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What Is Mental Imagery?

Mental imagery, often referred to as visualisation or motor imagery, involves the mental rehearsal of an action without physically performing it. This cognitive process engages various sensory modalities, including sight, sense of movement, sound, touch, and smell sensations, to create an accurate mental representation of the desired action. 

Over the last 30 years, mental imagery techniques have been used to enhance performance outcomes for professionals of varying domains. Mental imagery should generally involve the resemblance of real life characteristics. 

How Does It Work?

Within the brain there are many overlapping pathways involved in movement execution and mental imagery processes. Before an action is executed by the body, there is a process involving many parts of the brain, these include the areas of decision making, learning, voluntary movement control, voluntary movement planning, as well as processing sensory information.

This forms the basis of understanding the “Functional Equivalence Theory” by suggesting that mental simulation of movements closely mirrors actual physical execution. According to this theory, the brain processes involved in imagining a movement are similar to those engaged during the actual performance of that movement. This means that when an individual mentally rehearses a task, the same nerve structures are activated as when they physically perform the task! Therefore, mental imagery practice reinforces the nerve pathways associated with the movement, enhancing the ability to learn new skills and refine movement techniques. 

The Research Landscape

Research on mental imagery and its role in enhancing performance outcomes spans various fields including sports psychology, rehabilitation, and skill acquisition. 

A particular model explored and adopted in mental imagery techniques is the PETTLEP model by Holmes and Collins in 2001. The model is based on work by Jeannerod (1994; 1997) which proposed the “Functional Equivalence Theory”. 

Physical: Interventions should replicate real-world conditions, including posture, equipment, and attire.

Environment: Incorporating environmental cues, such as clothing and location.

Task: Imagined tasks should accurately reflect actual performance, adjusted based on skill level.

Timing: The most functionally equivalent method involves imagining in ‘real time,’ yet ‘slow-motion’ imagery can be utilised to focus on and refine more challenging aspects of a skill.

Learning: The imagery ought to be regularly adjusted and reassessed to align with evolving task requirements and the athlete’s level of expertise.

Emotion: Emotional engagement and positive imagery correlate with performance improvement, though athletes may also benefit from imagining challenging scenarios.

Perspective: The perspective in imagery can either be first person or third person.

A comprehensive systematic review by Morone et al explored the effectiveness of the PETTLEP model in sport performance, it found that PETTLEP is effective in its ability to reproduce as realistically as possible the many aspects of a situation where an execution of movement occurs, and is in line with the functional equivalence theory.

Here are the key points and methods of implementation discussed:

  • Structured Mental Imagery Intervention Design: Design mental imagery interventions with clear order and directedness, be sure to integrate all aspects of the physical experience. You can refer to the PETTLEP model.
  • Integration with Physical Practice: Implement mental imagery sessions in conjunction with physical practice to enhance motor skill learning.
  • Keeping on Track: Ensure comprehensive reporting of mental imagery training sessions to facilitate comparisons between training and improve effectiveness.
  • Start Early with Mental Imagery: Beginning the learning process with mental imagery as part of pre-performance, can facilitate learning. 
  • External Attention Focus: Attentional focus on external cues, such as the environment or movement outcome, enhances performance compared to internal cues.

Similarly, a systematic review and meta-analysis by Deng et al assessed the effectiveness of mental imagery on improving the serve in tennis players. Here are the key takeaways: 

  • Program Lengths: Implement a structured mental imagery program over several weeks to allow sufficient time for skill acquisition and consolidation.
  • Frequency of Sessions: Conduct mental imagery sessions regularly, with a frequency of at least two sessions per week, to maintain engagement and reinforce learning.
  • Session Duration: Ensure each mental imagery session lasts between 6-19 minutes, depending on your ability to maintain focus and familiarity of mental imagery. Those who are new to mental imagery practice may require longer session duration compared to those who have already practised before.
  • Integration with Physical Practice: Consider integrating mental imagery sessions with physical practice sessions to maximise the synergistic effects and performance outcomes.

In conclusion, integrating mental imagery into your sports or fitness routine can be a powerful tool for enhancing performance. These techniques are well used by high performers and the guidance above should give you all you need to get started. Enjoy!

Sources:

Deng, N., Soh, K. G., Abdullah, B. B., & Huang, D. (2024). Does Motor Imagery Training Improve Service Performance in Tennis Players? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 14(3), 207. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs14030207

Kearney, P. E., & Lidor, R. (2021). Response to Moradi, J. (2020). Benefits of a Guided Motor Mental Preperformance Routine on Learning the Basketball Free Throw. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 127, 248-262. Perceptual and motor skills, 128(1), 5–10. https://doi.org/10.1177/0031512520949712 

​​Morone, G., Sheida Ghanbari Ghooshchy, Pulcini, C., Emanuele Spangu, Pierluigi Zoccolotti, Martelli, M., Grazia Fernanda Spitoni, Russo, V., Ciancarelli, I., Paolucci, S., & Iosa, M. (2022). Motor Imagery and Sport Performance: A Systematic Review on the PETTLEP Model. Applied Sciences, 12(19), 9753–9753. https://doi.org/10.3390/app12199753 

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