Getting to know the BRIO group: What led you to imagery as a research area?

Dr Jennifer Cumming

I became interested in sport psychology as a career path after spending summers as a competitive ice skater involved in an intensive summer school in Montreal, Canada.  At the time, I training 30-40 hours/week, mainly on-ice, but I also had the opportunity to take dance and sport psychology classes.  It was my first exposure to working with a sport psychologist and I really enjoyed writing down daily goals and completing the workbook that was provided (I still have it!).  I had been using imagery to preview my performances since the age of 8 or 9, but I started to refine my imagery during this training and became interested in how I could help other skaters benefit from using it.

This experience eventually led me to do a BSc in Fitness Education (now called Kinesiology) at McGill University, a programme that allowed me the flexibility to take classes from both the Psychology as well as Physical Education departments.  I still remember learning the basics of motor control and sport psychology from great professors, like the late Dr Dan Marisi, which gave me a strong grounding for do a Masters with Dr Diane Ste-Marie at the University of Ottawa and then a PhD with Dr Craig Hall at the Western Ontario. I have always been grateful to the excellent training and opportunities I received from these supervisors, which has led me to a position at the University of Birmingham and over 15 years of imagery research. I now have the pleasure of co-running the BRIO group with Dr Sarah Williams and working with an excellent group of students, both past and present.

Dr Sarah Williams

I was always really interested in sport psychology from my own participation in sport. I first learnt about imagery during my A levels although it was branded as “mental rehearsal”. I had experienced first-hand how beneficial it could be so I became really excited when I found out that it was an official “thing” that could be used and studied. When I got to university I discovered that imagery can be used for things beyond improving movements, skills, and strategies. This unlocked a new word for me in terms of not only how I could use imagery, but also the different research questions that remained unanswered. It was then I started asking myself whether imagery could do this or do that, and whether anyone had tested these ideas. I started trying to use imagery in different ways when playing sport and thought about how this may or may not have worked – some might have called me a self-experimenter.

I then completed my undergraduate dissertation and gained my first bit of “real” imagery research. This is definitely when my love affair with imagery intensified. I loved everything about the research process and at the end I had more research questions than when I had started (I’ve since come to realise that this usually happens after every study you conduct!). I then applied for a PhD to continue answering these research questions and was fortunate enough to be awarded the studentship. The rest as they say is history!

Fredrik Weibull, 4th year PhD student

I was fascinated by imagery and I used it in my tennis. As an undergrad at the university I focused on imagery as a research topic and since then I have been really hooked.

Maria Kostelli, 3rd year PhD student

The first time I heard about imagery was during my Master’s as a mental skill for student-athletes. I got more interested in imagery when I saw athletes using it in their everyday practice. The majority of athletes shared their experience with me and persuaded me that imagery is an acquired skill that helps them overcome their fear of failing and at the same time helps them get better. I find imagery a very stimulating topic. I like the fact that imagery can be applied in every aspect of our lives. It is a good strategy and technique that can be used to help people improve in every sector of life. It can be used as a performance enhancement technique, to overcome a phobia, to recover faster from an injury, to motivate yourself do something that you are having a hard time doing and so on.

Mary Quinton, 3rd year PhD student

I first became interested in imagery when Jenn introduced it to me as a second year undergraduate student in our sport psychology module. This led me to choosing to study imagery in my final year dissertation. After reading more literature and conducting an imagery intervention with young futsal players, I decided that I wanted to pursue imagery research further, which led me to where I am right now – in the final year of my PhD!

Gale, 2nd year PhD student

I have been passionate about imagery since working with stroke patients as a physiotherapist. A after I have studied imagery in my MSc degree course I have came across imagery’s whole distinct concept and advantages that could be applied in rehabilitation field. Since then I have decided to do continue my PhD degree into exploring the full depth and dimensions of imagery and how beneficial it can be in my area of physiotherapy rehabilitation.

