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Mental Imagery: Imagine yourself being awesome – it works!

awesome photos by Bold Creative - terrible photoshop by me

With my injury last week, and a competition coming up this weekend, I’m being forced to get creative. It’s a good thing. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, right?

To improve (or at least maintain) my skills without aggravating my injury, I’ve decided to give “mental imagery” a try.

Basically, mental imagery (a.k.a “motor imagery”) is when you imagine yourself doing something (a specific sports skill – like kicking a soccer ball), to improve the skill in the real world.

It’s like practicing in your head.

Most athletes do this to some degree, usually right before a real attempt at a skill. When I’m bored, I often daydream about doing incredible moves (some are probably impossible). But practicing mental imagery on purpose – actually taking time to sit and imagine every detail – is something I’ve never really tried.

Skeptical of its true power, I did a little research. What I found was very interesting…

Mental Imagery Works

Multiple studies have confirmed that it works to improve sports performance! This is true for many different sports, such as swimming, basketball, high jump, tennis, hockey, gymnastics, golf, and soccer. 1, 2 It also works for music. Furthermore, it’s currently being studied for rehabilitation – it may be helpful for stroke patients, 3, 4 as well as chronic pain syndromes. 5

It appears to work through various neurological mechanisms – possibly by activating the same areas of the brain actually involved in the task. Of course, it’s probably a bit more complicated than that. 6

It may even be useful for injury prevention. ACL injuries are highly related to poor landing techniques in athletes, where the knees bend inward (valgus) upon landing. 7 Interestingly, this landing technique can actually be improved through mental imagery! 8

Very cool stuff. Science is awesome.

How to do it

When practicing mental imagery, it’s important that you imagine yourself performing the skill in every detail. Imagine how it actually feels. Take into account the situation – like where and when it’ll happen during your performance (the environmental context seems to be an important detail). 2

According to a 2011 study 1, the best results are attained through these methods:

  • Individual – do it alone rather than in group sessions.
  • Non-directed – it’s better if you guide yourself.
  • Supervised – it seems better to have someone help you stay focused.
  • With physical practice – it seems to have a better effect when paired with real life practice, especially if it’s done immediately after.

The ideal amount of time isn’t clear, but it seems 30 minutes is sufficient.

Interestingly, it’s not clear whether a first person (your perspective while doing it) or third person perspective (like watching yourself do it) is better. For now, it seems worthwhile to practice both ways.

During injury recovery, there are some special considerations. Apparently, if you imagine how you’ll feel emotionally (like getting “psyched” or “pumped up”), it can actually cause more stress and anxiety about returning to your sport! Try your best to focus on sport-specific skills and strategies. 9


Mental imagery is very interesting. Studies seem to support its effectiveness, especially when added to regular “real” practice. Don’t expect miracles – but it sure seems to help.

One of the most valuable ways it can be used is to “practice” when you’re resting. This may be helpful the day resting before a competition, or when you’re injured.

Personally, I’m going to give it a shot. Since my injury, practice hasn’t been great – there’s a lot of things that hurt way too much. But I’ll be alright.

I just have to use my imagination, apparently.

What do you think? I’d love to hear some opinions and thoughts.


Major References

ResearchBlogging.org1. Schuster C, Hilfiker R, Amft O, Scheidhauer A, Andrews B, Butler J, Kischka U, & Ettlin T (2011). Best practice for motor imagery: a systematic literature review on motor imagery training elements in five different disciplines. BMC medicine, 9 PMID: 21682867

6. Bartolomeo P (2008). The neural correlates of visual mental imagery: an ongoing debate. Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behavior, 44 (2), 107-8 PMID: 18387539

9. Monsma E, Mensch J, & Farroll J (2009). Keeping your head in the game: sport-specific imagery and anxiety among injured athletes. Journal of athletic training, 44 (4), 410-7 PMID: 19593424

(others linked within article)

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    18 Responses to Mental Imagery: Imagine yourself being awesome – it works!

