For athletes, the phrase "seeing and feeling is believing" sums up the importance of using mental skills training. The images we create, store, and focus on everyday guide how we see ourselves, which in turn, shapes our behavior and performance outcomes (Vealey, 2005.) Physical relaxation is the simplest form of imagery that helps athletes unwind during different phases of competition (Vealey, 2005). Imagery and physical relaxation often work in tandem to enhance sport performance. Examining both practices provides valuable information for athletes on why applying these skills enhances their mental and physical abilities.
Imagery helps athletes to train so they think in positive and productive ways in relation to their performance. Using imagery to perform a specific skill repetitively in the mind is called mental practice (Vealey, 2005). Improvement in skills such as shooting a basketball or serving in tennis have been linked to imagery exercises. Athletes picture themselves performing the action as if they were looking through a camera lens or as a spectator (Vealey, 2005). Different angles provide needed perspective used in assessing and internalizing physical requirements of each activity. While visualizing the application of these specific skills, athletes can also tense and release the muscles needed to perform the task utilizing physical relaxation to enhance the mental training experience. Imagery is an excellent alternative to repetitive physical training as the human body can only endure so much before becoming vulnerable to injury (Vealey, 2005). Using mental practice as a supplement during off training times gives athletes a mental edge over other competitors. These techniques augment physical training and create clear mental maps that lead toward automatic skill execution.
Using imagery and physical relaxation immediately before competition has also shown to produce positive performance outcomes (Vealey, 2005). Improvements in strength, endurance and specialized skills have been reported through the use of pre-planned imagery and physical relaxation. Athletes who feel loose and focused going into the start of sport participation often perform at their peak. Depending on the needs and personality of the athlete, mental exercises may be used to produce feelings of arousal or calmness prior to competition (Vealey, 2005). Pre-performance routines for athletes often involve a planned sequence of thought and physical relaxation techniques. Some examples of imagery and physical relaxation skills that athletes use include imagining the muscles in their neck becoming more elastic and loose while they slowly rotate their heads to release tension (Vealey, 2005). A personal example that I use is shaking out each leg after I envision making a strong step around an opponent. The combination of the visualization and physical activity serves as a calming resource prior to the start of any sporting event. Sharing the importance of imagery and physical relaxation with the athletes I come in contact with is a priority for me as a coach. Visualization and relaxation is routine for the athletes I coach who grasp the importance of mental skills training. Athletes that embrace imagery and physical relaxation exercises enjoy participating and performing at their best.
Vealey, R. (2005). Coaching for the Inner Edge. Morgantown, VW: Fitness Information