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9 Questions for Dr Sanna Nordin-Bates

SNB jan 2013 bwDr Sanna-Nordin Bates completed her PhD on “Imagery in Dance” at the University of Birmingham in 2005 and is now a world-leading expert in the psychology of dance based at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences.  As Dr Jennifer Cumming’s first PhD student, who graduated before the BRIO group was “born”, we thought it was only right that she had the honor of being the first academic interviewed for our blog.  She describes her post-PhD journey and shares her thoughts about dance imagery.

1. What have you been doing since you completed your PhD in Dance Imagery?

I left Birmingham after finishing my PhD in September 2005, and took up my first post doc the following week. That was a manic weekend of moving house, city, and jobs! The new post was at the London Sport Institute at Middlesex University in London, where I worked for just over 2 years. The fact that I had a lot of freedom meant I could finish up papers from my PhD, start new collaborations, organize a conference (a one-day symposium on dance science), and help write the grant application which got me my second post doc. But before that came through, I was brave and became a freelance academic for 8 months! It sounds odd, but I sincerely recommend it. I lectured in a few places (on the BA programme at the Royal Academy of Dance, the diploma programme at Cambridge Performing Arts, and on the MSc in Dance Science at Wolverhampton University), and worked as an applied psychology consultant for English National Ballet. I also did freelance research, in the form of research-style evaluations of two performing arts projects: one for disadvantaged youth for the organization Leaps & Bounds, and one called Dance4Health for Warwickshire county council.

In 2008 I started my second post doc, at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. This was on a large-scale project investigating a wide range of dance science topics under the umbrella of a talent development scheme known as Centres for Advanced Training (click here to download the report from this project).  I headed up the psychology side, and co-supervised Imogen Aujla who completed her PhD within the project. On the side of this post doc, I continued consulting for English National Ballet and started doing so also for the Royal Ballet School.

At the end of 2011, the project was finished and it was time to move again. This time, I went a bit further – though closer to home! – and started a lectureship at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences in Stockholm. Now, I have been there for just over three years and keep busy with the “normal combination” of lecturing, research and admin. My consulting has been on hold since I moved to Sweden, though I am ¾ way through Stage 1 of training in psychotherapy (a course in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for elite sport run by our national sports federation). I also teach a bit of psychology at the Swedish Royal Ballet School, and have started a research collaboration with them.

2. How do you use imagery?
I firmly believe that imagery is in almost everything we do, though most of the time we are not particularly deliberate about it. So while I am no longer an athlete and do not mentally train for sport, I imagine very frequently. In particular, it is helpful when planning and goal setting for work.

3. Do you have a favourite imagery quote to share with us?
There are lots, and especially from quote-master Einstein… but here is one very good one:
“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” – Albert Einstein

4. What is a myth or misconception about imagery that you think should be corrected?
That it is something new, and unknown that needs to be taught to athletes from scratch. Because imagery is part of basic thinking, I believe that it is mostly about helping the athlete become more aware of what they imagine, what works for them, broaden their repertoire somewhat, and – in particular – how to make it more systematic and effective.

5. What is the study or project you are most proud of?
That is a hard question! I am not sure there is a particular study or project that stands out. However, I am proud that I did a mixture of quantitative (experimental and questionnaire-based) and qualitative (interview) studies during my PhD. This has put me in good stead for later studies, and I really like using mixed methods.

6. Who has been the biggest influence on your career to date?
Ok that is a far easier question! Jennifer Cumming, certainly.

7. What role do you think dance teachers could play in encouraging imagery to be used by dancers?
I think they often do play a pretty big role in generating and encouraging the use of metaphorical imagery, in order to help dancers with movement quality, choreography and the like. However, I think they could play a far greater role than is typically the case when it comes to imagery as mental practice. For instance, they could encourage (or initiate) imagery practice in short bursts when dancers wait their turn, or end classes with a guided imagery rehearsal of what has been learnt. They can also encourage imagery outside of class for dancers who want more training time, to help them reinforce their learning, and to exercise their creativity.

8. What could researchers do to help bring more attention to imagery in the dance world?
I think we need to use many different forums and communicate broadly – scientific papers are not enough. The International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) have several which can be useful including their Day for Teachers (in connection with annual conferences), their Bulletin for Dancers and Teachers. They also make posters on several dance science subjects – perhaps we should encourage them to make one on imagery?!

