Do not think about a bright purple elephant.
You probably are now not only thinking about one, you can picture it, too, in all its huge, purple glory. This illustrates two concepts close to mental conditioning; one, the idea that your mind essentially skips right over the negation in a phrase (“Do Not” is heard as “Do”); and two, that your mind is capable of imagining anything, real or fantastical.
For the purposes of this article, I want to focus on the latter, the imagery.
Your mind is an amazing bit of engineering. Like a television, it can display images. But better than a television which merely broadcasts what it receives, your mind can create the images and thoughts in the first place.
Why is this important in sport?
Consider the fact that, aside from reflexes and autonomic systems such as breathing and digestion, nothing happens with your body without your mind’s say-so. Reach for that coffee cup. Whether you realized it or not, instructions went from your mind to your fingertips to do just that.
You may have heard of imagery and its close cousin, visualization. The two words are often used interchangeably.
A distinction I make is that visualization involves a scene with movement, your own or others, like watching a movie. I might visualize myself at the top of the podium at the Olympics receiving the gold medal, or scoring the winning goal at the World Cup in front of a frenzied, adoring crowd.
Imagery involves the creation of an image, a picture, an idea, and the subsequent effects thinking about that image has on the body and all of the senses. A picture in my mind of my dog’s big, smiling face, tongue hanging out, creates a sense of joy or humor in me. My body may even react by smiling or relaxing. Both imagery and visualization ideally involve as many of the five senses (touch, smell, sight, taste and hearing) as possible.
Both concepts are equally useful and important for use in sport. For example, imagery can be used to mentally practice skills, to increase confidence and to prepare for competition. Studies have shown that imagining an activity actually activates areas of the brain which are involved when physically performing the activity. This has been demonstrated via EEG (brain measurement) measurements in a number of studies. Imagining yourself in a particular setting or performing a skill perfectly is the next best thing to actually being there or doing it.
2 WAYS TO INTRODUCE IMAGERY TO YOUR CHILD
Fun With Lemons
Try this with your child at a time when she is relaxed and receptive to trying something that she may find a little “weird” at first, but fun. Encourage your child to keep her eyes closed; it is ideal but not absolutely necessary. Let her know that she can stay still or move her arms or hands as she imagines each part of the exercise.
You can read the script as is, or tweak it in any way you like to tap into the five senses. Allow time for your child to respond to the questions as you go. Do not be discouraged if your child has difficulty with “seeing.” Allow her to explore her ability to imagine. Even if her lemons are blue, that is completely fine. She is still using her imagination. There is no need to pressure or influence her responses.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting at a table. I’m there, too, and I am holding a basket of lemons. There are many lemons in the basket. Can you see them? How many do you see? I’m putting the basket on the table. I’d like for you to have one of the lemons. Go ahead and take one from the basket. What color is your lemon? Is it bright yellow or maybe yellow with just a little green? What shape is it? How does it feel? Is it rough or smooth? Slippery? Warm or cold? How big is it?
Place it on the table in front of you. I am going to cut your lemon in half. There you go. Pick up one half and take a nice deep breath to smell it. Tell me about how it smells. Now take that half and give it a little squeeze into your mouth. How does it taste? Do you like it?
You just might notice a change in your child’s face, even pursed lips on that last part. Feel free to expand the imagery in any way you and your child would like.
Activities such as this one enable your child to learn how to focus her imagination, and how to incorporate all of her senses when she does. She won’t just “see” a lemon, she will experience it.
Like an Animal
The image of a “bull in a china shop” conjures something big, lumbering and awkward failing miserably to navigate shelves and tables of fine china with devastating consequences. It evokes a sense of wrong thing, wrong place! However, an image of an eagle soaring majestically evokes feelings of awe, floating, gliding and quiet strength.
If we place ourselves in these images, as the bull or as the eagle, we, too, can virtually feel the way that animal must feel.
In sport, players exhibit certain traits in order to be successful in their roles. Perhaps they need to be fast, agile, determined, quick-thinking. Can you think of an animal (or animals) that embodies these traits? Let’s say a cheetah comes to mind for speed and agility. Imagine yourself as a cheetah and visualize yourself, the cheetah, chasing your prey full-tilt. The next time you are out running, use the cheetah image and see if you don’t get just a little more spring in your step. “See it. Be it.”
Encourage your child to think about his role on the field. What traits does he need to have or express? Are there different ones for different situations in a game? Ask him to think of an animal with similar traits. Then have him imagine that animal in his role, on the field. Ask him to “become” the animal and see himself, in his mind, playing his role as that animal.
Goalkeepers, for example, may want to appear “bigger” in the goal. They need to be agile, to read their environment and make split-second decisions. Cat-like in their reflexes. But a small housecat won’t do. How about something with a bigger presence? Lion or tiger, perhaps.
As you can see it is a lot of fun to come up with these images. It can also help your child in their performance. My son chose a cheetah as his token animal for ice hockey. He suggested we tape a picture of a cheetah on his water bottle so he could be reminded of it during the game and hustle just that much more on breakaways. Your child can use their animal image in any way that is positive and meaningful to them.
The use of imagery is an intriguing element of mental preparation for sport, and can be used in so many different ways. Have fun with it, play with it and see if engaging your imagination yields tangible results on the field.
Porro, C.A., et al., Primary motor and sensory cortex activation during motor performance and motor imagery: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. J Neurosci, 1996. 16(23): p. 7688-98.
Yao, W.X., et al., Kinesthetic imagery training of forceful muscle contractions increases brain signal and muscle strength. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2013. 7: p. 561. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3783980/
Ranganathan, V.K., et al., From mental power to muscle power–gaining strength by using the mind. Neuropsychologia, 2004. 42(7): p. 944-56.