Roger Federer is regarded by many as one of the best athletes, not only of our era, but of all time. No one can deny the natural physical prowess that he possesses, but many often wonder what separates him from the rest of the field in professional tennis. Even at the age of 36, he is still beating opponents 10 years younger.
According to Federer, the answer is his implantation of mental imagery into his training regime. Equally, Jack Nicklaus the golf legend says, “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head.” Another sporting legend from the world of rugby this time, is England's former fly half Jonny Wilkinson. He says, "the psychology of kicking is so important. You must visualise where the ball is going to go. Then you have to be able to trace that line from between the posts to the exact spot of the ball, and see that in your mind's eye when you go to kick the ball. Then I visualise the ball travelling along that path and imagine the sensation of how the ball is going to feel when it hits my foot for the perfect strike. The hard part is completing that action while standing in front of thousands of spectators with my heart thumping".
Mental imagery, often referred to as visualization, is when an individual imagines him or herself performing in the absence of physical practice. When visualizing, an individual utilizes all of his or her senses in order to recreate an event.
In the particular event, the individual should imagine performing to the best of their abilities. Many other athletes have begun incorporating mental imagery into their training sessions and claim that it has lifted their games to new levels.
For years now, sports psychologists have been preaching to athletes the benefits that come with the use of such imagery. Big question though - does mental imagery, in fact, enhance athletic performance?
Researchers suggest that the effects of mental imagery on physical performance that range from decreasing a player’s anxiousness prior to the event to even perfecting a player’s skills. Conflicting case studies and a lack of a generally accepted mechanism of action, however, reveal many inherent problems in the research.
For over a century, researchers have performed hundreds of studies in order to determine the effectiveness of using mental imagery to enhance physical performance.
Typically, researchers provide a script for athletes to follow to performing the imagery and then subsequently interview the athletes subsequent to the event to determine if their performance was augmented.
According to most studies, many athletes pronounce that mental imagery does lead to enhanced performance. On the other hand, athletes who have participated in similar studies indicate that the use of mental imagery resulted in no tangible increase in performance. Furthermore, some even declare that the mental imagery impaired their physical performance.
In summarizing the empirical research of athletes’ experimentation with mental imagery, psychologists Alan J. Budley, Shane M. Murphy, and Robert Woolfolk appropriately propose that “mentally practicing a motor skill influences performance somewhat better than no practice at all”.
One widely accepted model for mental imagery’s mechanism of action is referred to as the “neuromuscular theory”. This theory suggests that “…the excitation of the neuromuscular pattern associated with a particular skill can also be initiated through imagery; the same facilitation can take place with repeated trials of imagery--but without the risk of accumulated interference from fatigue.”
Several observations have demonstrated that the neurotransmitters of a specific motor pathway are present both during physical and mental practice. Thus, when one practices mental imagery, they are facilitating later physical performance endeavours.
Another model is referred to as the Attention-Arousal theory. This theory suggests that the use of mental imagery helps the athlete achieve optimal arousal level prior to an athletic event.
A third model called the Self-Efficacy theory suggests that imagery increases an athlete’s expectation of positive performance. This increase in expectation of positive performance consequently results in an increase in notable motor performance.
There are several underlying problems with determining the potential benefits of using mental imagery in athletics. One severe problem is that up until very recently evidence on mental imagery’s benefit was primarily anecdotal.
Researchers performing studies on mental imagery rely solely on the verbal accounts of the athletes. Performing research in this manner is problematic because a verbal account of one person is insufficient as a conclusion.
Another significant problem with performing these types of studies is the actual performance of the mental imagery. Although the researchers typically provide a script for the athletes to perform the mental imagery, it is impossible for the researchers to ensure that athletes actually abide the script.
A researcher cannot be completely confident that the subjects will abide by the script because they cannot monitor what the athletes are thinking. Therefore, one athlete’s performance of mental imagery may be of significantly less quality than another athlete in the same study resulting in problematic results. In saying this, because all individuals possess unique minds, one cannot be confident that all the subjects are visualizing in the same way. One athlete’s interpretation of a script may completely differ than that of another athlete.
A further problem relating to the scripts is the fact that it is very unlikely that scripts are the same across all the studies. This issue raises problems relating to the quality of the imagery scripts. Thus, one might raise the question as to whether one form of an imagery script is more capable of enhancing athletic performance than another. Recently the implementation of functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) has shown a concrete relation between mental imagery and physical athletic performance. fMRI, which allows for neuroimaging, has shown that some of the same motor pathways are used during imagery that are used during actual physical performance (5). Although this data demonstrates a correlation between imagery and physical performance, it fails to provide an answer to the initial question as to whether the use of mental imagery benefits athletic performance.
If an athlete was inquiring as to whether he or she should use mental imagery to enhance their athletic performance, referring to empirical evidence would fail to provide an answer. Case studies produce conflicting results and are problematic in nature. The multiple potential mechanisms of action also contribute to the ambiguity of the answer. However, if an athlete like Roger Federer swears by its positive results, it could never hurt to try it out…
Some parts of this article can be found at: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/evanstiegel/mental-imagery-does-it-really-benefit-athletic-performance