Mental Imagery

Getting your members and customers to use mental imagery can have a positive benefit on their performance, writes Sue Shapcott.

I am a golf coach and a scientist who likes palpable solutions to problems. As such, I had been skeptical of imagery’s use to improve golf performance. I had incorrectly associated imagery with intangible techniques and benefits. However, that changed when I opened my mind to the research behind mental imagery and skill-building. As a recent convert to the benefits of mental imagery, this column will share the most compelling reasons to use imagery in your coaching practice.

To start, it is worth identifying different types of mental. You can either watch yourself in third person using visual mental imagery (VMI): which is like watching yourself on television. Or you can watch yourself in first person: what do I see when I rotate my forearms and what does it feel like? This is called kinesthetic mental imagery (KMI). Of the two, researchers suggest that first person imagery is most beneficial for sports performance.

As a skeptic, the first question I had was why mental imagery can improve performance. There are several answers. One answer is ‘functional equivalence.’ In this context, functional equivalence means that when athletes engage in mental imagery they activate similar neural activity in their brains as when the movement is performed physically. As messages sent through neurons to muscles control movement, simulating neural activity through mental imagery is very useful for learning new movements. This means that mental practice can have some of the same benefits as physical practice. Considering time restraints, illness or injury, it is not always possible for students to physically practice. Therefore, mental practice becomes a reasonable alternative that continues to develop neural pathways necessary for movements and skills to be mastered.

Mental imagery is also effective because it provides ‘forward modeling.’ This term means that by developing mental images of how players want to move it will help reduce the gap between current skill level and desired skill level. The ‘forward’ part of the phrase suggests that by developing a correct mental image of a movement it becomes the model for the future. Having established a forward model, the brain is good at anticipating a way for the body to get there by triggering appropriate movement patterns. By providing the brain a mental image, it can work out a way of achieving it.

Understanding why mental imagery works is a good first step for coaches, the second step is to help players incorporate it into their routines. Based on my own experience practicing mental imagery effectively is difficult. However, researchers Holmes and Collins suggest that the effectiveness of mental imagery can be increased by incorporating the following seven components.

Physical (imagine the physicality of the movement as explicitly as possible)

Environment (imagine the performance is in a usual golf environment)

Task (the complexity of task imagined should match a player’s skill level)

Timing (imagery of movements should happen in real time)

Learning (learning outcomes of imagery should match a player’s skill levels)

Emotion (While practicing imagery, players should recreate their typical emotional state for playing)

Perspective (imagery should be in the first, not third person)

To introduce golfers to mental imagery I select one element of their swing at a time. If I am making a grip change, a player should imagine what the club feels like in her hands. What does the grip feel like, how much pressure is being applied and where does the club sit in her hands? She should imagine she is hitting a specific shot on a specific course and recognise her usual stress levels in that situation. If she is a new golfer, her focus on the grip will probably be broader than if she is an elite player who can more easily recognise nuances in her technique.

The bottom line is that mental imagery complements physical practice well. However, coaches should emphasise that it does not replace physical practice. That would be too good to be true. And if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is!