Introduction – What is Mental Imagery
Mental imagery can be defined as a form of mental rehearsal wherein an individual visualizes an action or an event and then subsequently practices the motions within his/her mind in order to better understand how to perform that type of action within a given situation, all of this in absence of actual physical exertion (Menzies, 2004).
The practice of mental imagery has made several claims over the past few years, which consist of supposed improvements in performance, energy, technique, motivation and the overall enjoyment that an athlete can derive from the sport that they are in (Eddy. 2003).
Advocates of the technique claim that given enough time and practice, an athlete will be able to determine what mistakes he/she has made in previous games and, as a result, can practice within his/her own mind in order to determine what to do right next time (Sargent, 2002).
Skeptics of mental imagery argue that while understanding what is needed to be done during a performance is important as well as avoiding past mistakes the fact remains that the same results claimed by mental imagery can be achieved through physical exertion and training without the necessity of visualization in order to achieve a particular action.
For such individuals, actually performing an action repeatedly is far better than thinking about it visually since through repeated physical action, muscle memory comes into play resulting in the almost “instinctive” rapid-fire actions that players can accomplish during the heat of the moment of a game wherein split-second decision making is necessary.
Such a level of gameplay it is argued can only be achieved through constant and repetitive physical practice and it has been proven through solid, observable and measurable scientific data that such a method is an effective means of improving and boosting athletic performance.
In the case of mental imagery, one of the primary arguments against it is the fact that there have been no conclusive studies which have shown solid evidence regarding its positive attributes since it is impossible to truly derive statistical data at the present from the thoughts of athletes and whether mental imagery actually results in better performance rates as compared to merely just practicing continuously.
Mental Imagery and Athletic Performance
One of the main problems in resolving the debate regarding the impact of mental imagery on athletic performance is the fact that no conclusive studies can actually be created that can measure the impact “visualization” has on completing a set of actions since humanity has yet to develop the technology to be able to read the human thought process.
It is based on this that when trying to determine the worth of visualization the following examination will utilize anecdotal evidence derived from a variety of studies and accounts that should provide a sufficient overview as to whether mental imagery is worthless or is actually an effective means of boosting athletic performance.
One of the first theoretical guides in examining the worth of mental imagery is neuromuscular theory which specifically states that the neuromuscular pattern associated with a particular movement in a sport can actually be “excited” or rather activated through imagery as well thus facilitating the process of trial and error that comes with repeated practice of a specific skill.
The basis of this particular theory can be seen in studies such as those by Knäuper (2009) which show that the activation of neurotransmitters associated with a particular action do not necessarily need to rely on performing an action but can actually be accomplished by thinking of the action itself (Knäuper, 2009).
As such, it is theorized that the act of constant visualization would be the same as training those very same neurotransmitters as if the athlete was performing the actions using his/her body. The inherent problem with this particular theory is that while it does indicate that the same neurotransmitters are activated during periods of visualization, such studies neglect to determine the transmission level.
Transmission levels can be indicative of the amount of “activity” within a particular neural cluster; while it may be true that the transmitters are active if there is little in the way of actual neural activity this is indicative of an inferior means of training which would have little to no impact on actual performance during an event.
Another way of looking at the supposed “benefits” of mental imagery can be seen in the attention arousal theory presented in studies such as those by Ozel (2004). Ozel (2004) indicates that prior to a particular sporting event athletes who use mental imagery can “psyche themselves up” so to speak in terms of achieving an appropriate level of readiness for a particular event (Ozel, 2004).
This can involve mentally preparing themselves for the event by envisioning the steps they must do, the actions they have to accomplish and how they are to do so. What must be understood is that a variety of studies, such as those by Gregg (2007), indicate that one of the primary problems associated with athletic performance prior to an event is when they develop a case of nervousness (Gregg, 2007).
In such instances, this particular mental state actually freezes up muscles resulting in decreased performance. If an athlete is able to achieve an astounding degree of performance within a controlled environment yet is unable to perform to such a degree within a competitive setting, then for all intents and purposes, such an athlete is considered subpar since statistics mean nothing if victory cannot be achieved.
As such, advocates of mental imagery state that by helping an athlete ease into an event by helping them imagine what needs to be done and how to accomplish it this in effect boosts an athlete’s performance since it gets rid of the associated feelings related to nervousness.
Krendl (2012) gives a more detailed account of this particular phenomena by explaining that an individual’s performance during a sporting event is at times dictated not through physical ability alone but the attitude they bring to the game (Krendl, 2012).
This is in line with the self-efficacy theory, which states that through self-imagery, an athlete is able to subsequently visualize victory and as a result brings a positive degree of performance to the game through a certain degree of confidence in being able to win.
