
During the past 70 years, many theories have attempted to explain how imagery can enhance task performance. However, it was not until very recently, with the advent of modern brain scanning technologies, that this question has been at least partially answered. Research using techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG), positron emission tomography (PET) scans, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, has revealed a rather startling phenomenon. That is, the areas of the brain that are active prior to and during movement are also active prior to and during imagery.
Many studies have shown such activity to be virtually identical, suggesting that imagery accesses the memory of a movement in much the same way as actual performance does.
Physiologically, it is known that the neurons in the motor areas of the brain fire in much the same way…whether you perform a task…or…vividly imagine performing it. Those firing patterns can be refined through repetitive use as the neural pathways become more defined. Both imagery to improve task performance and physical practice reinforce these firing patterns.
But how can this improve muscular strength?
Strength depends not only upon factors relating to the structure of the muscle, such as its size and predominant muscle fibre types, but also upon the ability of the central nervous system to recruit muscle fibres. This is known as neuromuscular efficiency. Some individuals can recruit a greater proportion of their muscle fibres than others, and our research suggests that this ability may be improved through imagery, thus increasing the amount of force the muscle can produce…hence, gains in strength.
However, it should also be noted that our research on imagery where a lack of specificity characterized the imagery technique failed to show any discernable benefit. Is there some characteristic of the imagery technique that allows users to actually recruit their muscle fibres in strength training? Stay tuned for Part 2.
About the Author:
Dave Smith is Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. He is accredited by the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) as a sport scientist and is Associate Editor of The Sport Psychologist. He is also a member of the Health and Exercise Committee of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), and is the co-chair of the AASP Special Interest Group on Exercise and Wellness. He has published many articles in both scientific journals and popular magazines, and has appeared on television and radio all over the world to discuss his work. Recent publications include articles in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology and the British Journal of Sports Medicine.