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Posted 05/10/2020 in Category 1

Mental Skills - Sports Imagery

Mental Skills - Sports Imagery

The beneficial use of imagery (mental rehearsal) in sport settings has been documented by a number of athletes, for example, Tiger Woods in golf (Vealey & Greenleaf, 1998) and Sylvie Bernier in diving (Butler, 1996). Imagery can be described as simply running an action over in our mind. It has been defined as “… quasi-sensory and quasi-perceptual experiences of which we are self-consciously aware and which exist for us in the absence of those stimulus conditions that are known to produce their genuine sensory or perceptual counterparts” (Richardson, 1969; pp. 2-3). In this article we look at the role of psychological imagery for sport performance. 

Functions of Imagery in Sport

Using Paivio’s original taxonomy of imagery function as a basis, Hall, Mack, Paivio and Hausenblas (1998) identified five functions of imagery in the development of the Sport Imagery Questionnaire, which has been incorporated by Martin, et al. (1999) in to their conceptual model of imagery use in sport settings. This approach really outlined the different imagery techniques in sport. The five functions of imagery include, motivational-specific, motivational general-mastery, motivational general-arousal, cognitive specific, and finally, cognitive general. A description of each imagery function is outlined below:

  • Motivational-Specific (MS) imagery represents specific goals and goal-oriented behaviours such as imagining receiving a gold medal at an Olympic Games. 
  • Motivational General-Mastery (MG-M) imagery refers to effective coping and mastery of challenging situations. For example, imagining feeling confident while climbing a difficult rock face or being focused prior to a crucial penalty kick in a rugby match. 
  • Motivational General-Arousal (MG-A) imagery focuses on feelings such as relaxation, stress, arousal and anxiety in conjunction with sport competition. For example, imagining feeling anxious as you take a crucial penalty kick in a soccer match, or feelings of excitement as you take the field for your first-ever international match in cricket. 
  • Cognitive Specific (CS) imagery refers to specific sport skills, such as, executing a perfect golf drive or a vault in gymnastics. 
  • Cognitive General (CG) imagery refers to competitive strategies. For example, a point guard imagining the execution of a full court press in basketball or a field hockey player imagining a particular short-corner play. 

Martin et al. (1999) proposed that the five types of imagery are functionally orthogonal. That is, while an athlete may choose to use only one type of imagery it is also possible for him or her to experience two or more types simultaneously. Martin et al’s. (1999) conceptual model outlined three outcomes of imagery use, including improving skilled performance, modifying cognitions and arousal and competitive anxiety regulation. 

Outcomes of Imagery use in Sport

The three outcomes of imagery use are illustrated below:

  • A tennis player uses imagery to improve her first serve performance. The imagery involves running over different serves in her mind (e.g., slice, top spin) and for this athlete has a particular focus on imagining the trajectory of the ball (e.g., where it lands) and the kinaesthetic feel of the correct moment.
  • A soccer player uses imagery to change her thoughts around facing an particular opponent. She imagines being confident in asking for the ball, strong when this opponent tries to tackle her and she imagines being able to go past this particular opponent. Imagining these successes means that the soccer player feels more confident about the upcoming game
  • A golfer gets very anxious prior to each competitive round. To counter this she imagines standing on the first tee and recognises the feelings of anxiety she typically experiences (e.g., butterflies in her stomach, racing heart) and then imagines relaxing, her heart-rate decreasing, her body relaxing and feeling physically loose and in the right physical and emotional state for golf performance. 

Using Imagery in Sport

There are a number of key elements to consider when using imagery. Imagery can be done from within your body (internal imagery - as you normally see the world) or from outside your body (external imagery - as if you were watching yourself on TV). The style an individual chooses depends on personal preference; however, imagery is not only about seeing events in the mind’s eye, it involves all of the senses to make re-creating the event as close to a real experience as possible. To illustrate, a golfer imagining a successful pitch would feel the correct movements, feel and hear the ball come off the club face, see the ball travel through the air, see it pitch on the green, and hear it hit the flag and drop into the hole. Ideally, as many of the senses should be used to make the imagery as realistic as possible but this will depend on an athlete's preference. Some people find it difficult to ‘see’ what is happening but are able to recreate the movement easily and vice versa. The ‘PETTLEP’ approach to imagery (Holmes & Collins, 2001) proposes a seven-point checklist that includes: physical, environmental, task, timing, learning, emotional, and perspective elements of imagery in order to enhance the efficacy of it use. The imagery can incorporate all, or some, of these elements depending on the aim of the imagery and the imagery ability of the athlete. 

When using imagery it is important to make sure the image occurs in ‘real time’ - the same speed it happens in real life. It is also important that that the imagery is positive – something the person wants to happen and not something to avoid. 

Finally, like all skills (mental and physical) the more imagery is practiced the better the skill is developed. Many psychologists suggest to practice a little and often. For example, spend 3 to 5 minutes a day imagining and become comfortable using imagery in a low stress situation, first. For example, in a quiet comfortable room before it is transferred to more stressful settings such as training sessions and then before competition.  Some athletes find it helpful to develop an imagery script to assist them while others somethings watch a video to help stimulate some of the experiences. 

We hope this overview of imagery has been helpful. There are plenty more helpful blogs, and videos, that can be found on our site so please explore to learn more about mental skills and sports performance. 


Butler, J. (1996). Sport Psychology in Action. Oxford. Butterworth Heineman.

Hall, C., Mack, D. E., Paivio, A., & Hausenblas, H. (1998). Imagery use by athletes: development of the Sport Imagery Questionnaire. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 23, 1-17.

Holmes, P. S., & Collins, D. J. (2001). The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: A functional equivalence model for sport psychologists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13, 60-83.

Martin, K. A., Moritz, S. E., & Hall, C. R. (1999). Imagery use in sport: A literature review and applied model. The Sport Psychologist, 13, 245-268.

Paivio, A. (1985). Cognitive and motivational functions of imagery in human performance. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Sciences, 10, 22-28.

Richardson, A. (1969). Mental imagery. New York: Springer.

Vealey, R. S., & Greenleaf, C. A. (1998). Seeing is believing: Understanding and Using Imagery in Sport. In J. M. Williams (Ed.), Applied Sport Psychology: Personal growth to peak performance, (237-269). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield (3rd Ed.).

Image by Justin from Pixabay