How to use mental imagery to improve performance

I’m always amazed by the power of mental imagery as a technique to improve performance. Imagery along with goal setting, positive self-talk and relaxation methods are popular in the field of sport psychology and in mental skills training. Imagery was made famous in the sporting area but can also be used successfully in professional settings. Perhaps because imagery appears abstract and involves the mind there are groups of believers and non-believers. This has led to the technique being underutilized and practiced in the corporate world.

What is imagery?

Imagery is a type of mental processing that we all possess. It allows us to store information about what we perceive and do using all of our senses (e.g., see, feel, hear, taste, and smell. Children typically display excellent imagery skills for play and to remember things. Unfortunately, we tend to use imagery progressively less as we get older and give more importance to verbal or analytical processing. Imaging techniques allow parallel processing of huge amounts of information not possible with analytical thinking, which relies on serial processing.

Images are the closest memory of what we have to perception and experience. I’m sure like me, you have found it difficult to explain a complex image in words, as the famous saying goes: a picture is worth a thousand words — which actually means it would take a lot of effort to explain the image fully through language. Experience counts. A word is also an abstract symbol which represents something else, and is a bit removed from our immediate perception. For example, the word car is not a car but a label for the actual thing. The symbol can change depending on the language you use, car in English, voiture in French, etc.

How to use it?

Imagery can be used in a lot of different ways to guide future performance, from:

1. Remembering experiences and learning from them. For example, remembering your greatest presentation using your insights to replicate this feeling and prime future performance.

2. Remembering your best performances and then practicing recreating feelings and similar movement. For example, recalling your best marathon race and practice recreating the feeling of effortless and lightness.

3. Imagining feeling and acting in ways you would like, even if you haven’t done so in the past. For example, imagine going into the room full of confidence and being able to great a positive first impression. Repeat and have this image ready as you make your entrance for real.

Because imagery for many of us is a forgotten skill, the first step is to become more conscious of your perceptions and actively practice putting these perceptions into vivid images. By making imagery as a conscious activity, the process itself becomes more automatic and easy to ‘perceive-do’. This allows us to create strong images of feeling, movement and form we want (and important for the event/situation) and then use those images to execute effortlessly.

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