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Sport, exercise & performance psychology
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  • Writer's pictureElliot Smith

Using imagery to aid or improve performance


To begin with, the purpose of this blog is to set the stage for imagery, to explain what it is, why it might be useful, and how it can be used. From the outset, I should make it clear that imagery is not for everyone, for some people it will come easy and the benefits will be obvious. For others, using imagery will feel like a chore, and the benefits of it will be hard to notice or not immediately clear.

However, despite imagery not being for everyone. As a sport psychologist I would still encourage every client/athlete/performer to at very least try imagery. It is ultimately a skill that can be developed and improved. So even at first, if one struggles to grasp the concept of imagery and understand its benefits, over time they can still learn to use imagery more effectively. That said, given what’s been said, I will say that there is no guarantee that the content of this blog will change your mind about using imagery, but hopefully it will give you the tools that you will need to be able to use imagery confidently and reap the benefits.

So what exactly is imagery?

Essentially imagery is an attempt to create an experience that replicates ‘the real thing’. As close as possible anyways. Which is what separates imagery from visualisation. While visualisation might be thought of as an attempt to visualise (duh) a particular skill, sequence of actions, or performance, imagery, however, includes activating different sensory modalities, such as sounds, smells, touch, and everything else in-between like thoughts and feelings. Imagery, therefore, creates a clearer vision, sensation, or experience of the intended ‘image’. So, to begin with, if there is anything to take away from this blog, I want you to recognise that imagery is not purely visual, it’s actually more about activating all of those senses together in co-ordination.

Different types of imagery?

There are supposed different types of imagery, specifically, different purposes for imagery use. Proposed by Paivio (1985) there are five ‘types’ of imagery, each with a different goal…

Cognitive general: imaging a particular play, strategy or tactic

Cognitive specific: imagery that carefully examines a particular skill, more detailed

Motivation general-arousal: replicating and overcoming feelings of anxiety or nerves

Motivation general-mastery: imagery for resilience, confidence, and self-belief

Motivation specific: imagining reaching a goal, achieving a PB, being successful

Now which type of imagery you decide to use is entirely up to you. There isn’t necessarily a correct option, it’s really about deciding which type of imagery is going to be more beneficial for you, based on your own game. Some individuals will even like to use a combination, that is, using more than one type of imagery within one imagery script.

*For clarity, an imagery script is essentially the writing that encompasses the content of the imagery. It might be that you are reading the script, or you are listening to an audio recording of the script. The script works similarly to a guided meditation, or a yoga instructor (if you have ever tried these). In that the script describes to you and instructs you what to think about, and where to direct your attention.

How can imagery help you out?

There is a great deal of empirical research that goes to show the benefits of imagery, in a variety of different sporting contexts. For example, the sporting environment naturally produces a stress response in competing athletes. Imagery can elicit a positive appraisal of that stress response, as compared to a negative appraisal (challenge vs threat). (Williams et al., 2010). It has also been shown that athletes who compete at higher levels of performance typically use imagery more often than those who compete at lower levels. But performers from all competitive levels use imagery (Barr & Hall, 1992, Cumming & Hall, 2002). Athletes that use imagery more often also report higher levels of self-efficacy, i.e. belief in their own capabilities (Mills et al., 2016) and imagery is an important source of sport confidence in athletes competing at national, regional, university, county, and recreation levels – In particular, motivational imagery use (Levy & Nicholls, 2015).

To name a few anyways, there is plenty more research out there, imagery has been shown, consistently, to be of benefit to performers.


“I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head…First, I see the ball where I want it to finish…and I see the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behaviour on landing…and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality.”

Jack Nicklaus, won the most number of major tournaments in professional golf


Why does imagery improve or aid performance?

The truth is. We don’t really know. At least, the mechanisms that underlie imagery and its benefits are not fully understood. Generally speaking though, even in the absence of overt movement (i.e. actually performing a skill), imagery can activate sensorimotor brain processes – the kind of processes that are used when we are actually performing. Thus, strengthening those connections to specific body movements and actions (Keller, 2012 – ‘functional equivalence’). The brain cannot always differentiate between actual skill execution and imagined skill execution (Parnabas et al., 2015). Alhough the mechanisms are not well understood, it seems that by imaging oneself performing a task successfully one is instilled with the belief that they can execute the task successfully in reality too, which increases confidence (Moritz et al., 1996). To some extent then, imagery also familiarises oneself with different circumstances, environments, and situations.

In short, the science is still figuring it out. But the research goes to show that imagery DOES work.

What can you do to improve the quality of your imagery?

When developing an idea about your imagery, whether its forming a script, or getting an idea of what your imagery will look like, here are some important things to consider…

Who: Who is going to be in your imagery? Will it be just you? Your opponents too? A crowd/audience? Your teammates? Will you be at the centre of the story, or will you be on the sidelines?

