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Sport and Competition

Functional Imagery Training for Athletic Consistency

This cognitive framework has helped athletes go from good to world-class.

Key points

  • Functional imagery training combines motivational interviewing and imagery for peak performance.
  • Using a minimum of three senses enhances athletic execution.
  • Consistent debriefing refines performance strategies.

In the thrilling world of sports, where every sprint, jump, and victory dance is a heartbeat in the rhythm of competition, the pursuit of greatness demands more than just physical prowess. It demands an unyielding mental fortitude that transforms athletes, seemingly, into legends. Picture Simone Biles gracefully dominating the gymnastics floor while mentally choreographing the symphony of her routine, predicting every twist and turn before she defies gravity.

Now, imagine LeBron James not just slam-dunking with sheer athleticism but mentally rehearsing the perfect shot in the heat of the game. This isn't mere speculation; it's the power of imagery, and we're about to explore a groundbreaking approach: functional imagery training (FIT), a psychological game-changer that's rewriting the sport psychology and performance enhancement playbooks for athletes (doctors, even business executives) worldwide.

What Is Functional Imagery Training?

Discussed on The Sport Psych Show podcast, FIT isn't your run-of-the-mill mental training for athletes; it's a dynamic fusion of motivational interviewing (empathic communication) and imagery—a concoction of mental gymnastics that metamorphosizes dreams into tangible actions and victories. This isn't reserved for the elite; it's the vital ingredient for anyone aiming to defy their limits.

The University of Plymouth's researchers have developed the approach out of years of research. In one study, the research team turned self-proclaimed non-athletes into ultramarathon runners. In another, they enhanced soccer players' performance, and in another, they worked with the military to improve soldier success during arduous training. They’ve even been helping individuals with weight loss and exercise adherence.

The Components of FIT: Motivational Interviewing and Imagery Training

Now, let's examine the heart of FIT. Imagine this: You're seated with a psychologist or mental skills coach, not just talking about your athletic dreams but embarking on an empathic process of self-discovery. It's like plotting your athletic manifesto with a mental pen, engaging in deep conversation with someone genuinely curious about you and what fuels your fire. This is where imagery comes in, a tool that turns this conversation into a blockbuster movie in your mind, which is then converted into a tangible action plan.

It's not just about seeing; it's about feeling the adrenaline, hearing the roar of the crowd, and experiencing the triumphs and setbacks in a multi-sensory format—visual, auditory, taste, smell, touch, motion, emotion—all working together to plan for achievement. It's your mental GPS, navigating the twists and turns of your athletic journey in the most immersive way imaginable. Imagery is used in different ways. Initially, we employ it to delve into overarching goals, then we refine the plan, and ultimately, we zoom in on individual immediate tasks. These tasks might encompass seemingly minor details, such as a technical thought about footwork, which are meticulously played out in vivid detail to immerse ourselves in the experiential process.

Case Study: Three-Point Routine

Working with professional basketballers, the seamless application of imagery for technical (and tactical developments) yields nearly instantaneous results. To maintain a steadfast focus and consistent performance, we distill the power of imagery into a three-phase performance routine. Now, let's take FIT from the academic research papers and put it into action with a real-life example, a basketball player called Zak’s three-point routine.

Phase 1: Locating the Cue

Zak's ritual begins with a gentle bounce of the ball before he takes his shot, a seemingly mundane action that acts as his cue, marking the start of his mental performance routine. This cue, intentional and purposeful, serves to focus attention on the forthcoming task and kickstart the process of mental planning. Studies (e.g., Mendelsohn et al., 2014) have demonstrated that such cues not only prompt planning but also stimulate vivid imagery, enhancing overall performance.

Phase 2: Activating Imagery

During this phase, Zak engages in the activation of multisensory imagery. He meticulously envisions each detail: a fluid and relaxed movement, a deep breath as he prepares, the sensation of bending his knees, arm extension and releasing the ball, its graceful flight through the air, and the satisfying swooshing sound as it elegantly lands inside the net. While leveraging all seven senses could potentially enhance performance, research has identified a trio of essential components: movement, visual, and emotional imagery. This combination has been shown (Cregg et al., 2011; Rhodes et al., 2020) to boost performance outcomes consistently.

Phase 3: Perform and Debrief

Now, it's showtime. Zak begins his routine: a bounce of the ball, a focused breath, and a subtle bend of his knees, all in alignment with his imagery. At this stage, execution is about unwavering commitment to the plan. The culmination of his preparation unfolds seamlessly as he executes the shot exactly as envisioned. Whether Zak scores or misses, he conducts a quick debrief of the outcome—what have I learned?—returning to phase one to refine his approach. Thus, the cycle perpetuates, each iteration refining his performance further.

Applying FIT in Your Sport: Consistency Is Key

Zak's three-point routine is a testament to the power of FIT, and the beauty is that you can adopt a similar performance routine in any sport. It's about consistency—refining a series of thoughts and behaviors that develop a mental framework for thinking, especially when under pressure.

Navigating the application of FIT as you step into the spotlight of your sport requires a touch of refinement. To jumpstart your application, you can take on an imagery test. A swift exploration to uncover the secrets your mind harbors for optimal performance. Following this, carve out dedicated time to fully immerse yourself in multi-sensory imagery, seamlessly linking it with your pre-competition routine. While aiming for all seven senses is ideal, starting with three or four will suffice. Remember, this isn't merely a training technique; it's how you write the script of how you think and perform, refining your thoughts into your most reliable teammate on the field.


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