Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the race cancellations so far this season is that you (and every other athlete in North America and probably the world) are limited in your training and can’t compete in the sports you love. Well, I can’t magically manufacture training opportunities for you. But I can offer you a powerful way to continue to develop yourself technically, tactically, and mentally away from the road, track, and pool. What is this amazing strategy? Mental imagery, of course.
You may scoff at the idea that picturing yourself running, cycling, swimming (or your sport of choice) in your mind’s eye can have any benefit to you, but I can assure you—from personal experience, professional study, and working with some of the world’s best athletes—that it really works. And, heck, since you’re just hanging out at home so much now, doing remote schooling and unable to go to the gym, what’s the harm in seeing for yourself whether it works?
The World’s Best Athletes Use Mental Imagery
Whenever I have the opportunity to work with or meet a world-class athlete, I ask them which mental tools they find most beneficial. Mental imagery is the one mentioned most often. They use the power of seeing and feeling themselves training and competing to help them get as mentally prepared as possible to perform their best in the biggest events of their seasons.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that these remarkable athletes just do mental imagery before big races. In fact, they use it all year round. Why? Because they know they can benefit in so many ways—mentally, technically, and tactically—from imagining themselves performing thousands of times without having to actually be doing their sport. Simply by reproducing how they want to perform in their mind’s eye.
Keys to Quality Mental Imagery
With the upcoming race season abruptly delayed, and uncertainty of when it will restart, now is the ideal time to commit to a mental imagery program and make big gains in your training and competitive preparations as we look forward to getting back to racing.
Just like other aspects of your training program, mental imagery won’t work if you only do it every once in a while or inconsistently. You have to approach your imagery the same way you approach the rest of your training program; you should have a structured imagery program that you do consistently. Think of mental imagery as strength training for the mind: you want to strengthen your mental “muscles” including motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions. And mental imagery is the most powerful mental “exercise” you can do to get your mind as strong as your body.
There are five factors that impact the quality of mental imagery. You can develop each of these areas so you can get the most out of your imagery.
Imagery perspective refers to where the “imagery camera” is. The internal perspective involves seeing yourself from inside your body looking out, as if you were actually performing. The external perspective involves seeing yourself from outside your body, like on video. Research indicates that one perspective is not better than the other. Most people have a dominant perspective with which they’re most comfortable. Use the perspective that’s most natural for you and then experiment with the other perspective to see if it helps you in a different way.
Have you ever been doing imagery and you keep making mistakes in your imagined performances? This problem relates to imagery control, which is how well you’re able to imagine what you want to imagine. It’s not uncommon for athletes to swim, bike, or run poorly in their imagery, and it often reflects a fundamental lack of confidence in their ability to perform their best.
If mistakes occur in your imagery, you shouldn’t just let them go by. If you do, you’ll further ingrain the negative image, which will hurt your efforts. Instead, when you make mistakes in your imagery, immediately rewind the “imagery video,” edit it, and rerun the imagery video until you get it right.
Good imagery is more than just visual—that’s why I don’t like to call it “visualization.” The best imagery involves the multi-sensory reproduction of the actual experience. You should duplicate the sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that you would experience in an actual training session or race.
Visual imagery involves how clearly you see yourself performing. However, vivid auditory imagery are important, too, because the sounds of yourself performing are an important part of your race experience. Emotionally, if you get nervous before a real race, you should get nervous in your imagery (and then use mental tools to relax). The most powerful part of mental imagery is feeling it in your body. That’s how you really ingrain new technical and mental skills and habits.
The ability to adjust the speed of your imagery will enable you to use imagery to improve different aspects of your racing. Slow-motion is effective for focusing on technique (e.g., for swimming). When you first start to work on technique in your imagery, slow the imagery video down, frame by frame if necessary, to see yourself executing the skill correctly. Then, as you see and feel yourself performing well in slow-motion, increase the speed of your imagery until you can perform well at “real-time” speed.
For you to get the most out of your imagery, you want to do everything you can to create a total reproduction of your actual race experience. Everything that you think and feel (both physical and emotional feelings), and every sense you experience, you want to reproduce in your imagery. In other words, you want to make your imagery as real as possible.
Be Realistic in Your Imagery
Imagine Realistic Conditions
Imagine yourself performing under realistic conditions. In other words, always do imagery under the conditions in which you normally train and compete. That is, if you often compete in difficult conditions (e.g., cold, heat, rain), imagine yourself in those tough conditions.