Where and when: Where will you be when you use the imagery? Will you be on the pitch/court/track? In the changing rooms? At home or in the car? Will you use the imagery before, during or after your performance?

How: Will you read the script or listen to it? Will you be listening to your own voice? Or someone else’s?

Why: What is the purpose of your script? Think about the different types of imagery? Is it skill specific? Motivating? Strategy-based? Calming/anxiety reducing?

What: What exactly will you be imaging? What senses are going to be important? 1st or 3rd person perspective? How long will it be? Past experiences? Any particular thoughts or feelings? Triggers?


Physical: Mental simulation with movement! ‘A calm mind-aroused body’. Imagery should include actual movement, rather than the stereotypical practice of being sat down and stationery. You wouldn’t take a penalty kick in football if you were sat down in your pyjamas in the kitchen, so why treat imagery in the same way. Put on your kit, get a football, go outside, and try the imagery like that.

Environment: Simulating the surrounding atmosphere. Use of audio, pictures, video footage. For example, you could use imagery while holding onto a golf club, basketball, or tennis racket. You could put on some audio in the background to simulate crowd noise. You could watch a highlight reel of your previous performances. All of these examples might help you simulate the environment in which you would normally perform.

Task: Will the imagery focus on internal or external cues? Is imagined movement automatic or hyper-conscious? For some people, skill execution is best when its natural, effortless, and without much thought at all. For others, they prefer to break it down, movement-by-movement, with emphasis on technique. Depending on what you like to see, and what works for you, your imagery script might be more or less detailed on how a particular skill is executed.

Timing: The timing within the imagined scenario should replicate the timing of actual performance as close as possible.

*While we want our imagery to replicate actual performance, and by timing it in a similar fashion, we are one step closer to that. For some, being able to experience skill execution in ‘slow motion’ provides great benefit, and they may be able to better understand their skill, movement, or strategy. In which case, slowing it down can be a good idea. Equally, if you want your imagery script to cover multiple different phases of a competition, you may include snippets, jumps, or ‘fast-forwards’ in your imagery. So, yeah there’s a little more flex in the Timing aspect of imagery design.

Learning: The imaging content should change in accordance with how learning progresses, mental and physical learning. This is fairly obvious of course, if your skill level changes, or, for example, you begin to feel more/less nervous during competitions, then your imagery should reflect those changes. It is normal for imagery to be changed, adapted, or altered over the course of time.

Emotion: What emotions do you attach to the imagined scenario? What physiological responses are there? If you are someone who normally feels anxious, then you should incorporate that into your imagery. If you experience certain stiffness/looseness, fatigue/energy, in parts of your body, for whatever reason, whether it’s a rush of adrenaline or its lactic acid, your imagery should incorporate these sensations.

Perspective: Will your imagery come from a 1st or 3rd person perspective, what does each perspective bring to the table? For most people, 1st person perspective comes more naturally. However, by coming from a 3rd person perspective, your imagery may provide a new or different insight that allows you to see things better. Which perspectives you decide to incorporate into your imagery is entirely up to you and your own personal preference.

The PETTLEP model, proposed by Holmes & Collins (2001), accentuates all the main principles of imagery. That is, imagery should replicate actual, real performance. By following each component of the PETTLEP model you would ensure that your imagery effectively, or at least more closely, replicates the real thing.

Example Imagery Script

In this example (a client I have worked with). There is a young tennis player. This particular tennis player experiences a loss of temperament, concentration, and focus when faced with loss. For example, when the player starts 4 games up. They get lost in the future, perhaps thinking about how they are going to win. When they lose the next 3 or 4 matches, they lose their head. And they spiral out of control. Causing them, often, to lose the match entirely.

This imagery script focused on 1) addressing the issue. That is, starting well, being up in the match, then losing points and starting to lose games. 2) how they feel during the problem, not being able to concentrate, being upset, losing their temperament. 3) understanding that it is okay to lose points, lose matches, and generally, lose. And despite not winning, their parents will be proud of them regardless. 4) Highlighting what the player does well, being confident, being assertive, and being a good competitor.

While your script doesn’t need to follow this direction exactly. You can see how it can be important to address the issues your facing, bring up those uncomfortable sensations, to replicate what you are going to experience when you are out there doing your thing. And importantly, to turn it around, to flip the switch, so that, by the end of the imagery exercise you are in your zone and you feel good about yourself.

Takeaway points

Whether or not you found this blog particularly useful. Understand that these skills take time to perfect. For some people, it can take several renditions of an imagery script until it fits right, until it suits the ears, or until it starts to make the impact you were hoping for.

I hope that the content in this blog is, at least to some extent, helpful. And if you would like some advice or assistance in developing your own script, or if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.

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