Use Imagination to Up Your Game with Performance Imagery

Why do Olympic athletes do that funny dance before performing?

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Your imagination is a powerful force and it can even be used to enhance your athletic performance. Professor Vishton explains.

Athlete thinking
Professional performers and athletes tend to visualize their performance in their imagination as a mental rehearsal before beginning to use their skills. Photo By mavo / Shutterstock

Performance Imagery in the Olympics

If you’ve watched professional athletes, or even any experts for that matter, you’ve likely seen how visual imagery can be used to enhance visuomotor performance. When long jumpers on the Olympic track and field team stand at the top of the runway, they prepare to sprint down the runway, plant their foot in just the right spot, and then launch themselves as far as possible before landing in a sand pit. 

As they stand at the top of that runway, almost all of them seem to do what looks like an odd little dance. They stare down the runway, move their arms back and forth, and then make a larger movement at the end of that dance. They’re using their imagination to simulate the action before they perform it.

They have a good reason to do so, which is well supported by research: It works. When observing athletes who perform after imagining the task at hand and those who perform without first imagining the task, their performance is always better when preceded by mentally practicing it first. 

Enhance Your Game

While performing any athletic activity, here is a tip that you can use to get more out of your performance. Before you make a shot in golf or hit a serve in tennis, or undertake any action that requires sensory and motor precision for success, mentally practice it to enhance the outcome of your performance. Hundreds of studies have provided evidence for this result—in golf, tennis, high jumping, basketball, and even musical performance. 

Large-scale analyses have pulled together data from thousands of participants and identified aspects of imagery practice that seem to be key. First, the mental rehearsal should be done from a first-person perspective. Second, the imagery should be multimodal. When you actually perform a task, all of your senses will be engaged. 

To get the most out of imagery, you want to mentally stimulate all your senses by viewing aspects of the task sensory-wise, even the parts that don’t seem directly relevant to the task’s performance. For example, if you imagine yourself lifting a barbell, you want to include details that might seem extraneous—the feel of the floor on your feet and the texture and temperature of the barbell in your hand. 

The more vivid a mental image is, the more regions of the brain that will be recruited for the processing of performing the task, and the more likely a successful outcome of the action itself will result. Before putting in golf, you want to imagine not only the ball, the putter, and the target hole, but also the look of the grass, the sound of the club striking the ball, and the feel of the club in your hands. 

Once you begin to perform the action, you should stop imagining it. Imagining the action while performing it would lead to distraction and disrupt performance.

Importance of Precise Imagery

Third, the imagery should be precise. Mental imagery within the brain is almost exactly like real perception and motor control since the same neural circuits are activated. 

The activation level of those neurons is lower, but research suggests that the brain areas activated are identical. Sensory and motor control areas of the brain are not the only areas affected by mental imagery, however. 

Mental images also contain conceptual information about those images. For mentally visualized images, the identity of the object is far clearer than the sensory information itself.

To illustrate this, create another mental image. It’s something you’ve likely seen thousands of times: an American penny. 

Close your eyes and imagine it now. Make it as vivid as possible in your mind. Imagine a shiny, brand-new penny. See that copper hue. 

Imagine what the penny would feel like if you picked it up and handled it. Take a look at the back side—maybe there’s the Lincoln Memorial. Now flip it back over.

Do you feel confident that you can imagine that penny clearly? You probably can see Lincoln’s profile in your mental image: the hair, the nose, and the shirt collar. You most likely have a vivid image of this.

Now, which direction is he facing—to the left or to the right? If you’re like most people, your image just started changing. Sometimes Lincoln is facing left and sometimes right. 

The image that you were confident about a moment ago is now called into question, or at least part of it. It’s likely that you still feel confident about Lincoln’s profile, the color of the penny, and its size. However, the direction he’s facing is somehow not clear.

He’s facing to the right, by the way. While we may have seen a penny countless times and we’re generally aware of what it looks like, most people have never actually encoded whether Lincoln is looking to the left or the right. 

This penny imagery example demonstrates the idea that images are as detailed as we allow them to be. If you want to use imagery to enhance performance, you have to will it into place.

If you just loosely imagine swinging a golf club, that’s not going to help much. It’s when you imagine the specifics of that swing, or whatever you want to improve, that the detail enters the processing, and the performance improves.

Some studies have suggested that, in order to make your imagery even more precise, you can imagine smaller parts of the performance in slow motion. Before you proceed with the real action, however, it is good to mentally imagine one last run-through at full speed.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.