It works for you but it does not make sense to me: How to use exercise imagery in a meaningful way

By Fredrik Weibull

You are running on a muddy trail in the forest. The rain is pouring down and you are completely soaked while keeping a high tempo. You have been exhausted for the last 20 minutes and you do not really know how but you keep pushing yourself forward. Your thighs, shoulders and calves are burning and you are now running up a steep hill. With rapid and powerful arm movements you are helping your legs carry you upwards, forcing yourself up the hill using maximal effort. You have three more miles to go and you will keep this pace. There is no alternative. Keep moving forward, fight!

How do you feel when reading this scenario? One might read itand think “what an idiot, why do that to yourself?”, while another one might think “Wow, I would like to be there right now, testing myself and pushing my limits”. What is cool about imagery is that the same image can affect two people in two completely different ways.

Images affects you whatever you do, whether you image yourself successfully taking a penalty in football, giving a presentation at work, cleaning your home or completing a workout in the swimming pool. In this blog post, I am going to focus on exercise imagery.

Exercise imagery
Exercise imagery is a very common self-regulation strategy and it is used by both people who rarely exercise and people who exercise vigorously every day. Exercisers image everything from how they want to look when they are fit to feeling refreshed and proud after an aerobics class. They use it to motivate themselves to exercise, increase their belief that they can perform a difficult routine and to experience more enjoyment during exercise. Research has shown it is possible to use imagery to increase your barrier-self efficacy, improve the quality of your motivation and improve your feeling states in relation to exercise.

When you image something it will affect you in positive ways.  These changes can range from being very subtle but to very noticeable. An image can make you happy, upset or motivated. How you are affected by it depends on how well you can create the image, how you interpret the image and what meaning the image has for you. Now I will provide you with some thoughts and tips on how to make your images more meaningful.

How to make your images more meaningful
It is only you who can decide if your images are meaningful for you in a specific situation and if they have the desired effect. There are different things to consider when you are trying to make images more meaningful for you.

A good place to start is to think about what you want to gain from your imagery use. Let us say that you want to use imagery to push yourself harder during a gym session. What images comes to mind? Can you use these images and work from them. Maybe you see and feel yourself pushing yourself really heard, your are exhausted but keep fighting or you image yourself reaching one of your performance goals (e.g., run 10 kilometers in under 40 minutes or swimming 500 meters without resting).

If the image motivates you, image it again and reflect on how it makes you feel. Can you perhaps add something to it that makes you even more motivated? Perhaps image hearing a specific music track while exercising, image sweating or feeling powerful. Play around and try different alternatives.

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Think about what makes you push yourself harder during the next gym session. Maybe you can use this behavior, these cues and feelings in your images. Write them down so you do not forget them. Image it there and then so that you learn how to image it when it is fresh in your mind. Rehearse it again after the session and again when you get home.

One good rule of thumb when using imagery is to include the same details in your image that you want to experience in the specific situation. For example, when you cycle you perhaps focus on how your legs feel powerful and that you are maintaining a smooth and consistent pace. When imaging cycling try to focus on these details. However, the twist here is that it should still feel meaningful for you. Maybe this does not make it feel more meaningful. Maybe it feels more important to focus on maintaining a good cycling position and to focus on the sounds the bicycle makes in your images.

If it feels real and lifelike but perhaps annoying or useless, it is probably not the right image to use for you. Or perhaps you are not using it in the right way. Maybe you need to image it during a longer duration.

It is good to consider that some things require practice. If you learn a new golf swing you will not have good results straight away, you may need thousands of swings before it feels right and you can execute it correctly. The same goes with a new image. Maybe it is difficult to image it during your first tries, maybe you include too many or too few details and maybe it takes some time before you get used to the idea of that image. Be patient.

I suggest that you evaluate your images after your workout. Did they have the desired effect? Think about what worked, what did not work, and adjust your images the next time.

