What is Imagery and How is it Used in Sports, Athletics (and Strength Training)

Posted on 22 May 2011 21:16

By Ground Up Strength

Imagery is simply the process of "picturing things". In other words it involves forming an image in your mind. However, when we speak of imagery in sports and strength training it is important to know that an image does not have to be confined to a visual picture in the mind but is better thought of as any mental representation or reproduction of sensations or perceptions. The term visualization is sometimes used to describe imagery relying only on the visual sense but imagery should be thought of as using all of the senses to create or re-create an experience in your mind. Vision and kinesthetic sense are however the most important aspects.

There are two ways to use imagery: external imagery and internal imagery. External imagery is when we picture ourselves from the perspective of an outside observer. This is when we "see ourselves" performing a task or skill. Think of it as the "fly on the wall" type of imagery. Internal imagery is when we imagine performing a task or skill from our own perspective.

So, if you imagine that you are a person watching yourself performing a squat while standing off to one side you are using external imagery. If you imagine the feel of the bar on your shoulders and the sensation of the muscles engaging while performing the squat, you are using internal imagery.

Which is better? Unknown. It may be quite impossible to ever accurately measure which type of imagery works best and it is recommended to use both. One type may be better to certain situations:

  • External imagery can be used whether you have ever performed a skill or not. Unlike internal imagery, your perspective can be changed so as to see different aspects of a skill. This type of imagery may be good for isolating mistakes.
  • Internal imagery is more realistic and gives one the actual experience of performing a movement. All the senses can be used instead of just the visual sense as with external imagery.

One thing that is clear is that imagery must be positive. Negative imagery equals negative outcomes. It is part of a larger field called "mental skills training." Sometimes called mental rehearsal, imagery and other mental techniques have long been used by athletes to enhance their performance. It is only recently being recognized by science to be of particular importance in human performance. The advantage of this being studied is that while athletes may use many techniques they thing are successful, this may be as much a part of conditioning as actual performance boosts. That is, they may only think certain mental processes enhance performance due to the influence of operational conditioning. Actual scientific enquiry can help us learn what really works rather than relying on anecdotal reports from other athletes. And although much has been learned about how imagery works and how to make it most effective, we still know very little. Individual experience should not be discounted since scientific data and individual field experience often do not mesh very well. But the two must be bridged to be of use.

Although much of the strength training world is unaware of it imagery is widely used in sports and Olympic athletes regularly use this to enhance their performance.

How is Imagery Used?

The two basic ways that imagery can be used are:

  • Forming an image of a successful performance. We might see ourselves performing a lift successfully or we might re-run an image of ourselves performing a successful past lift
  • Focusing in on certain key factors. For instance, if you are having trouble with your knees coming inward during the squat you might visualize your knees staying locked out while you perform a squat. You might also imagine your knees buckling inward and then correcting this. In this case you might couple this visualization with simple mental cues like "knees out".

How Does it Work?

It is thought that imagery works because of the "mind-body" connection. When you visualize the performance of a skill the brain sends controlling impulses to your muscles. The muscles have no way of differentiating between these impulses derived consciously through imagined movement or unconsciously through purposeful movement. If this is true than mental imagery can help prepare you for successful performance in a very direct way.

Imagery must be practiced regularly like any other skill. You will get better at forming clear and accurate pictures and sensations as you gain experience. One must be relaxed so as to focus in on the sensations accurately. To accomplish this, breathing exercises may help prior to imagery practice. The images and sensations used must be imagining perfect execution. There is no advantage to using imagery to rehearse almost perfect execution!

There is one over-riding prerequisite to using imagery successfully. You must learn to pay close attention to your body and it's sensations while you train. If your training consists of just going through the motions in a detached way, perhaps just counting reps, then there is no use for you to try to use any type of mental skills training, especially imagery. You can't imagine that which you have never really experienced.

For more information on imagery in sports and athletic performance see Imagery in Sports by Tony Morris, et al. and Imagery training: A Guide for Sports Coaches and Performers by Bruce Hale.

General References
1. Jenkins, Simon P. R. Sports Science Handbook: the Essential Guide to Kinesiology, Sport and Exercise Science. Brentwood, Essex: Multi-Science, 2005. Print.
2. Hale, Bruce D., and Penny Crisfield. Imagery Training: a Guide for Sports Coaches and Performers. Leeds: Sports Coach UK, 2005. Print.
3. Morris, Tony, Michael Spittle, and Anthony P. Watt. Imagery in Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2005. Print.


This page contains affiliate links to Amazon.com. We have not been compelled in any way to place links to particular products and have received no compensation for doing so. We receive a very small commission only if you buy a product after clicking on one of these affiliate links.

This page created 22 May 2011 21:16
Last updated 25 Jul 2016 20:29

© 2016 by Eric Troy and Ground Up Strength. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.