Many elite athletes use visualization techniques to enhance concentration, motivation, and self-efficacy, as well as to modulate arousal levels or to work through a plan for an anticipated experience. If you’re interested in tapping into these techniques, here’s what you need to know to do it effectively.
Mental imagery is the term of choice within sports psychology, rather than visualization, because imagery emphasizes the multisensory nature of the experience. Imagery draws from all of the senses as you move through a particular athletic experience in vivid detail.
When using mental imagery, you can use either a first-person perspective (1PP) or third-person perspective (3PP). In first-person imagery, you visualize the scene or action from your own viewpoint, as if you are experiencing it firsthand. For example, you might imagine standing on the starting line of a race when the gun goes off with your eyes focused ahead listening to the sound of the starter pistol. In third-person imagery, you visualize a scene or action from an external viewpoint, as if observing yourself from the outside. For example, you might see yourself standing on the starting line of a race as a spectator watching the performance.
Mental imagery provides a growth-oriented framework for rehearsing skills that you need to learn or master, such as navigating a technical section of a course or moving through a triathlon or skimo transition. It can also help you work out a plan for situations you anticipate coming up during a race, such as how to deal with “hitting the wall” in a marathon or how you’ll react when you feel like your lungs are going to explode at the end of a fast 5K.
The key to using mental imagery effectively is to make the experience as specific as possible. The PETTLEP acronym represents different details that can be integrated into mental imagery sessions:
- Physical sensations involved in the performance, such as the feel of muscles contracting and the sense of balance.
- Environment, or environmental conditions where the performance takes place, including sights, sounds, and other relevant elements.
- Task, or the specific skills associated with the performance, breaking down actions into detailed steps.
- Timing and rhythm of the performance, aligning mental rehearsal with the actual tempo of the activity.
- Learning and skill acquisition, such as visualizing the process of improvement and skill refinement.
- Emotion associated with the performance, such as feelings of confidence or motivation.
- Perspective, or adopting a particular viewpoint from which to visualize the performance.
Including all of these elements is neither required nor essential for effective mental imagery; they are simply meant as suggestions. The specific details you include will depend on your own preferences, needs, and purpose.
Mental imagery can be done with a guide who takes you through the process or on your own. It’s helpful to write out a script specific to your needs and refine it before putting it into action. You could record an audio or video of you reading the script (you as the guide) that you could listen to during your mental imagery sessions. You could have a friend or coach read the script to guide you through the experience, or you could read the script to yourself. You could also memorize short scripts to use during training. Sarah Williams and colleagues recommend starting with the five Ws when creating a script.
Who? Consider your background, characteristics, and preferences when creating a script. What is your sport and competitive level? Experts may benefit from greater complexity in the movements and scenarios, whereas less experienced athletes may benefit from less complex scenarios. What prior imagery experience do you have? How good is your imagery ability? Shorter scripts/sessions tend to work better for those with less imagery experience and a smaller number of sensory modalities work better for those with poorer imagery ability. Do metaphors resonate with you or do you prefer explicit descriptions? Do you prefer a first-person perspective (1PP) or third-person perspective (3PP)?
Where and when? Consider where and when you will do the imagery sessions. Will you do imagery before, during, or after training sessions? Or maybe during another time of the day, such as before bed or after waking up? How frequently — for example, once a week, every day? Or maybe you want to do an imagery session before key workouts, such as a weekly interval session on the track. Will you use it before a race — for example, to calm pre-race nerves? Where will you do the imagery sessions? For example, is there a quiet place at home you’d like to use? Or would it work better to do the sessions at the site of your training sessions, such as at the track before an interval workout? At the race site?
Why? Consider the reasons for using mental imagery and what you want to achieve with it. Do you want to rehearse specific skills or run through a technical course section? Do you want to play out a race strategy or implement tactics for how to run a race, such as how it will feel to run negative splits? Do you want to use imagery to motivate you? Do you want to use imagery to lower your arousal level and calm pre-race nerves? You may have more than one purpose for using imagery. Knowing what you want to get out of the sessions will help you tailor the script with those purposes in mind.
What? Consider what content you will include in the script. What images will you use? What details will you include? Refer to the PETTLEP model for ideas. What sensory elements will you use — sight, sound, touch, taste, smell? Will you include any movement? Or will you be sitting or lying down without movement during your session? Will you wear your race kit or running shoes to simulate that aspect of the experience?
Once you’ve written a script, read it out loud and revise it until you feel you have what you need for your imagery sessions. Put it to use and be sure to revisit the five Ws periodically to update the script as your needs change.
The practical application that follows provides a template to help you identify the five Ws before writing your script.