If you used an image that helped get you off the sofa and into the gym? What was that image? Write it down. Perhaps you can use it again.

Please add your comments below to let me know how you use imagery when you exercise and what do you do to create meaningful images.

Interested to know more? Here is a good book chapter. You can also join us for our upcoming imagery workshop on how to improve imagery ability and to write imagery scripts.

About the author: Fredrik Weibull is a doctoral researcher in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Birmingham. He also works applied with performance psychology in both sport and business. Talk to him on Twitter: @FredrikWeibull

Imagery in exercise and physical activity: You can be whatever you make up your mind to be

By Maria-Christina Kosteli

Are you among these people who are constantly looking for excuses to avoid going to the gym? Do you want to start exercising but you find it difficult? Imagery can be the answer to your question. In this post, my goal is to explain how imagery can be a very powerful tool as well as give you some tips and suggestions on how to use it.

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Why imagery is so  powerful?

Have you heard the notion that for whatever you can imagine you can achieve? Basically, imagery can give you the confidence that you can do something and help you prepare for it. It has been extensively used by athletes and has been shown to be associated with successful performance. But athletes are not the only ones who can benefit from it.

How does imagery work and how can it be used in exercise?

Previous research has shown that when you imagine yourself exercising it is more likely that you will end up doing it. Are you wondering why? Simply put, your brain does not differentiate very much between a real event and an imagined one. It is like tricking your mind that you are exercising without really moving from your chair.  So when you imagine yourself exercising, you may experience same feelings and sensations as if you were actually doing it.

For example:

  • if you imagine yourself lifting weights you might experience tension in your muscles.
  • You could feel your heart beating faster while you imagine walking with fast pace in the treadmill.
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It is important to note that not everyone is able to imagine kinesthetically and experience the movement or the sensation associated with it. Some people can easily visualize but have a hard time experiencing a picture as a sound or smell. This is why imagery is also known as visualization. However, imagery is multifaceted and is not limited to one sensation.

When to use imagery?

When you use imagery it is important that you know what you want to achieve. If for example you have fear that you might not be able to do a certain move, it would be wise if you picture yourself completing the workout. Thus, some people use imagery to improve their skills and technique while engaging in a certain activity. This can happen by simply picturing yourself doing an exercise correctly. In this way you convince yourself that you can actually do it even if it is challenging. Thus, imagery can build your confidence and motivate you to do things you would never imagine you could do. Make sure that what you imagine is as close as possible to what you want to achieve.

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What happens with people who are totally unmotivated to initiate physical activity? 

If you are among the people who have a hard time getting out of their sofa, you can start by picturing yourself getting ready and preparing to go for a run or a walk. Think about all the things that you do prior to commencing exercise such as putting athletic attire on, getting a flask with water, or even grabbing your iPod if you enjoy listening to the music while you exercise. The more details you include in your imagery the more effective it will be. In imagery you can use all your sensations to make it as realistic and vivid as possible. Imagery can also be used as a way to overcome difficult situations. Let’s say for example that it is raining and you feel unmotivated to get ready to go to the gym. What you could do is to imagine a warm bath or a cup of tea after completing your goal. In other words, picturing the reward at the end of exercise can motivate you to actually do it.

Can everybody use imagery?

Although some people are better than others in formulating images, this does not mean that imagery is limited to certain people. Imagery is a skill and it is something that you can improve on. The same way you engage in physical training, you can also have mental training. Thus, the more you practice imagery, the better you will become. You can use imagery anywhere and at any time. For example, you can use imagery before you start exercising or during exercise, in your car, before you go to bed etc. If you are still unsure if imagery is for you, you should try it out for yourself. You might be amazed with how powerful it can be.

About the Author: Maria-Christina Kosteli is a final year PhD student in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the School of Sport, Exercise, and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Birmingham. The opinions expressed in this post are my own.

Imagery interventions with children: Top tips for researchers, parents, and coaches!

