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.
1. 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)