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Use of mental imagery in athletic performances

I'm thinking and trying to visualize the use of mental imagery in athletics as a way to improve personal performance. In your expert opinion, is the practice of visualizing successful completion of physical activities is "pop psychology" and mysticism or whether the practice has research-supported underpinnings? I'm not sure if there is much research in this area. If there is current research, can you please suggest recommendations for improving the technique, or argue that it now is obsolete? Can you please also provide references to support your belief/opinion? Thank you.

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Much attention was given to mental imagery in athletics (particularly tennis) in the 1960s and 1970s under the heading of visualization as a way to improve personal performance. The idea was to practice specific physical actions and to visualize them being successfully completed without actually doing them.

Mental imagery has long been thought to serve as an acceptable substitute for the actual practice of an action. While the behaviorist school rejects this approach, cognitive and structuralist approaches accept it to a greater or lesser degree. The issues in the literature, both contemporary and historical, concern the nature of an "image," its closeness to the actual action, the question of motivation, and the identity of thought and action relative to physical effects. It seems that, according to the modern literature, if done under the correct circumstances, visualization does impact both how one thinks about an action as well as affecting the action itself.


Brain patterns are formed when performing a specific activity over and again. After a time, the very act of will (imagination, in this case) to perform the action, even without doing it, creates the same brain pattern. In fact, this kind of imaging is nearly as effective in training as actually doing the function. This can be spread to any area of human life (Murphy, 2010).

The concept of visualization is essentially using imagination to perfect the environment in which an action is accomplished. Another way to view this is as "muscle memory" or the hard wiring of repeated practices leading to neural organization that can easily mimic the action (regardless of its actual performance). Famed golfer Jack Nicklaus holds to the view that, in golf, visualization gives the "psychic edge" that creates champions. In other words, visualization works in that it continues to fire the same neuronal patterns as are fired in the activity (LeVan, 2009).

There are three ways to define the concept of imagery. First, that it refers to a perceptual experience that is generated by the imagination. Second, it can refer to those processes that create the conditions necessary to create the image. Finally, it can refer to any sort of representation that mimics a specific action (Beaulieu, 2010).

The concept of image remains controversial relative to its impact on performance. The image itself, at least according to the typical cognitive school, must have a close relation to the action, or at least, retrieve vivid memories concerning the action. The will needs to be involved in that it refers to the deliberate conjuring of an empirical experience that, presumably, the user knows well (Johnson, 2002). The image is a memory of the action that provokes a physical response (at least a chemical or electric response) that is not voluntary. In other words, the physical response must occur when we visualize, as well as when the action is performed. Without this, imagery does not work (Murphy, 1990).


The Cartesian school makes only slight distinction between ideas and actual experiences. Among idealists (or conceptualists), there is never a distinction, and hence, visualization is identical to the movement itself. One concern in dealing with images is that it must be distinct from a concept. A concept refers to an abstract idea. An image refers to a memory that, in most respects, imitates the place and manner of the work (Pitt, 2012).

Empirically, the question is more muddied. Idealists and cognitive psychologists have no problem with identifying the image with the action. Yet, to be a firm empiricist in this, the image is not the action and only has few tings in common with it. In other words, the image refers to attention. Since the will is necessarily involved, there is the problem of focus: an image might be an interpretation, rather than a reproduction, of an action. One might focus on a specific aspect of the image. The problem here is that the image is then turned into a concept due to the will's shift in focus. The shift refers to attention being paid to some salient aspect of the image rather than the image itself (Thomas, 2010a).

The problem with empiricism in psychology, that is the schools opposed to functionalism, is that the mind is seen as a stage of sorts. Perceptions enter into it, and the mind then "works" on it to draw out order, commonalities and definitions. This does not imply that these entities ...

Solution Summary

The use of mental imagery in athletic performances are determined.