By Mary Quinton

For my first post for the BRIO group blog, I would like to share with you the top tips I learned from conducting an imagery intervention with a population that requires a different approach to that typically undertaken with most athletes – children.
I’ll summarize with some practical tips aimed at parents, coaches, and researchers for incorporating imagery into practice sessions for youth athletes. But first, let me tell you what we did in our intervention that allows me to give you advice!

What did we do?
We conducted a five week imagery intervention with a group of 36 young Futsal players to see whether imagery practiced twice a week could improve their:

  1. Ability to generate images (i.e., imagery ability)
  2. Performance on a dribbling and passing Futsal task.*

*Note: For a more detailed description of our methodology and results please see the full text article: Quinton, M. L., Cumming, J., Gray, R., Geeson, J. R., Cooper, A., Crowley, H., & Williams, S. E. (2014). A PETTLEP imagery intervention with young athletes. Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, 9, 47-59. doi:10.1515/jirspa-2014-0003

Watch Futsal in action with the top 10 goals from the 2008 FIFA Futsal World Cup in Brazil:


What’s the science behind it?

Our imagery intervention was based on the PETTLEP model (see Holmes & Collins, 2001 for further details). PETTLEP refers to seven elements to consider when designing an imagery intervention: Physical, Environment, Time, Task, Learning, Emotion, and Perspective.

Watch this example on how PETTLEP can be applied in golf:


For maximum benefits, all seven elements should be included in the imagery. Why? Simply put, imagery activates similar areas of the brain to physical practice (Jeannerod, 1997). The extent to which these areas overlap has been termed functional equivalence (or more recently behavioural matching; Wakefield, Smith, Moran, & Holmes, 2013) and is thought to be the reason why imagery has such a powerful effect on performance.

Therefore, including all seven PETTLEP elements in imagery more accurately reflects physical performance (i.e., greater functional equivalence) and can enhance the detail and vividness of the image.

How did we do it?
The imagery content included various dribbling and passing exercises, which related to the futsal skills the young athletes learned. We introduced PETTLEP elements gradually, starting with the most simple ones (e.g., physical – imaging dressed in their kit) and ending with the more complex elements (e.g., emotion – imaging feeling confident doing the skills).

We broke the imagery down into manageable size pieces for a number of reasons:

  1. Children learn skills more effectively when they are broken down, also known as “chaining” (Slocum & Tiger, 2011)
  2. We wanted to ensure the children were not “overloaded” with information at the start. Too much information may cause a lack of focus; an issue especially relevant with children!
  3. This layering approach, known as Layered Stimulus Response Training (LSRT), has been shown to improve imagery ability and performance (Williams, Cooley, & Cumming, 2013). If you want to learn more about LSRT, why not come to our workshop? Click here to find out more.

What did we find?
Although our intervention did not significantly improve performance, we did find age to be significantly related to certain types of imagery ability. In other words, older children found it easier to image certain perspectives in relation to younger children.

So what?
So…this finding has important implications for delivering imagery interventions with children. If older children find it easier to image than younger children, then interventions should be delivered according to age group. This approach would allow for the intervention to be delivered at the correct pace to those involved – in accordance with the learning element of the PETTLEP model.

The bit you’ve all been waiting for…
The tips! Sometimes non-significant results tell us more than significant ones and in the case of this study, that is very true. By no means is the below an extensive list, but from my experience these are what I think are the key points to address in future imagery interventions with children:

Tips for researchers 

  • Aim for small, similar intervention groups: As different people vary in imagery ability (e.g., age, experience level), this ensures the imagery is specific to the group you are working with.
  • Alter the imagery content/delivery to engage children: E.g., use pictures to demonstrate different ways for the children to see their images as in the Movement Imagery Questionnaire for Children (Carter, Yoxon, Ste-Marie, Cumming, & Martini, 2013).
  • Keep coaches and parents informed and involved: Informing parents and coaches about the intervention will help integrate imagery into other areas (e.g., training or practicing at home).
  • Don’t overload children with lots of imagery content: Use the LSRT approach to go at the right pace for youth athletes.

