The Power of Positive Imagery
If you watched the Winter Olympics in Sochi last month you probably saw glimpses of athletes going through some interesting pre-competition routines. You may have seen an alpine skier sitting with her eyes closed while one hand sailed through the air simulating the curves and jumps of the ski slope, or a figure skater leaning this way and that, mentally playing through each part of his routine. These athletes are using imagery, a form of mental training in which the athlete attempts to simulate anything from a simple skill to an entire athletic performance from start to finish. For many elite athletes, imagery is a crucial component to their training and pre-performance routine.
In an article from the New York Times, Christopher Clarey explores the various ways Olympians used imagery prior to and during the Winter Games. “The practice of mentally simulating competition has become increasingly sophisticated, essential and elaborate.” In fact, the mental practice of imagery in addition to other sport specific psychology training is so widely used by olympians today that many countries bring multiple sport psychologists to the games to train with their teams.
For many athletes, their mental training began long before they even got to Sochi. Lyndon Rush, member of the Canadian bobsled team, describes how he uses imagery on a daily basis, “‘I’ve tried to keep the track in my mind throughout the year… I’ll be in the shower or brushing my teeth. It just takes a minute, so I do the whole [track] or sometimes just the corners that are more technical. You try to keep it fresh in your head, so when you do get there, you are not just starting at square one.”’
Other athletes create imagery scripts, “…highly detailed written accounts of the competition process from “Point A to Point Z.” Emily Cook, an aerialist jumper with the U.S., voice records her detailed imagery script and then plays it back while at rest. Cook describes how she attempts to add as much detail as possible to her script, from the sounds of the crowd to the wind blowing against her neck, “…kind of going through all those different senses and then actually going through what I wanted to do for the perfect jump.”
It’s easy to understand how imagery is used for events that take place in controlled environments like a bobsled track, but a fencing match is hardly what you could call controlled. Can Imagery be as effective for performing in uncontrolled environments? The answer is yes.
“You do it by envisioning situations” explains Detling, one of the team psychologists Clarey highlights. While it’s difficult to prepare for every potential scenario, it is possible to imagine a variety of obstacles that can occur in an uncontrolled environments like snowboard cross, short track speed skating, or even fencing. For example, you may have a familiar opponent who uses a certain strategy or move, you can create a script specific to facing that fencer. You can also create a script based on handling uncontrolled situations like bad ref calls or equipment failures.
Imagery doesn’t have to only be about the sport skill, “when Cook was in the midst of an injury layoff that lasted more than two years, she and Detling first used imagery to see and feel her bones heal.” Imagery can be used as an aid to feel progress and stay motivated during injury rehabilitation.
“[Cook] also had used imagery to break the cycle of negativity. Whenever fear surfaced, she would picture herself pricking a big red balloon with a pin.” An image as simple as a stop sign or a rubber band snapping when you feel negative thoughts creeping into your mind during competition can help stay on a positive track.
“In images, it’s absolutely crucial that you don’t fail,” Detling said “… one of the things I’ll do is if they fail in an image, we stop, rewind and we replay again and again and again.” Minimizing thoughts and images of failure and maximizing success helps to enhance the athlete’s sense of confidence, while also reinforcing the feel of a successful movement pattern.
Several competitive fencers at the RFC have already begun using imagery as part of their training. At any level, imagery can be used to help you learn a new skill or reinforce the skills you already know, it can help you prepare for competition, break a cycle of negativity, and even assist with healing. Imagery is such a versatile and useful aid that it’s used by elite athletes in a huge range of different sports, including fencing. If you haven’t had any experience using imagery, or want to learn more, ask to your coach about how you can begin.