While all of these accounts have so far shown the positive effects of mental imagery in athletic performance the fact remains that they are in fact considered anecdotal and inconsequential in the face of sustained scientific inquiry due to the fact that all of the data acquired based on the theories presented is in fact through the verbal accounts of athletes which in itself is an insufficient method of deriving a conclusion from an examination that is meant to measure performance levels and not the way in which athletes can describe them.
What is needed are cold hard facts that can be examined statistically; unfortunately, such data cannot be provided since the supposed “positive” effects of mental imagery are in the thoughts of the athlete, which at the present cannot be accessed or measured.
One of the views against the effectiveness of mental imagery are those focusing on the concept of muscle memory and how such a process produces a measurable and above all effective response in athletes as compared to the purely mental process that is mental imagery.
Muscle memory can be described as a form of movement that has been repeated over and over again by the body that the end result is no longer a long and protracted effort by the mind in communicating what needs to be done when it comes to a particular bodily set of actions rather the result is the creation of an immediate response mechanism wherein the action follows through smoothly based on environmental data and how the body was taught to respond to a particular set of “triggers”.
By developing this particular set of ingrained muscular movements, this creates a far faster response mechanism, which creates an observable and measurable performance increase in athletes that participate in particular sporting events.
This is one of the reasons why studies such as those by Young (n.d.) indicate that the constant practicing conducted by coaches is not just a means of getting an individual or team to anticipate the possible strategies that the opposing team will attempt, but it acts as a means of further enhancing the muscle memory associated with such activities which would enable an athlete to not only perform to an adequate set of standards but exceed them since they can think of possible counter-strategies while in the “heat of the moment” instead of merely concentrating on how to perform a particular action (Young, N.D.).
In fact, the study of LeBoutillier (2003) considers the process of mental imagery during practice sessions to actually be detrimental towards athletic performance since it creates a habit of constant visualization, which would get in the way of actual performance (LeBoutillier, 2003).
What must be understood is that muscle performance is just one facet of the way in which the body adapts to certain actions, events and stressors.
Cox (2010) explains that the body and the mind has a habit of internalizing certain actions and making them into habits which become so ingrained into a person’s daily routine and way of thinking that it becomes almost impossible to extricate such an action from an individual’s daily processes (Cox, 2010).
For example, a person may develop the daily habit of drinking coffee in the morning, exercising in the afternoon, or pausing to consider what to say while having a conversation.
Such habits are not limited to daily nuances but actually extend into an athlete’s method of performing a particular action such as a player developing the ingrained habit of dodging to the left every time someone comes to tackle him due to repetitive instructions to always dodge towards the left during practice.
Unfortunately, not all ingrained habitual behavior can be considered positive and, in the case of mental imagery, it was seen that the constant reference to visualization before performing an action actually resulted in a continued ingrained habit that affected athletic performance.
What must be understood is that the main purpose of developing muscle memory is so that an athlete will react automatically to a plethora of given situations without actually thinking. Studies such as those by Salka Jr. (2010) reveal that higher-level critical thinking associated with imagination, visualization and interpretation actually has a significant “lag period” between thinking of a particular action and the body actually performing it (Salka Jr.,2010).
While it may be true that higher-level cognitive processes are an effective means of devising strategies and interpreting the actions that are occurring at the present within a game, the fact remains that there is an inherent limit in the ability of the mind and body to develop the information, process it and then translate it into an effective physical motion.
As such, lower level automatic processes (i.e. the commands related to walking, eating, moving, etc.) that govern muscle memory are far more effective when it comes to sporting events since the mind doesn’t necessarily need to “think” to accomplish a certain set of actions that have become so ingrained into the muscle memory that they do not even have to be thought at all in order to be completed.
As such, it based on this particular example that it can be seen that mental imagery, when compared to the muscle memory, can be considered as nothing more than an ineffective form of interference that would cause performance issues during a match since their habit of visualization would interfere with the process of automatic motion based on muscle memory.
Mental imagery does indeed have its place in terms of a method of helping players visualize an action however it should not be utilized as a secondary means of training due to the possibility of subsequent interference with the necessity of transforming the responses of athletes into those based on muscle memory due to the greater efficiency and speed by which such responses reflect onto actual gameplay.
Mental Imagery – Worthless or Effective?
Based on the data presented in this paper, it can be argued that mental imagery is in a way worthless since without sufficient studies to back up its supposed effectiveness it cannot really be stated that the practice is at all effective.
There have been many successful athletes in the past who have claimed that success can be achieved through hard work and practice and have never really attributed any of their achievements through the use of mental imagery. While some of today’s successful athletes claim that mental imagery was one of the reasons behind their success, who says that they would not have achieved the same level of success without it?
It is based on this that due to the lack of sufficient evidence to state otherwise, mental imagery should be relegated as being nothing more than a practice that some individuals utilize due to their own personal beliefs regarding its effectiveness rather than ascribing to it any sort of official acknowledgement regarding its ability to produce tangible and effective results.
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