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Imagery Training 101: Introducing Imagery to Young Athletes

coaching imagery youth Feb 12, 2018

Creating visual imagery is a state of mind. It involves the reproduction of what we see. But much more that that… it becomes an outlet to express feelings about what we experience – Tracy Sabin

Early research on imagery in sport by Mumford and Hall (1985) pointed out that effective imagery must include realistic elements of an athletic performance.  This means that all aspects of both training and competition should be included when practicing and utilizing imagery.

When presenting your imagery program, take time to explain the purpose of imagery to your athletes. Engage them in dialogue as to its significance, how it works (as a blueprint) and its specific uses. Each athlete should be encouraged to brainstorm individually where imagery might be useful for their particular sport, specific set of skills and elements of training. Depending on sport specific requirements, imagery can be used for technical training, rehearsal, relaxation scripts and preparation for competition. Introduction to imagery and implementing the program is where the work begins.

One of the easiest ways of introducing imagery is by having your athlete close their eyes and ask them to picture something easy to recall.

1)     I start with a “stop sign” or piece of sporting equipment (soccer ball, baseball glove, curling rock)

2)     Bring in the senses. Have athletes recall the image, cue them into recalling the color, shape, size. Be detail oriented!

3)     Next, ask about how it feels, what the texture is like and bring in your additional senses. Does the object possess a smell? Once completed, have your athletes open your eyes.

4)     Create a conversation about their encounter (easy/challenges/suggestions). Most will note that it is because “they see these things all the time”, they know the details”. This creates a perfect opening to introduce using imagery in sport.

With my younger athletes, I have them break into groups and discuss the different areas that imagery may be useful. Make this an activity of its own. Routines, skills, relaxation and the performance itself are a few of the common answers. With this information, I ask them to think critically about a skill they would like to work on and we often will do an exercise in which they create an imagery script for one answers. Throughout the research, this suggestion falls under the “controllability” theme where athletes can practice their skills. Remind them to be as specific as possible in their recreation, highlighting as much detail in order to replicate as close to the skill as possible. As athletes develop, I challenge them to include timing (so they mimic the skill as close to the time it takes to execute).

Whether I am working with individual athletes or with a team in a group setting, I always bring it back to self-awareness. There are a few different ways to do this.

1)     I have the athletes complete the Sport Imagery Ability Questionnaire (Williams & Cumming, 2014) in order to review their strengths and weakness in regards to imagery and gives them a place to start.

2)     Discuss if they have used imagery in the past, and if so build on what they have been exposed to.

3)     Take 5 minutes to work through a few exercises with them (work through the alphabet on a whiteboard, recall their favorite environment, image their own daily routines) and reflect on the easiness/difficulty. I encourage each athlete to write down “what they were able to do” in their journal or training log so they have a point of reference for future training.

Depending on the level of the athletes, I adapt to what we use imagery for. I constantly remind my athletes to mentally rehearse All ROUTINES.

No detail, no matter how big or small is inconsequential.

Whether it be working on a minute aspect of skill (feet position on a dive, arm swing, reaction a whistle, or just making a change to that skill), imagery is recommended to be practice daily.

Once my athletes are able to integrate imagery, I refer to the “PETTLEP model” by Hall and Collins (2001) for further detailed recommendations for motor imagery in sport. Particularly in terms of mental rehearsal for both training and competition, the PETTLEP model recommends seven different aspects to consider when using imagery for scripting purposes (physical, environment, task, timing, learning, emotion, and perspective).  I remind athletes that imagery use aids in preparation, which leads to confidence and thus, being “ready for competition” which is completely in your control. Preparing mentally to see yourself succeed makes the belief so much more tangible when actually going to compete.


Athlete Reflection: What is one area of your training that could benefit from imagery that sometimes gets overlooked?

Coach Reflection: How might you include imagery training into one of your training exercises in your next practice as part of the drill?


Works Cited:

Hall, C.R. (2001). Imagery in sport and exercise. In R. Singer, H. Hausenblas, & C. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (2nd ed., pp. 529-549). Toronto, ON: John Wiley & Sons.

Mumford, B., & Hall, C. (1985). The effects of internal and external imagery on performing figures in figure skating. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Sciences, 10(4), 171-177.

Williams, S. E., & Cumming, J. (2014). The Sport Imagery Ability Questionnaire Manual. Birmingham, UK: Author.