Imagery 1 – use in sport

visualization1In professional sport the use of vizualisation or imagery is pretty widespread. It’s usually used to imagine successful performance of a particular technique, race or whatever. Sport Psychology categorizes imagery into internal and external types, from the of perspective of the person imaging, i.e. you are either observing yourself performing the technique or actually doing it. The recommendation is to get the images as vivid as possible and to be multi-sensory, to include sight, sound, smell, touch and even taste.

Importantly, imagery gives the user a chance to rehearse skills when they are not actually practicing. Imagery works by activating the neural networks in the brain that are used during actual practice, thereby reinforcing these pathways. Recent work in brain plasticity confirms this long held belief through fMRI scanning.That is the actual structure of the brain can be altered through the use of imagery!

When I was at university I took part in a number of studies involved with imagery, and really there wasn’t a lot more than that explained above. Practice involving imaged and real performance is more effective than just real practice which in turn is better than imagery alone which, of course, produces greater improvements than no practice at all, otherwise there’d be no point!

Another standard use for imagery is in anxiety control before a contest, to ease the pre-fight jitters. I have a friend who used to fight at amateur level and hardly ever knew anything about his opponent before hand. He always used to imagine the opponent would be the biggest ugliest bloke on the planet, and prepare for that. So when it came to show time the bad guy was never quite as bad as he had been imaging, which gave him confidence.

The above examples are not the most imaginative of uses for imagery in martial arts, although typical of standard sport pyschology (example here). They are a start, however, and could be of use to a martial artist. Perhaps a problem with giving a scientist the job of applying such a right brain activity as imagery to sport or martial arts is that science, almost by definition, predominantly involves logical, critical thinking, which is a  left brain activity.

The standard sport science examples of imagery given above seem to me to come from someone with a very literal interpretation of imagery use. Imaging performing a technique well will help performance, add a bit of multi-sensory input and bingo. Alternatively, if you feel nervous before an event think happy thoughts and imagine yourself super-confident! Perhaps a little simplified but you get my meaning.

The power of the imagery and what it can do for us goes way beyond what is described above. I trained as a hypnotherapist some years ago and the use of imagery in hypnotherapy is far more creative than the examples above. In the dreamlike hypnotic state, the imagery can become exactly that, dreamlike, exaggerated. The whole point of the hypnotic induction is to shut down the logical left side of the brain to allow the imaginative, creative right side to the fore.

I read of a hypnotherapy treatment for a polevolter, who was instructed to image not only clearing the bar but also clearing the moon! The right brain is not bound by logic, so similar to what occurs in dreams imagery, either self-prescribed or otherwise, CAN be bizarre in content.

Adapting the moon-volting to martial arts could involve imaging yourself with super-fists providing the power of Tyson, but multiplied. So that the opponent not only left the floor but left the building! This wouldn’t be appropriate for everyone but it could be for those with a vivid cartoon like imagination.

This example is a little tongue in cheek but it provides an inkling as to the possibilities for using imagery beyond standard sports science use.


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