Getting to know the BRIO group: How do you use imagery?

Dr Jennifer Cumming

My dad first introduced me to imagery when I was a young ice skater to help me prepare for tests and competition.  He encouraged me to go through my routine in my head the night before, and it used to make me ready for the next day.  I could always hear my music in my mind’s ear and image performing the different moves. My images were always from a 3rd person perspective, as if watching myself  on video playback, but with a strong kinesthetic sensation.  I was later surprised to learn as an undergdraute student that imagery was “supposed” to be done from an internal (1st person) perspective. Research has since corrected this misconception and we now know a lot more about visual imagery perspective. But, at the time, my experience of using imagery was not reflected well in the text books I was reading.

I now use imagery extensively for work, fitness, and everyday life.  The most common function of my imagery is self-regulation; i.e., goal-setting and planing.  Just the other day, I was out running along a lovely path in my local park, and used imagery to plan the route I wanted to take and preview how I would achieve mini goals along the way.  When it is my turn to cook, I similarly use this kind of planning imagery to work out a new recipe and figure out the steps needed to get the meal on the table for my family.

Dr Sarah Williams

I use imagery for pretty much everything I do. I started using it primarily for sport but when I learnt more about imagery I realised I used it for many more things without knowing it. I use it to help with how to perform skills or tasks. Imagery also helps enhance my confidence and motivation, maintain my focus, and keeps me feeling positive about upcoming situations I may be apprehensive about. I guess I use imagery to prepare for, implement, and reflect on all activities in my life. I use it at work (e.g., deciding how to deliver certain content in my teaching), I use it for playing sport (e.g., imagine the positive feelings and emotions associated with playing when I am feeling unmotivated to go to training), I even use it when lying in bed before I go to sleep (e.g., reliving certain events of the day or anticipating upcoming events the next day). Essentially imagery is my cheat sheet in life.

Fredrik Weibull, 4th year PhD student

I use imagery in different situations and for different purposes. I use it if I want to make changes in my behavior or reach a specific emotional state. I for example use it before giving a presentation in order to affect my emotional state and direct my focus. I also use imagery in sport, for example before hitting a golf shot to direct my focus and increase my self-efficacy. I image hitting the shot, how it feels in my body and the flight of the ball.

Maria-Christina Kostelli, 3rd year PhD student

I use imagery in everyday life. Whenever I want to deal with a difficult situation I visualize myself ahead of time overcoming the barrier. For example, when it comes to public speaking I get a bit nervous. Imagery helps me prepare for the situation by seeing myself in front of the audience delivering the presentation and experiencing positive feelings. I also use imagery to motivate myself do something. I usually visualize of the reward and I create positive expectations. I can picture myself getting through the PhD Viva and feeling relieved. Sometimes I use imagery to simply relax. I can picture myself in a nice setting (beach) and I feel calm and relaxed. Since my research topic is on exercise imagery, I try to apply imagery to motivate myself exercise. I usually picture myself leaner and fitter. This makes me want to be more physically active.

Mary Quinton, 3rd year PhD student

I’m a keen (field) hockey player so I use imagery a lot in competitive matches, mainly for motivational purposes. However, the more I think about this question the more I realize that I use imagery a lot in my day to day life! From my walk into university and planning out my tasks for the day, right up to what I’m going to have for dinner!

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.