Part 2 – Mind power:
By Dave Smith, Ph.D.
In collaboration with Stephen Walker, Ph.D. from Podium Sports Journal
In Part 1, we explored the history of imagery use in athletic performance and reviewed the scientific literature, which offered mixed reviews on its effectiveness. Although more recent studies have demonstrated measurable benefits to the multitudes of athletes, coaches and sport psychologists who advocate the use of imagery – recent technological developments have furthered the ability to identify when, how and why certain types of imagery are more effective than traditional methods of visualization. So, what type of imagery works, and why?
Technology has enabled us to employ functional MRI, PET scans, and EEG measures to illustrate how the brain is stimulated and to what extent it is engaged in certain imagery techniques. Research on strength training has provided a specific domain for research which enables us to measure incremental improvement in physical performance, and establish controlled environments (both in the laboratory and the field.)
In Part 2, we clarify the criteria required for imagery to be successful and demonstrate one particular method that shows great promise for athletes in a variety of sports.
The Litmus Test – Functional Equivalence
The neurological similarities between real and imagined movements are known in the neuroscience literature as ‘functional equivalence.’ Further study of this body of research has shown that improvements in strength are not inevitable consequences of imagery….
In fact, research in our laboratory has shown that movement-related brain activity is most likely to occur when the imagery involves all the senses that would be involved in the situation being imaged.
For example, when imagery is applied to lifting weights, we have found that just visualizing weight lifting is ineffective. The imagery needs to be as realistic as possible….by imagining the feelings of tension in the muscles, the rapid heartbeat and breathing, the friction of the knurled bar against your hands, the music being played on the gym sound system, the smell of the gym, and so on.
Developing imagery skills should incorporate everything that you experience when actually weight training. The experience should be meaningful, vivid and realistic. Of particular importance are the physiological reactions that accompany your training: these appear to be important in enabling your imagery to be functionally equivalent to your actual training.
The Benchmark for Determining Functional Equivalence
In two recent studies we examined movement-related EEG activity, studying the brain wave activity known as late Contingent Negative Variation (CNV.) This illustrates an electrical brain potential related to movement preparation. This EEG wave takes the form of a negative shift from the EEG baseline, and is believed largely to reflect the nerve signals being sent from the cortex to the muscles to enable contraction. We found similar late CNV waves to occur prior to imagery and actual movement. However, in most cases this occurred only when the imagery emphasized the bodily feelings experienced during the movement (i.e. muscle tension and so on). When the imagery was primarily visual in nature (i.e. seeing yourself move but not feeling yourself move) there was no late CNV. These findings strongly suggest that multi-sensory involvement in imagery is necessary to achieve functional equivalence.
Unfortunately, the imagery advice given in bodybuilding books and magazines, by coaches and many sport psychologists, fails to take the above findings into account. For example, as noted in part 1 imagery is often referred to as ‘visualisation’, and trainees are often advised to ‘see themselves’ lifting weights. Articles containing such advice have appeared in magazines such as Muscle and Fitness, Flex and Men’s Fitness in the last couple of years. In such articles scant attention is paid to the importance of multi-sensory involvement in imagery. Such techniques are, however, likely to be less effective than the multi-sensory approach.
Updated Techniques for Sport Psychologists
Sport psychologists have commonly encouraged athletes to be relaxed during imagery, and techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation (involving the tensing and relaxing of muscle groups to reduce overall levels of tension) are often included as part of imagery training.
In addition, many psychologists advise that imagery should be performed lying down in a quiet environment. These suggestions do not take into account the neuroscience research findings noted above. The functional equivalence criteria must be met if imagery is to be effective.
Because sport psychologists ‘imported’ the use of “relaxed” imagery from clinical psychology, it is still commonly practiced. In clinical settings imagery is used as a therapeutic tool to help treat anxiety disorders. Patients are taught to imagine stress-invoking scenes, and then employ a relaxation technique alongside the imagery. Their goal is to help patients learn to associate the stressful situation with being calm and in control. As logical and effective as this technique is in attacking phobias, it is ineffective for helping an athlete use imagery to enhance athletic performance…unless it is specifically used to reduce performance anxiety.
Hence, the traditional, relaxation-based ‘visualisation’ approach to imagery is unlikely to be effective in enhancing strength. We now know that there are better guidelines available for trainees to enhance the effectiveness of their imagery.
How might we structure these imagery techniques? What research has been done to demonstrate its effectiveness? Stay tuned to Part 3.
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.