    1. Nate Green says:

      Alright, well i personally think that this is a really cool idea. I believe that most sports are “Mind over Matter” anyways. If you can actually visualize yourself doing something, then the odds are that you will probably be able to do it. (Obviously not the case all the time, but it seems plausible). If people tell themselves that a certain event has happened in the past (real or not real), then they truely begin to believe that the event took place. Same goes for this; if they tell themselves that they can do something, then they will get over the mental block of not being able to accomplish something.

      • Tony Ingram says:

        That’s true Nate. Good point – it’s probably similar to how people can convince themselves of something that happened, when it actually didn’t! The science of memory is really interesting like that too.

    2. Laila says:

      Basically you’re using positive psychology perspective to help your body become better at a task. Positive psychology helps the well-being of a person by basically using positive thoughts which in this case by visualizing yourself doing something correctly and going through the motion in your head it will help you to get better at that particular action.

      • Tony Ingram says:

        I agree – I think mental imagery definitely goes under the umbrella of meditation type practices, and probably involves some of the same brain mechanisms of positive psychology.

    3. Annonymous says:

      I think this is very interesting. Next time i get hurt i am going to try this. In my PSY 101 class today we learned that intelligance has to do with creativity and this is very creative.

    4. Tyler Halas says:

      I loved this blog due to the knowldge I have on ACL tears, and other sports-like injuries. But Mental Imagery is technically just like a placebo tricking the mind everything is okay when injured to feel better momentarly, yet it works on certain people. Lucky people at that! Hey whatever works is useful though right? I agree with your methods to try it though, theres no conformity where the subject would lie to feel in unit with friends, therfor making the methods ten times better! Loved the blog keep it up!

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Thanks for the comment Tyler! I think this stuff works a bit better than placebo, as most of the studies compare it to placebo. The thing is, it’s hard to make up a good placebo. They use things like relaxation time, or visualizing something other than the skill of interest. Still, I’d bet you’re right that this utilizes many of the same brain mechanisms as the placebo effect. Thanks again for contributing!

    5. Patrick says:

      I’ve been reading a book on love and attraction and they talk at some point about “hacking your brain” to make you believe an idea to make it a fact. You can put it as doing inception on your own self haha!

      Essentially it consists of making affirmations about something or how you feel repeatedly and eventually you will consider these affirmations as real. A little like brain washing the positive way I suppose.

      So it’s kind of like mental-imagery, you see yourself succeeding the move so essentially you are projecting a successful execution of said move. I have to say though, I think our unconscious mind does mental imagery all the time without us even noticing. Sometimes I watch video’s on YT and I get the feeling my brain is flashing images or trying to simulate it within the brain.

      Interesting article as always!

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Sounds like a good book Patrick! Something along the same lines you should look up: mirror neurons. There’s a couple good videos on them online – really cool stuff.

        • Patrick says:

          Yeah well I’m majoring in Software Engineering so it’s kind of a stretch concerning health,fitness, muscles,etc…, but whenever I have some time(Like never these days) I like reading up on psychology. Of course I also spend some time reading your great articles haha.


          • Tony Ingram says:

            Thanks again Patrick! And I agree, psychology is super interesting. And I think it’s important if you’re in any career in which you interact with other people – and I can’t think of many careers that do not.

    6. bboy chemi says:

      i do this every day (morning /at school/eating/dreaming….) i agree with you.its a good way to keep practicing,creating new moves,and keep the good feeling and power of breaking when you are bored:)…

    7. Kate says:

      Ooh, interesting. I have also been doing a little motor imagery stuff after a spinal injury.

    8. Jenny says:

      Hi! What a great site! I use imagery with my clients. I’m a Bowen Therapist and creative imagery is something that helps them incredibly – takes them to the next step in healing. Also aside from that – I use it for my own dancing! It works amazingly. I was out of action for several months after an injury, and used imagery to imagine myself dancing and doing specific steps (argentine tango). I did this every day. After many many months of no dancing, I returned to it and danced even better than before – the mind was super prepared.
      Keep up the great information.
      All the best!

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Hey Jenny, glad it helped you! I found it very helpful actually – at least I think so. My injury has since recovered, and this imagery certainly kept me positive through the process.

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