Imagination is a wondrous thing. At this time of year we are especially tuned into that wonder. Picture the little boy excitedly waiting for Santa to call—pre-arranged by a local service club—at 5 p.m. “Is it now? Is it now?” Every moment is an eternity.

Imagery, which is—after all—one aspect of imagination, is also one of the fundamental mental skills for optimal performance. (And if you pictured that little boy…well, that was imagery!)

Here are three new imagery stories. (I shared a story about handling pain through imagery a few months ago.) As always, when describing real people I’ve worked with, I’ve disguised some elements to protect clients’ privacy—but the stories are real.

Story One: The Potato and…the Cucumber?!

As often happens, a tennis player—I’ll call him George—had come to see me because of tension he experienced before a match.

What does it feel like in your body, I ask him?

“It’s a sensation of tightness—or clenching—in my chest.” (And yes, he’d reviewed this sensation with his physician, and no, there were no heart-related concerns.)

“Tell me more.” (It’s a classic psychotherapy ploy…but it’s actually very useful—helps the listener not make assumptions.)

“It’s a sense of heaviness, like a sack of potatoes.”

My goal now is to help him figure out how to lighten this burden. I can imagine picking up the sack, or removing potatoes one at a time, or…but instead I inquire:

“What would you like to feel like?”

“Cool as a cucumber.”

I am, frankly, enchanted. Didn’t see that one coming. And I know that I can’t solve this one—that it’s up to George. I ask, further:

“What might the cucumber do with that sack of potatoes?”

George responds, immediately—it’s obvious to him:

“Sweep it away.”

There’s no doubt that George will be able to find a way to move that “sack of potatoes.” Whether it’s by means of an imaginary serve or a backhand, it will mean that in real life, he’ll be able to swing his racquet more freely. The emotional heaviness will have lifted.

Story Two: The Uniqueness of Our Imagination

This one is not “mine,” but comes from colleague Dr. Shane Murphy, the first sport psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Training Center, now a professor at Western Connecticut State University. Shane is as passionate about how essential imagery is to athletes’ (and other performers’) mental skills as I am about the central element of breathing for tension management.

In The Sport Psych Handbook, he writes of an early experience he had when working with figure skaters. One young man was especially talented. He “used a specific imagery routine to help him prepare for competitive performances. As he waited to step onto the ice for the start of his program, he would close his eyes and imagine a glowing ball of energy floating in front of him. He then took a deep breath and imagined the ball of energy moving inside his body, where it radiated a feeling of calm and energy.”

Shane was new to the field, impressed with how well this image worked for this skater, and so he used this image in his session with a group of skaters he was working with. He suggested they practice using the image to energize their own skating.

The responses he received were eye-opening:

Asking what the imagery experience had been like, he heard from one skater: “[I saw] a tremendously bright ball of energy in front of me, so bright that it blinded me. I couldn’t see, and when I tried to skate out onto the ice I crashed into the wall of the rink.”

Well, it didn’t get better from there. They were all able to picture that glowing ball of energy—but it wasn’t at all helpful. One skater saw the glowing ball sucked into her stomach and exploding. For another, the ball turned into a helium-filled balloon. And so on.

As Murphy concluded: “Every athlete has a personal history, experiences, fears, and beliefs that color his or her interpretation of the imagery so that no two of them will have the same experience.”

Story Three: The Fireworks and the Lake

I’ve been working with Gina, a flutist, for a while, regarding performance anxiety. She comes to a session with a dilemma: She’s in the midst of a set of performances of a dramatic symphony. Instead of the kind of grand flourish at the end, where the audience will spontaneously jump to their feet—like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony—this music is tremendously exciting in the middle—and then abruptly shifts to a very quiet, contemplative section.

Gina has been working so hard at managing her anxiety that she found her heartbeat still racing in the more meditative moment, no matter how much she focused on breathing to calm herself down. And she’s worried about how she’ll handle the next performance—this evening.

Again, my thoughts go to the question of ways one can change images: in this case, how to experience one level of arousal and then shift it to another.

The bombastic image is easy: fireworks.

But what does the next section feel like?

The effortlessness of swimming in a lake, just gently pushing the water out of the way, moving forward.

And then the next, important question: How can Gina make the transition from the fireworks into the lake?

She pauses, imagining:

“Well, it’s like July 4th: I can see the fireworks across the lake...and then have easy access to pristine sand, a dark night, and slip easily into the water.”

I don’t always have the luxury of finding out how a particular technique has worked, but I meet with Gina a week later. She is beaming:

“I not only saw the fireworks, I was the fireworks. It was exciting and exhilarating. Yet I knew that swim was coming up. I used the energy while the fireworks were still happening to plunge into the lake and douse the embers. The languid swim just happened.

“I don’t know that I played any differently, as far as other people were concerned. I received compliments both nights. But the images let me enjoy playing.”

Imagery has many components and many uses. (Murphy’s chapter in The Sport Psych Handbook is a great primer on this.) With these stories, I hope to have given you a taste of the individuality of our images and to help us all celebrate the ways we can make use of this wonderful innate human skill.

If you would like to contact me, whether regarding psychological skills techniques or some other aspect of performance psychology, feel free to send me a note through my website, http://www.theperformingedge.com

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