Updated: Oct 20, 2019
Imagery refers to the methods and senses that can be combined to act out, feel, smell, or see actions and their results. Visualization is one facet of imagery. It has been described as a type of internal video player that allows an athlete to replay an experience or to see what he desires to accomplish in the future. Some elements have been studied related to visualization that, if mastered, can significantly improve its effectiveness. One such aspect is perspective. Perspective refers to the angle that an athlete sees when he visualizes. An external perspective allows the athlete to see himself from outside as if watching from the eyes of another person. Internal perspective takes the form of the athlete and sees things the way the athlete sees them as he looks out through his own eyes. Individuals can use either perspective, and neither has been demonstrated to have a direct effect on the success of visualization or ultimately on performance. What is clear is that each athlete has a preference for one perspective or the other depending upon his goals for visualization. There is more to imagery and visualization than just perspective, however. The literature contains studies that demonstrate the positive effect of enhancing visualization in a way that can help the athlete improve imagery skills. Denis (as cited in Dosil, 2006) proposed that for imagery to have desired positive effects, the content of visualization must precisely imitate the desired outcome. Focusing on fundamental properties of imagery during visualization sessions can help to improve ability. Two such features are vividness, the degree to which the athlete images clearly, and controllability, the extent to which the athlete can exercise control over what he images directing it to show a desired action and result.
According to Dosil (2006), better imagers develop abilities quicker and teaching athletes how to acquire high levels of vividness are essential in developing imagery skills. For example, a performance psychology consultant could ask a baseball player to visually image himself striking a baseball from an external perspective, focusing on the angle of his body and the alignment of his shoulders, arms, and hands as they work together to meet the ball on plane. Or, using auditory and kinesthetic imagery, the consultant could direct the hitter to hear the sound of the bat and feel the sensations of hitting the ball on the sweet spot of the bat seeing the ball jump back up the middle of the infield and into the outfield grass. While vividness is crucial, it can be problematic if its effects are not controllable by the athlete. Controllability refers to learning how to manipulate images or other senses, so they correspond to goals of the imager like seeing the ball hit the bat on its sweet spot.
Controlling visualized performance is critical. A vivid image of failure can be detrimental to the objectives of the athlete and can reinforce undesired results. For example, in the case of the batter, if he is unable to control the script in his mind and the ball eludes his bat which cannot get on plane, negative images will reinforce failure in an actual at-bat. Instead, the batter must be taught to see the red laces on the baseball as it approaches and lock in on the point of contact where the bat meets the ball, ideally feeling the softness that comes with a perfect connection. Controllability also can refer to the athlete's ability to channel his emotions. In the case of the batter, he must be able to keep his focus and eliminate distractions. He should use positive self-talk to crowd out undesired thoughts as he visualizes the pitcher winding up and delivering the baseball. If he is envisioning past performances where he lost control of his emotions and gave in to negative self-talk, he can replay the situation substituting the desired response and staying positive with a phrase like, "So what, now I have seen his best stuff and I can focus on making contact next time." Vividness and controllability must work together in imagery, or the exercise will lose valuable effects and may even result in undesired adverse consequences if not adequately controlled to see the desired performance result. Some properties in addition to vividness and controllability have been studied related to visualization, including a study of the most effective methods with which to practice imagery through visualization. Examples are cognitive methods that improve specific skill adoption and motivational methods that will enhance the execution of a plan in competition. Different types of cognitive and motivational imagery are discussed in the following paragraphs.
Uses of Cognitive Imagery
According to Nordin and Cumming (2008), there are two types of cognitive imagery most often used in sport, cognitive specific (CS) imagery and cognitive general (CG) imagery. Cognitive specific imagery refers to the practice of imaging the development of skills like putting a golf ball into the hole or taking the perfect approach to a turn in motorcycle racing or achieving an automatic release of the arrow in archery. Cognitive general imagery involves imaging desired strategies, routines and game plans in practice or competition. Examples of cognitive general imagery include envisioning the desired game plan to successfully keep an opponent in the middle of the court in tennis or forcing a post player to receive the basketball outside of the lane in basketball or successfully executing three shots to reach a green in three on a high handicap par 5 in golf. Successful cognitive general imagery requires the development of a plan in advance and the act of imaging it solidifies it in the mind and allows the player to work through potential challenges or adjustments needed in the game plan before competing. Both CS and CG have been tested and found to be effective in accomplishing their separate roles of skill learning, development, execution, and strategy learning, development, and execution respectively.
