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Sport and Competition

Can You Train Your Brain to Imagine Better?

Researching ways to train imagery in athletes with low imagery or aphantasia.

Key points

  • Functional imagery training enhances multisensory imagery in athletes who struggle to imagine.
  • Through targeted exercises, those with aphantasia can improve.
  • Imagery training enhances peak performance by providing mental clarity and precision on the field.

As a psychologist specializing in mental imagery, I've encountered countless individuals (including psychologists, athletes, and coaches) who believed their struggles with imagery were set in stone. Many athletes, for instance, perceived their weak imagery abilities (e.g., lack of ability to visualize, hear sounds, or even manage emotions) as an immovable barrier to peak performance. However, through a study conducted by myself and colleagues at the University of Plymouth, we've uncovered compelling evidence that challenges this notion—imagery skills, even in those with severe deficits, can be substantially improved through targeted training.

The Power of Mental Rehearsal

In the world of elite sports, the ability to vividly imagine successful performances has long been hailed as a game-changer (Simonsmeier et al., 2020). When engaging in mental rehearsal, athletes can gain a performance edge, reinforcing muscle memory and strategic decision-making before ever setting foot on the field. But for those grappling with conditions like aphantasia—a lack of visual imagination—this powerful tool has remained frustratingly out of reach. That's where our research began.

Joel's Journey: From Blank Slate to Vivid Imagery

Joel, a semi-professional soccer player, was among the 27 athletes identified as having low imagery abilities who participated in our functional imagery training (FIT) program. Over the years, Joel had come to recognize his inability to conjure mental images, leaving him—in his view—at a disadvantage when it came to imagining plays, anticipating his opponents' movements, or planning ways to rehearse technical aspects.

"It was like trying to watch a movie on a static-filled screen. I could hear my own voice but there's no picture," Joel recalled of his early struggles with imagery. Through our FIT approach combining motivational interviewing and targeted imagery exercises, Joel began training his imagination in ways that research would suggest (Johnson, 1982) is rewiring his brain.

Over the course of six weeks, Joel and his fellow participants engaged in a tailored training program, honing their observational imagery skills by studying game footage and predicting outcomes. They immersed themselves in multisensory simulations, engaging their kinesthetic sense through physical mimicry and refining their emotional imagery through relaxation and refocus techniques.

Progress was gradual, but as the weeks passed, something remarkable began to take shape. The once-murky tactics and technique unraveled with vivid clarity in Joel's mind's eye, his mind's ear, and his mind's heart. He could anticipate an opponent's movements, envision where a pass might land, and plan his actions with newfound precision.

"It was like someone had finally handed me the missing piece of the puzzle," Joel reflected. "My thinking became quicker, more fluid, and my performance on the field improved dramatically."

Challenging the Status-Quo

The results of our FIT study were what we hoped. Upon reassessment, the 27 participants, including Joel, exhibited significant enhancements in their multisensory imagery scores—a first-of-its-kind finding that challenges the notion that poor visualizers are forever limited by their abilities.

While not all participants experienced improvements in visual imagery, the study demonstrated that with targeted training, even individuals who initially reported experiencing aphantasia could enhance their imagery proficiency in other sensory modalities, such as imagining emotional regulation or movement, such as during skill execution.

Joel's improvement is an example of the vast potential of imagery training. Through perseverance and the guidance of dedicated professionals, even the most unimaginable obstacles can be overcome.

"Imagery has become an integral part of my life, both on and off the field," Joel shared. "It's helped me approach challenges with renewed clarity, purpose, and determination."

Unlocking Your Mind's Potential

Our research (Rhodes et al., 2024) has shed light on the malleability of the human mind, offering hope to those who have long struggled with poor imagery skills. When embracing targeted imagery training, individuals can unlock new pathways for mental rehearsal, strategic planning, and emotional regulation—tools that can enhance performance in various domains, from sports to personal growth.

While the journey may be challenging, the rewards of cultivating a more imaginative mindset are endless. As Joel's story illustrates, with dedication and guidance, the once-unimaginable can become vividly real, empowering you to approach life's challenges with renewed clarity, purpose, and determination.

Whether you're a world-class athlete vying for Olympic success or someone striving to unlock your mind's untapped potential, the barriers to a rich imaginative life are not insurmountable. The capacity to rewire your brain and cultivate vivid, purposeful imagery lies within each of us. Through perseverance and the right guidance, you can develop the full potential of mental imagery to lead you toward peak performance, emotional mastery, and a life brimming with creativity and clarity. The roadmap to this more imaginative existence is already inscribed within the malleable fabric of your mind.

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