By Steven Ungerleider, published on July 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 11, 2014
Ask someone to describe what a typical training regimen might include for theOlympic track and field athlete, and the answer will almost always involve stopwatches, weights, early-morning runs, and fierce competition. It is less likely that mention will be made of armchair exercises wherein athletes are encouraged to sit quietly and simply visualize their competitive strategies.
The image of a Jackie Joyner-Kersee reclining in her easy chair with her eyes closed is not likely to be the first to pop into your head when imagining what her workouts are like. Yet, while the majority of an athlete's training time is devoted to physical conditioning, the use of mental training is on the rise.
As a former collegiate gymnast, I recall how strongly certain images affected my events, but I don't remember using any of the visualization strategies--the process of creating a picture in your mind of a successful outcome--that many athletes use today. Later, as a psychologist and member of the United States Olympic Committee, I wanted to explore the extent to which mental practice and imagery affected the lives and performance of elite-level athletes, and how the techniques were used.
SKOlympic athletes have been utilizing visualization strategies for some time. For example, Gold medalist (and creator of the famous "Fosbury Flop" technique of high jumping) Dick Fosbury describes the effect such practices had on his performance some 20 years age:
"I began to develop my new style during high school competition, when my body seemed to react to challenge of the bar. I became charged by the desire and will to achieve success. Then I developed a thought process in order to repeat a successful jump: I would'psyche' myself up; create a picture; 'feel' a succesful jump--the perfect jump; and develo a posititve attitudeto make the jump. My success cam from the visualization and imaging process."
WHAT IS MENTAL PRACTICE AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
Mental practice might be thought of as armchair rehearsal--repeating a certain task or event over and over in your mind until you've got it exactly right. It has the specific intent of learning--where to plant your feet, when to make the jump--only without any observable movement.
Imagery is a common type of mental practice, in which you take in as much information, from all of your senses, about the event in order to actually create an experience in your mind. (It's been suggested that some athletes mentally "take a picture" of their activity that they use as a model for future performance.) Think of a pole vaulter imagining himself running down the track, planting the pole, and hurtling himself up and over the bar. See it in your mind; do it on the field.
The process is akin to our home-video players. Your brain acts as its own unique VCR, scanning your memory for images, using all the sensory input to collect and shuttle them onto the screen of your imagination. Unlike a VCR, however, our internal equipment, when trained and used properly, will recall visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and an assortment of other input with ease. These images form a "mental blueprint" for the event, and later interact with new images in order to shape goals for improved athletic performance.
WHY DOES IT WORK?
How can a sensory experience that takes place entirely in our minds enhance our ability to perform? In the Journal of Sport Psychology, researchers Debra Feltz and Dan Landers examined three possible reasons why mental practice may work:
o Symbolic learning: Essentially, what we know from this theory is that imagery helps develop a mental blueprint by creating a motor program in our nervous system. Rehearsal of the sequence of movements involved in a task allows us to learn them symbolically; we then apply them when we go out on the field of competition.
o Psychoneuromuscular reaction: This theory states that mental practice is effective because it produces very small muscle contractions similar to those involved in physical practice. The process suggests that images produced in the mind transmit electrical impulses to our muscles and tendons for the performance of an athletic exercise or event.
o "Psyching up": An offshoot of the psychoneuromuscular theory, this states that the muscular activity associated with mental practice represents a level of overall arousal that may be optimal for athletic performance. In essence, mental practice sets up a certain amount of energy in the body that prepares us for our athletic endeavors.
DREAMING THE GOLD
Another area that I wanted to pursue was dream frequency, content, and influence on athletic performance. Do athletes have dreams of training, competing, and winning? And what was the relationship of such dreams to success?
Margaret Groos, an olympic marathoner, commented: "I had negative dreams during a negative phase in my training, and it obviously meant that I didn't have enough confidence."
Athletic dreams are common among elite competitors. This makes a lot of sense, since most state that training is a 24-hour-a-day job. When not physically training, athletes are preparing mentally, or worrying about their preparation. Athletes who report high levels of commitment to making the Olympic team dream more frequently of participation and competition in their event. Nearly all athletes appear to daydream, and, as one would expect, successful daydreams seem to help more than do failure ones.
Danny Everett, a 1988 Olympic medalist in two events, reported: "Before the finals of the 400 meters in Seoul, I didn't sleep well and I don't remember dreaming of a race or of a winning experience. I dreamt more of my preparation and training for the race. I seem to place more value on hard work and thorough training than just winning. Maybe that's why it shows up in my dreams as just preparing to race. For me, better preparation equals greater confidence."
Research among gymnasts suggests that there is a significant relationship between frequency of dreams and performance success. Some athletes report that they dream of missing the start of a race or getting lost on the course--creating a fear which leads them to avoid such mistakes. This suggests that if athletic dreams do function as a type of mental practice, they mainly act as a means of improving mental toughness.
From a psychological perspective, dreams may organize information relevant to skill development. As 1,500-meter Olympian Jeff Atkinson remarked: "My dreams don't really focus on winning; they are more feeling-oriented. I dream more in emotions than pictures. These feelings could be a big win or a big loss. Sometimes I wake with a feeling of tremendous success--and I have this really supreme feeling all over!"
"Athletes must understand that there's only so much work you can put in, so many hours in a day, so much gas in the tank," says Earl Bell, 1988 Olympic pole vaulter. "And the trick is to keep the quality at a high level, to train efficiently."
PHOTOS (COLOR): In 1987, Ungreleider and his associate, Jacquiline Golding, Ph.D., began a four-year study--using interviews and a 240-item questionaire given to more than 1,200 Olympic athletes returning home from Seoul in 1988--to try and answer some of the quaetions regarding psychological training for competitive sports. They reported their results in Beyond Strength (Brown & Benchmark; 1992), a guide for coahes and sports psychologists alike.
PHOTO (COLOR): A Man Participateing in the High Jump
PHOTO (COLOR): A Man Participateing in the Long Jump
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): A Man Throwing the Shortput
PHOTO (COLOR): Some Athletes have suggested that we hold two Olympics--one Drug-- Induced for offenders suchas KATRIN KRABBE (Below,left) and the other clean.
BY STEVEN UNGERLEIDER, PH.D.