Uses of Motivational Imagery
Nordin (2008) also identified three types of motivational imagery most often used in sport, motivational specific (MS) imagery, motivational general-arousal (MG-A) imagery, and motivational general-mastery (MG-M) imagery. Motivational specific imagery refers to the imaging of accomplishing a goal. Examples include envisioning reaching the wall at the end of a race and meeting a personal best time in swimming or visualizing successfully "bending" a shot around a tree and landing a golf ball safely in the center of the green when working on a draw shot in golf. Motivational general-arousal imagery refers to imaging stress, anxiety, and arousal to psych-up or lower stress, anxiety, or arousal to meet the desired state. As stress, anxiety, and arousal are not of themselves positive or negative, MG-A focuses on realigning these responses to the desired level for a particular athlete's optimal state. Examples include envisioning listening to music to get pumped up before a basketball game or deep breathing to lower arousal level before the start of a marathon. Motivational general-mastery imagery refers to the process of envisioning a sense of strong self-confidence, mental toughness, extreme focus, or positive mindset. Motivational general-mastery imagery requires the athlete to picture himself in complete control of his emotions and achieving a state of confidence and automaticity of motion without fear of failure. Examples of MG-M include imaging the total focus on a target and releasing the shot automatically without any thought of its release (Vickers & Williams, 2007) or visualizing a perfect approach moving as one with a horse and executing an ideal jump with confidence and fearlessness in showjumping. MG-M has been demonstrated to help an athlete achieve many goals, including those beyond its model definition and it is perhaps the most valuable of all imagery types discussed here. Its effectiveness and demonstrated frequency of use make it a useful tool in any imagery intervention (Nordin, 2008). With an understanding that imagery, and specifically visualization enabled by vividness and controllability, are powerful mental skills that can enhance performance, and given that cognitive and motivational imagery methods, when matched to the appropriate athlete and situation can help achieve peak performance, the following describes various approaches to using imagery and visualization to improve golf performance.
Use of Imagery to Improve Golf Performance
A round of golf can take four or five hours to complete and an accomplished golfer, who finishes the round in par (which is a very good score), executes one shot every 3.3 minutes during a shorter round. That means that he has just under three hours of free time to think about anything. This excessive amount of unstructured time makes it very easy to lose concentration, become distracted, and become frustrated by one's play or the play of others. It is also difficult for any golfer to remain confident and avoid focusing on things that he cannot control, especially when he hits a weak shot. With even an occasional miss hit, a golfer must guard against negative self-talk and a temptation to over-analyze his swing mechanics which interferes with the automaticity of his swing and can lead to a self-destructive loss of confidence during competition. Such problems can usually be avoided with the guidance of a sport psychology consultant (SPC) who can equip the golfer with mental performance techniques including stress management, positive self-talk, and the use of positive imagery to foresee and solve problems and to envision a successful round. With mastery of these mental skills, and proactive planning and goal setting to guide practice and preparation, most golfers can significantly improve their play. Examples of how five mental imagery methods described earlier can improve golf performance are discussed below, and they are presented with the assumption that an overall training plan and schedule has already been developed.
When the training plan calls for a golfer to develop a new skill or optimize an already acquired one, cognitive specific imagery can be used to facilitate the learning process. For example, the sport psychology consultant could work with the golfer and his swing coach on a particular aspect of his swing, like maintaining balance, helping him remember the kinesthetic feel of being on balance in a practice session. The consultant could then ask him to take an external perspective and see himself swinging on balance beginning with his feet, with a brief pause at the top of his swing, and then holding his balance through his follow-through to the target. Using cognitive general imagery, the consultant and golfer could walk through the golfer's training plan for the upcoming week and picture him incorporating this focus on balance in his practice routine on the driving range. This exercise could then be applied to a shot from the tee-box with a driver, and also in the fairway with a three iron during his practice round. Next, they could image the golfer executing his new and improved swing on the first tee of his opening round in his next competition.
