It’s not just elite athletes who can use mental imagery to improve performance; your clients can, too!
Have you ever visualized yourself winning a race, completing a physical feat or attaining a performance goal—and it happened? There are numerous anecdotal stories and testimonials about recreational enthusiasts and competitive athletes using imagery to achieve some type of physical objective. However, what does the research conclude as to the effectiveness of imagery? More specifically, how can fitness professionals aid their students and clients in employing imagery to positively affect physical and performance outcomes?
Weinberg (2008) defines imagery as “using all the senses (or at least all senses that are appropriate) to create or recreate an experience in the mind.” He goes on to cite evidence that the brain interprets highly vivid images as identical to the real situation. For example, a tennis player may see the tennis ball being struck by his opponent’s racket (visual); feel the core, shoulder and arm muscles preparing for a powerful return (kinesthetic); and then hear the crack of his own racket (auditory) as it makes contact with the ball.
In his study, Weinberg identifies several sports—including basketball, golf, tennis, figure skating, triathlons and gymnastics—in which studies have demonstrated improved performance with some type of mental training. However, while the scientific evidence connecting imagery and performance is positive, the research is not without limitations. One obvious constraint is the fact that imagery—unlike other aspects of physical performance, such as maximal aerobic capacity or repetition maximum—cannot be directly observed. Additionally, much of the research on imagery has been completed in laboratory settings, not in the field under actual performance conditions. Acknowledging those points, Weinberg still concludes that there is evidence elite athletes use visualization more systematically, more expansively and with superior skill than less accomplished athletes.
In the moments before any competition, physical effort or challenge, numerous images flash through the mind. Concentration on successful completion of the task (or tasks) is preparatory imagery, which athletes refer to as “psyching up.” Research shows that preparatory imagery can favorably enhance performance, even when a person hasn’t been practicing imagery (Weinberg 2008).
Although the thrust of imagery research and practical application has been in the physical domain, Weinberg summarizes evidenced-based findings showing that imagery can also improve self-confidence, self-efficacy, competitive anxiety and motivation.
Self-confidence is belief in oneself and one’s own abilities. Self-efficacy, which Weinberg defines as “a situationally specific form of self-confidence,” is the belief that one is capable of performing in a certain manner to attain certain goals. For example, with self-efficacy a person could visualize engaging in cardiovascular exercise (the task), which would result in losing weight (the goal). Research has shown that imagery improves these psychosocial factors, according to Weinberg.
Motivation can be defined as the set of reasons that prompts one to engage in a particular behavior. Again, Weinberg found that athletes who lack motivation for their sport can use imagery (by visualizing success) to improve their enthusiasm for training and performance.
One of the challenges of performing in either physical or intellectual areas (such as public speaking) occurs when a person’s arousal for the event produces heightened anxiety, which then impedes a favorable outcome. Ideally, the anticipatory excitement will facilitate the performance. Weinberg notes that visualization can be used in these situations to help a person perceive the raised anxiety as a welcome “friend,” providing a stimulus for success and not misfortune.
You can create a mental training program for a client by following a three-step strategy.
Like a workout goal, a mental training program (MTP) should begin at the end! What is the desired outcome? It needs to be real so that when the client visualizes it, her mind knows it can be accomplished. This sets an authentic tone for the entire MTP approach. You and your client should set goals jointly, but the client should be in the “driver’s seat.” Your role is to serve as a facilitator, guiding the client to positively state the desired goal; for example, “I want to attain more strength in my legs” or “I want to improve my lean muscle mass and reduce my fat percentage.” Both these goals are not only positive but also realistic, tangible and measurable.
Make sure the MTP is designed around realistic actions that the client can do (regular exercise and behavior change, such as portion control in eating). Be progressive, just as with workouts, creating “mini goals” that provide a pathway to the primary goal. Once the client attains a goal, acknowledge it and reflect on it, as this will empower her to seek new, more demanding challenges.
Imagery may take several months to refine, yet even in the early learning stages it is beneficial. Give the client a framework, or “lifeline” (i.e., a mental checklist), to refer to in all aspects of daily life (work, leisure time, exercise and family). This lifeline is a way for him to stay on track and a source of autonomy when you are not around. Below is a framework based on the concept of focusing one’s attention, referred to as centering.
Identify and Reframe the Distractor. Bring the distractor (i.e., something that might impair the workout—such as hunger, fatigue, family problems, worry about work, bills, etc.) to the forefront of the mind and acknowledge it. Here is an example: “I’d really like to work out, but it’s getting cold and I am tired and hungry.” Challenge the client to reframe the distraction so that he “owns” it: “I know that it’s chilly and I feel a little tired and hungry. That’s okay. I can put on my sweats and eat an apple to hold me over. After the workout I will take a peaceful shower and enjoy my healthy meal.” For an additional assist with this first focus, have the client visualize how he wishes to look, and ask him to state an affirmation; for example, “I am getting stronger and healthier every day.”
Reduce and/or Block Out the Distractor. Remind the client that some distractors will be there after the workout and can be “picked up” later. Encourage him to “turn down the volume” on whatever distraction is there or strive to totally block it out during the workout. You can even say something like, “After this workout you will be much healthier and more fit, which should make you even more capable of dealing with the distractor.”
“Zone” the Mind and Energy Into the Task at Hand. Encourage and empower your client to put his best mental and physical effort into the workout. Perhaps suggest switching to a lighter and shorter session (if the client is tired and hungry) while still bringing total focus to the desired final goal(s). For each point of focus, encourage the client to do a simple breathing technique. A deep inhalation can signify a readiness for accomplishment, while the exhalation can designate letting go of the distractor. For instance, during the inhalation, the client can breathe in “I am” and during the exhalation he can breathe out “ready to train.”
Be flexible and responsive to your client’s current mental and physical condition, and adapt the mental training strategies accordingly. Training is seldom (if ever) a confluence of perfect conditions. Encourage the client to regularly visualize her short-term (weekly) and long-term (annual) goals. Remind her that even the best athletes make mistakes and run into obstacles. They use these same MTP techniques to overcome their barriers.
Achieving success in weight loss, competition or performance is a process, not a destination. Guide your client through this mental training and join her in celebrating her successes along the way.