Mental Imagery: Does It Really Benefit Athletic Performance?

evanstiegel's picture

      Roger Federer is regarded by many as one of the best athletes, not only of our era but of all time.  No one can deny the natural physical prowess that he possesses, but many often wonder what separates him from the rest of the field in professional tennis.  According to Federer, the answer is his implantation of mental imagery into his training regimen. Mental imagery, often referred to as visualization, is when an individual imagines him or herself performing in the absence of physical practice.  When visualizing, an individual utilizes all of his or her senses in order to recreate an event. In the particular event, the individual should imagine performing to the best of their abilities.   Many other athletes have begun incorporating mental imagery into their training regimens and claim that it has lifted their games to new levels.  For years now, sports psychologists have been preaching to athletes the benefits that come with the use of such imagery.  But, does mental imagery, in fact, enhance athletic performance?  Researchers suggest that the effects of mental imagery on physical performance that range from decreasing a player’s anxiousness prior to the event to even perfecting a player’s skills(1).  Conflicting case studies and a lack of a generally accepted mechanism of action, however, reveal many inherent problems in the research.
      For over a century, researchers have performed hundreds of studies in order to determine the effectiveness of using mental imagery to enhance physical performance.  Typically, researchers provide a script for athletes to follow to performing the imagery and then subsequently interview the athletes subsequent to the event to determine if their performance was augmented.    According to most studies, many athletes pronounce that mental imagery does lead to enhanced performance.  On the other hand, athletes who have participated in similar studies indicate that the use of mental imagery resulted in no tangible increase in performance. Furthermore, some even declare that the mental imagery impaired their physical performance.  In summarizing the empirical research of athletes’ experimentation with mental imagery, psychologists Alan J. Budley, Shane M. Murphy, and Robert Woolfolk appropriately propose that “mentally practicing a motor skill influences performance somewhat better than no practice at all”(2).
      One widely accepted model for mental imagery’s mechanism of action is referred to as the “neuromuscular theory”.  This theory suggests that “…the excitation of the neuromuscular pattern associated with a particular skill can also be initiated through imagery; the same facilitation can take place with repeated trials of imagery--but without the risk of accumulated interference from fatigue.(3)”  Several observations have demonstrated that the neurotransmitters of a specific motor pathway are present both during physical and mental practice.  Thus, when one practices mental imagery, they are facilitating later physical performance endeavors.   Another theory is referred to as the Attention-Arousal theory.  This theory suggests that the use of mental imagery helps the athlete achieve optimal arousal level prior to an athletic event(4).  A third model called the Self-Efficacy theory suggests that imagery increases an athlete’s expectation of positive performance.   This increase in expectation of positive performance consequently results in an increase in notable motor performance. 
      There are several underlying problems with determining the potential benefits of using mental imagery in athletics.  One severe problem is that up until very recently evidence on mental imagery’s benefit was primarily anecdotal.  Researchers performing studies on mental imagery rely solely on the verbal accounts of the athletes.  Performing research in this manner is problematic because a verbal account of one person is insufficient as a conclusion.  Another significant problem with performing these types of studies is the actual performance of the mental imagery.  Although the researchers typically provide a script for the athletes to perform the mental imagery, it is impossible for the researchers to ensure that athletes actually abide the script.  A researcher cannot be completely confident that the subjects will abide by the script because they cannot monitor what the athletes are thinking. Therefore, one athlete’s performance of mental imagery may be of significantly less quality than another athlete in the same study resulting in problematic results.  In saying this, because all individuals possess unique minds, one cannot be confident that all the subjects are visualizing in the same way.  One athlete’s interpretation of a script may completely differ than that of another athlete. 
      A further problem relating to the scripts is the fact that it is very unlikely that scripts are the same across all the studies.  This issue raises problems relating to the quality of the imagery scripts.  Thus, one might raise the question as to whether one form of an imagery script is more capable of enhancing athletic performance than another.  Recently the implementation of functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) has shown a concrete relation between mental imagery and physical athletic performance.  fMRI, which allows for neuroimaging, has shown that some of the same motor pathways are used during imagery that are used during actual physical performance (5).  Although this data demonstrates a correlation between imagery and physical performance, it fails to provide an answer to the initial question as to whether the use of mental imagery benefits athletic performance. 
      If an athlete was inquiring as to whether he or she should use mental imagery to enhance their athletic performance, referring to empirical evidence would fail to provide an answer.  Case studies produce conflicting results and are problematic in nature.   The multiple potential mechanisms of action also contribute to the ambiguity of the answer.  However, if an athlete like Roger Federer swears by its positive results, it could never hurt to try it out…

Works Cited

1.) “The Secret that Turned Roger Federer’s Game Around”

2.) Budney, Alan J., Shane M. Murphy, and Robert L. Woolfolk. "Imagery and Motor Performance: What Do We Really Know?" Imagery in Sports and Physical Performance. Ed. Anees A. Sheikh and Errol R. Korn. Amityville: Baywood, 1994. 103.
Google Books:,M1

3.)”Introduction to Imagery in Physical Performance

4.) Budney, Alan J., Shane M. Murphy, and Robert L. Woolfolk. "Imagery and Motor Performance: What Do We Really Know?" Imagery in Sports and Physical Performance. Ed. Anees A. Sheikh and Errol R. Korn. Amityville: Baywood, 1994. 98-100.
Google Books:,M1

5.) Morris, Tony, Michael Spittle, and Anthony P. Watt. Imagery in Sport. Library of Congress, 2005. 
Google Books:

Other Sources Used

6.) “The Essence of Imagery in Tennis”

7.) “Effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioral Treatment Packages for Cross-Country Ski Racers”

8.) “Imagery in Sport: How Imagination can Enhance Performance”


Paul Grobstein's picture

athletics and mental imagery

My guess is that there is more to Roger Federer (Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan) than the use of mental imagery. And that, of course, further complicates the problem of empirical analysis. One may expect different degrees of enhancement, and achievement of different outcomes, in different people. As well as, as you say, different techniques and so forth. On the flip side, there is increasing reason from the motor control literature to suspect one may indeed "tune" motor circuits by thinking (cf The representing brain: neural correlates of motor imagery).

See also Staying in the Zone, and my comment there.

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