Even elite golfers struggle at times with the rhythm and pace of their putting stroke, and this makes it difficult for them to remain confident about their planned putt while standing above the ball. Motivational specific imagery could assist the golfer in meeting a goal to relax and let himself go with a focus on aiming at a spot he chose on the green. To accomplish this, the sport psychology consultant would help him commit to his entire putting routine by using external visualization to see himself make a read of the green's slope and speed, picking a spot on the green for which to aim, settling over the ball, targeting the spot, and letting his putting stroke push the ball to its target. In addition to completing this exercise on a prospective scenario, the consultant could guide the golfer through an imagery exercise where he failed to achieve his goal of remaining confident on a putt and replace his negative mental state with positive self-talk and perfect execution of his newly honed putting routine, seeing himself accomplishing his goal of maintaining positivity and confidence over the ball and committing to his putting stroke. If the golfer were still plagued by stress, anxiety, or sub-optimal arousal as he stood over his ball before a putt, the consultant could work with him to use motivational general-arousal imagery to replay his past failures and use interventions that helped him regulate his arousal level up or down as the situation required. Interventions could include imagery of a breathing technique to calm his heart rate and still his mind or positive self-talk with language that targeted his anxiety and helped him to crowd out the thoughts that plagued him and limited the effectiveness of his putting routine. A word of caution should be mentioned, however, as there is evidence in the literature that use of MG-A imagery can have the undesired effect of reinforcing negative images and can undermine the goals of imagery. So, the consultant should remain aware of this risk and be judicious in his use of MG-A paying close attention to how it affected the golfer.
Finally, as motivational general-mastery imagery has been proven a valuable tool to support positive imagery in some scenarios (Nordin, 2008), the consultant could use it, in this case, to tie all of the strategies mentioned above together using MG-M. One scenario would be for the SPC to experience along with the golfer, the first day of his upcoming tournament and walk him through the day beginning with his training sessions in days leading up to the event, moving to his practice session on the driving range and on the practice greens on the first day of competition. As they walked through the first day, the SPC could help the golfer think through every aspect of his daily routine in each phase, incorporating his balance strategy on the range and his putting routine on the practice green. At each step, the golfer could picture himself with confident body language working through his first morning leading up to his first hole. As he experienced the usual challenges and periods of self-doubt, they could walk through his inventory of mental tools including positive self-talk, breathing, and focus, and the golfer could picture feel himself overcoming his doubts and crowding out the negativity with positive mental strategies. Next, they would move to the first hole where the golfer would check his arousal level and make any necessary adjustments up or down to achieve his optimal level. With the confidence of a successful pre-round experience, the golfer could visualize himself stepping up to the tee-box and letting his swing go for a perfect first drive, hitting an ideal approach shot from the fairway, and using his putting routine to sink a birdie putt to form the foundation of a terrific round. In this way he could work himself through the course, confronting his areas of concern, developing compensating strategies, and seeing himself implementing his mental tools as he progressed through the course to complete a successful round and a top ten finish in the tournament.
Imagery and visualization are powerful mental skills that can be used to enhance performance in some different settings. Visualization is most effective when the athlete can both develop vivid thoughts of images, smells, sounds, and feelings that control those thoughts in a way that leads to accurate pictures and impressions of desired performance outcomes. Vividness facilitates quicker learning. However, it must be well managed, or there is a risk of undesired consequences. Cognitive imagery and motivational imagery are two classes of highly effective imagery skills. Examples of interventions using cognitive specific imagery, cognitive general imagery, motivational specific imagery, motivational general-arousal imagery, and cognitive general-mastery imagery were presented. Finally, an approach to consulting with a golf professional was discussed using these five imagery techniques to assist the golfer in improving his performance.
For further information about how you can integrate mental skills like visual imagery to improve your golf game please contact me at:
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Denis, M. (1985). Visual imagery and the Use of Mental Practice in the Development of Motor Skills. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Science, 10, 4S-1 6S.
Dosil, J. (2006). The Sport Psychologist’s Handbook: A Guide to Sport-specific Performance Enhancement. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Nordin, S. & Cumming, J. (2008). Types and Functions of Athletes’ Imagery: Testing Predictions from the Applied Model of Imagery Use by Examining Effectiveness. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6, 189-206.
Vickers, J & Williams, M. (2007). Performing Under Pressure: The Effects of Psychological Arousal, Cognitive anxiety, and Gaze Control in Biathlon. Journal of Motor Behavior, 39(5), 381-394.