Tips for parents/coaches

  • Ask researchers about the imagery intervention: This will allow you to reinforce the concept and encourage the children to practice imagery outside of the intervention.
  • Encourage frequent imagery use: Research has shown improvements from imagery when practiced at least 3 times a week (Wakefield & Smith, 2009).
  • Use props and small movements: E.g., if the imagery is football based, have players image with a ball at their feet. This makes the imagery more interactive and also uses the Physical element of the PETTLEP model!

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. Have you had any experience with imagery and youth athletes? If so, we’d love to hear what works best for you! Please leave any comments in the box below. Don’t forget to check out our other blogs too!

References

  • Carter, M. J., Yoxon, E., Ste-Marie, D. M., Cumming, J., & Martini, R. (2013). The validation of a movement imagery questionnaire for children (MIQ-C). Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 35, S16–59.
  • Holmes, P. S., & Collins, D. J. (2001). The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: A functional equivalence model for sports psychologists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(1), 60–83. doi:10.1080/10413200109339004
  • Jeannerod, M. (1997). The cognitive neuroscience of action. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  • Slocum, S. K., & Tiger, J. H. (2011). An assessment of the efficiency of and child preference for forward and backward chaining. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44(4), 793–805. doi:10.1901/jaba.2011.44-793
  • Quinton, M. L., Cumming, J., Gray, R., Geeson, J. R., Cooper, A., Crowley, H., & Williams, S. E. (2014). A PETTLEP imagery intervention with young athletes. Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, 9, 47-59. doi:10.1515/jirspa-2014-0003
  • Wakefield, C. J., & Smith, D. (2009). Impact of differing frequencies of PETTLEP imagery on netball shooting performance. Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, 4(1), 1–11. doi:10.2202/1932-0191.1043
  • Wakefield, C., Smith, D., Moran, A. P., & Holmes, P. (2013). Functional equivalence or behavioural matching? A critical reflection on 15 years of research using the PETTLEP model of motor imagery. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6(1), 105–121. doi:10.1080/1750984X.2012.724437
  • Williams, S. E., Cooley, S. J., & Cumming, J. (2013). Layered stimulus response training improves motor imagery ability and movement execution. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 35, 60–71.

About the Author: Mary Quinton is a final year PhD student in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the School of Sport, Exercise, and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Birmingham. The views and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.

Introducing the BRIO Group Blog

By Dr Jennifer Cumming CPsychol CSci AFBPsS

Welcome to the first ever BRIO group blog post! We are a group of academic staff and post graduate students from the University of Birmingham (UK) who are avid about researching what helps make imagery and observation effective for sport, exercise, dance, and rehabilitation.  We are often asked to give advice on how to put this research into practice so that it can be more easily used by coaches, fitness instructors, dance teachers, and physiotherapists.  To share these ideas more widely, we have decided to start this blog to offer practical tips, summarise recent developments by us and others, as well as to make suggestions for both research and application. We will also be welcoming your comments and feedback too.

BRIO group

To kick start our blog, we decided to each take on the challenge of writing a post about something about imagery that strikes our curiosity.  But, in this first post, I give a bit of background about imagery and explain how it is commonly used by athletes.

What is imagery?
Imagery involves using some or all of your senses to create a mental image.  It not just about what you see through your mind’s eye. You can also experience an image as a sound, smell, and taste.  In sport, one of the most common senses during imagery involves feeling sensations and emotions. England Cricketer James Anderson has revealed how imaging the feel of the ball coming out of his hand helped him to overcome problems with his swing.  Now when he bowls a good ball, he will “just try to think about everything I did during that ball, how it came out of my fingers, how it felt and just try to recreate that over and over again”.