Imagine Realistic Performances
If you’re not an elite athlete, don’t imagine yourself performing like a pro. Instead, imagine yourself the way you normally do your sport, but incorporate positive changes into your efforts that you are working on.
Develop an Imagery Program
The key to effective mental imagery is consistency. You wouldn’t expect to get stronger by lifting weights once every few weeks. You wouldn’t expect to get better technically in the pool by swimming periodically. The same holds true for mental imagery. The only way to gain the benefits of mental imagery is to use it frequently.
Set Imagery Goals
Set specific goals for what areas you want to work on. For example, you might focus on some technical change in your swimming, pedaling circles on your bike, keeping a long and relaxed stride while running, or having a smooth and fast triathlon transition.
Climb the Imagery Ladder
Create a ladder of training and race scenarios in which you will be performing in the upcoming season. The ladder should start with training in simple conditions (e.g., pool, flat ride, easy run) and progress to more demanding training situations, more important races, and increase up to your biggest race of the season.
Then, begin your imagery on the lowest level of the imagery ladder. Stay at that rung until you reach your imagery goal. When that is achieved, stay at that step for several imagery sessions to really reinforce and ingrain the positive images, thoughts, and feelings. Then work your way up the ladder until you’re performing the way you want in your imagery at the very top of the imagery ladder in the biggest competition of the season.
Training- and Race-Specific Imagery
Select training and competitive situations that are appropriate for your level of development. In other words, if you’re a high school athlete, don’t imagine yourself competing in the Olympics. Always imagine yourself performing on a specific course in a particular event. Then select a different training or competitive venue for each imagery session, thus reaching your imagery goals in a diverse array of venues, conditions, and races.
Imagery sessions should be done three to four times per week. Set aside a specific time of the day when you’ll do your imagery (just like you do for your other training) and program alerts in your smartphone as reminders. Find a quiet, comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed. Each session should last about 10 minutes.
One difficulty with imagery is that, unlike the physical aspects of your training, the results aren’t tangible. An effective way to deal with this problem is to keep an imagery log. A log should record key aspects of every imagery session including the quality of the imagined performance, any thoughts and feelings that occur (positive or negative), problems that emerged, what you did well in your imagery, and what you need to work on for the next session. An imagery log enables you to see progress in your imagery, thereby making it more rewarding, and motivating you to want to continue to do it. I include an imagery log in my mental imagery workbook that you can download and print out.
Accept the Challenge
So, here’s the deal. I can’t guarantee that you’ll make up for all of the lost training time caused by the COVID-19 crisis by committing to a consistent mental imagery program or that your efforts will result in a quantum leap in your race performances. But I will say that if you commit to a serious mental imagery program, you’ll look back on this time and feel good about how you took action to become a better athlete when you could have just sat around and moped over all of the time you missed during the shutdown. And there’s a darned good chance that you will be much better mentally prepared than you were last season.
If you combine this imagery program with an intensive physical conditioning regimen and quality training, then I can say with confidence that when you “enter the fray” of racing, you will be more motivated, confident, intense, and focused. You’ll be able to say, “I’m as prepared as I can be to perform my best and achieve my goals.”
About Dr. Jim Taylor
Jim Taylor, Ph.D., psychology, is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of endurance sports. Jim has been a consultant to USA Triathlon and works with Olympic, professional, and age-group endurance athletes in triathlon, cycling, running, swimming, and Nordic skiing. A former alpine ski racer who competed internationally, Jim is a 2nd degree black belt in karate, sub-3-hour marathoner, Ironman, and USAT nationally ranked triathlete. Jim is the author of 17 books, including The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training (with Terri Schneider) and Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation for Achieving Your Sports Goals. Jim is also the host of the Train Your Mind for Athletic Success podcast.
Want to learn more about how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in healthy and constructive ways? Read Dr. Jim Taylor’s new book, How to Survive and Thrive When Bad Things Happen: 9 Steps to Cultivating an Opportunity Mindset in a Crisis, or listen to his podcast, Crisis to Opportunity (or find it on Stitcher, Spotify, iTunes, or Google).
Do you want to take the next step in training your mind to perform your best next season? Take a look at his online mental training courses designed specifically for athletes.