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Positive mental visualizations in mental coaching

Mental visualizations: what are they?

Mental imagery (visualization) in sport consists in mentally visualizing an activity. For example, I can mentally visualize a positive memory of the best game of my career. The exercise is then to close your eyes and try to relive this positive moment.

It involves not only the visual sense but also the other senses to live an experience. For example, in basketball, I imagine the field, the ring, my teammates, and my opponents, but I also imagine hearing the sound of the ball, the supporters, my coach, the sensations I feel when I play (the kinesthetic sense),...

There are two kinds of imagery. When I live an experience from the inside, I do internal imagery. On the other hand, if I see myself from the outside, much like when I watch a video, it's called external imagery. Some sports, and in particular collective sports, require an external imaging capability (to have a vision of oneself within the group and to be able to anticipate my actions in connection with others). Others, such as individual sports such as tennis, use more internal imagery as a tool to develop their performance.

Why does it have such a positive impact on performance?

Do top-level athletes use imagery and how does it improve performance? It was realized that top-level athletes had excellent skills in visualizing their performances in competition. They have a better ability to activate positive scenarios in their heads. They are said to be "good imageants".

But why is this capacity of imagery, which can be trained just as well as technique or physical abilities, better developed for sportsmen of a higher level?

The reason is that the brain records and stores the imagined movements, and thus records positive movements and scenarios that will have an impact on performance. For example, if you imagine precisely shooting a perfect free-kick in visualization, the brain records the event. The more you visualize, the more the brain retains information that can become an automatism and allow to be trained without playing! Imaging is also very interesting in periods of injury...

Visualizations and technical gestures

One can for example visualize his tennis service in order to train it visualize the terrain, the exact place where I will serve, activate all the sensations in the body (arm,...), feel the effect, he power, imagine the sound (contact of the ball with the racket then the ground),...

Mental imagery: its impact on the mind

It's important to visualize successes, thereby activating one's potential, that is what one can do when one is in shape, but not to imagine playing like Ronaldo when one plays in 3rd Belgian national. Imaging must therefore be realistic. By visualizations, one carries out its technique, but above all one entails a whole series of other reflexes that the brain records, like the ability to remain concentrated and calm at important moments.

Take for example a sportsman who loses his temper and calmth in important moments such as a tie-break. I will help the athlete to put himself in a situation: he will live in imagery, closer to reality, a moment of tie-break against a specific opponent, then activate a different attitude than usual. Instead of feeling stress and a decreased focus, the sportsman imagines practicing a few calm breaths to decrease the tension in the body, then imagines hopping to reactivate and think of a word that brings concentration and pushes to action (for example "next point"). He will then imagine himself playing with good sensations and having his usual strengths. By driving these behaviors into thought, he will have activated a reflex that he will be able to practice more easily during his next tie-break.

The uses of imaging techniques are numerous and depend on the sport and personality of each. In mental preparation, the athlete learns to train the techniques that suit him best and that will gradually become automatic.

By Manuel Dupuis, sports psychologist and mental coach

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