Athletes will also combine different senses to create a vivid and realistic image.  For example, a tennis player might view themselves tossing the ball upwards and then see the downward motion of the racket when mentally rehearsing his serve.  He might also feel the racket in his hands, the force of the racket connecting with the ball, as well as the muscular effort involved in this swing. These physical sensations can also be combined with positive and helpful emotions such as feeling determined and confident that his serve will be successful.

Because imagery can and, more often than not, involve multiple sense, I prefer the term “imagery” over “visualisation”.  The latter is probably how imagery is most commonly known to athletes and coaches.  But, I think it then limits how imagery is defined and used. Three time Olympian and US Freestyle Aerialist Emily Cook agrees, “Visualization, for me, doesn’t take in all the senses. You have to smell it. You have to hear it. You have to feel it, everything.” Using the different senses not only helps to create more effective images, but also ensures that these images will be more meaningful and relevant to the athlete.

Where does an image come from?
Images can be based on past experiences drawn from your memory or triggered by something that you have seen, felt, read, smelt or heard.  You can get your inspiration from images from almost anything, but listening to music used to be an excellent sources for me.  As a former figure skater and professional coach in Canada, music help to develop new ideas for choreographing a skater’s routine.  I would start to image what kinds of movements and skills would work with the music and this gave me a chance to work out a plan before even stepping on the ice.

It is also possible for you to generate a completely new images by combing details from your memories with new information that you get elsewhere. Take the case of a gymnast who might preview themselves competing at an event for the first time after viewing YouTube clips of past competitions held at that location.  After watching the video, she might mentally transport herself into the scene, incorporating key details of what she saw to help create the atmosphere of the event and then recreate an image of a recent best performance.  Mentally preparing in this way gives the athlete an important boost of confidence even without any real experience at this particular venue.  When she arrives at the event, she will have an immediate sense of familiarity from having already experienced her routines many times over in her head.

How and why is imagery used by athletes?
The best athletes will apply the same principles that make their physical training effective to how they use imagery.  That is, they will approach imagery practice in a deliberate and systematic way.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for top athletes to plan what they will image and for how long.  They will also use imagery as part of their regular training programme.

By doing so, the best athletes will reap the many benefits of imagery including learning new skills, memorising game plans/strategies, motivating themselves to achieve goals, managing their emotions, as well as keeping their confidence high.  For example, professional golfer Jerry Kelly described rehearsed the course in his mind each night before going to sleep and again in the morning for the month and a half before winning his first PGA tournament at the 2002 Sony Open.

By comparison, less successful athletes use imagery more sporadically, less often, and without much thought or planning.  As a result, their imagery is probably more like day dreaming.  However, athletes of any level can be taught how to use imagery more effectively.  In this blog, the BRIO group will explore some of the techniques we and others have developed over the years to help even those athletes who don’t think they can image to benefit from this technique.

Imagery as a marker of success?

How often an athlete uses imagery is a factor that separates those who are successful from those who are not.  In his autobiography, Olympic gold medallist Sir Bradley Wiggins, CBE describes how imagery has been a part of his training for most of his career. He explains that “The routine for this time trial is the same one I’ve built and perfected over fifteen years; as I go through it thoughts and images flash through my mind…I always pick a power to ride at. If it’s 460, 470 watts, I’m imagining being there, at that power. In my head it’s feeling strong, flowing, everything’s working. It’s easy, I’m floating along, I’m gliding, it’s feeling great. I can sustain this feeling for up to an hour.”

In some of the first research I carried out as part of my PhD at the University of Western Ontario, I explored how much time athletes spent imaging over different years of their career. It was surprising to find that more successful athletes will start to accumulate more hours of imagery practice as early as 5 to 6 years into their career. This result has reinforced to me how important it is for athletes to develop imagery as a skill and use it as part of their long term development.  Regular and effective use of imagery will likely speed up an athlete’s journey to the top, as well as help to pave a smoother road by being better able to handle the natural bumps along the way.

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About the author: Dr Jennifer Cumming is a Chartered Psychologist and a Senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Birmingham. The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.