9. What advice would you give to those who would like to do research in the area of dance psychology?
To go for it! We need more research across the whole spectrum of dance psychology topics, and it is a very rewarding area to be involved in. The dance science community is very collaborative and enthusiastic and so great fun to be involved with. At the same time, there is a great deal to be learnt from sport science, as the state of dance research is rather far behind. Altogether, this means a nice combination of feeling that there is much to be done, but a supportive community to do it in.

To download some of Sanna’s recent papers:

Nordin-Bates, S. M., Hill, A. P., Cumming, J., Aujla, I. J., & Redding, E. (2014). A longitudinal examination of the relationship between perfectionism and motivational climate in dance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 36, 382-391.

Nordin-Bates, S. M., Quested, E., Walker, I. J., & Redding, E. (2012). Climate change in the dance studio: Findings from the UK Centres for Advanced Training. Sport, Exercise, & Performance Psychology, 1(1), 3-16.

Nordin-Bates, S. M., Cumming, J., Sharp, L., &. Aways, D. (2011). Imagining yourself dancing to perfection? Correlates of perfectionism in ballet and contemporary dance. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 5, 58-76. ( )

Nordin-Bates, S. M. (2014). Resource paper: Perfectionism.

Imagery: A skill for life?

By Fernanda Serra de Queiroz

I would like to thank the BRIO group for the opportunity to talk a little bit about my PhD research topic in this blog. I’m doing my PhD at the University of Queensland (Brisbane, Australia) under the supervision of Prof. Stephanie Hanrahan. During the first semester of 2015 I’m at the University of Birmingham learning about imagery with the BRIO group crew.

Sport psychologists normally look at how teaching mental skills to athletes can be beneficial for enhancing performance and enjoyment of participation. Athletes use these mental skills for situations such as coping with performance under pressure, decision making and concentration, setting goals, recover after mistakes among other things. What I’m interested in investigating is how the skills athletes use to cope with the aforementioned situations can also be useful in areas of life outside of sport.

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Daily Life vs. Sport

It is possible to argue that there are many similarities with daily life and sports. An important presentation to your boss and colleagues at work could be as stress provoking as playing your sport in front of a big crowd. We could probably deal more effectively with these challenges of daily life if we had the appropriate set of skills. This “set of skills” have been named as “life skills”.

According to Gould and Carson (2008), life skills can be considered as internal assets, characteristics and skills. Life skills can be “behavioural (communicating effectively with peers and adults) or cognitive (making effective decisions); interpersonal (being assertive) or intrapersonal (setting goals)” (Danish et al., 2004, p. 40). Thus could imagery be a life skill?

Referring back to this blog first post by Dr Jennifer Cumming, she mentioned that regular and effective use of imagery could speed the road to success in sport and help athletes to cope better with adversities. The use of imagery has been associated with many positive outcomes such as increase in sport confidence and a strategy to cope with pre-competitive anxiety. Athletes can use imagery to mentally prepare for performance, to rehearse plans and routines, and to manage emotion and physiological arousal.

Returning to the first example of the work presentation, could imagery be used in that situation to help with pre-presentation jitters? A mental rehearsal of the presentation could probably increase the confidence of the office worker. Thus imagery could be considered as a life skill.

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Unfortunately we are not taught imagery, and people may even confuse with day dreaming (e.g. if I win the lottery I will…). However the importance of “positive thinking” and of being “confident” is a message that is widely spread. Importantly, the research on the sport psychology has shown imagery is a skill that could help people to think of positive scenarios and increase confidence.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO, 1999) because life skills are abilities, they can be taught and practiced. The WHO advocates for life skills to be taught at schools, this organization believes that life skills can shape personal actions, or actions towards others, or even actions that positively change the surrounding. Therefore it is important to learn and practice life skills such as imagery. So I would suggest you to keep following this blog and get some valuable insight on the use of imagery with the BRIO specialists.

About the author: Fernanda Serra de Queiroz is a PhD student studying life skills at the University of Queensland (Brisbane, Australia).  

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.