Top Secret to Performance: Mental Imagery

The other day I had a conversation with a gifted athlete who shared his frustration about his recent struggles with hitting the ball. Did he suddenly forget the basic techniques of hitting or had he lost some of his muscle strength or had he simply lost the ability to remain mentally focused? What was different from the early games of the season where performance was at its peak and his current performance late in the season?

The science around what makes for top performers centers on two key elements: mental visualization and self-talk. With any peak performance, mentally visualizing the task and turning up the volume on our positive self-talk is critical.

Our self-talk or what I refer to as the “noise in our head’ is always active. Sometimes we are able to focus on inspirational and positive thoughts but more often than not we hit the default button of negative dialog. We replay negative thoughts of fear, doubt and insecurity that serve to undermine our confidence and fuels our anxiety which subsequently interferes with performance. These thoughts can often occur as a running dialog even without our conscious awareness. Learning to listen to our internal dialog and replacing the thoughts with realistic and positive messages is the first step to realizing our greatest potential. The power of our thoughts guides our emotions which in turn influences our behavior and our performance.

Michael Jordan once admitted in an interview that he took great pride in identifying the mental weaknesses of his opponents and then would actively attempt to “get into their heads.” His negative voice would often become the negative self-talk of his opponents serving to undermine their confidence and ability to perform. Top performers are able to create such a strong, positive internal self-dialog that can withstand the “mental bullying’ of an opponent and the negative chatter of a crowd.

Top performers also have a short attention span for failure. While it is critical that peak performers mentally see where an error occurred, the focus needs to be short lived with a refocusing of the effort onto imagining the corrective action. Many successful coaches have shared that while it is important to give concrete advice to athletes on observed errors this needs to be short lived and followed by film highlights or mental imagery of the team and individual players at their peak performance. This focus on the positive skills and strengths is most effective at pulling a player and a team out of a slump. The last image or word that a player hears or sees before hitting the field is the one that will often guide performance.

As a health psychologist, I have observed the power of the mind to heal the body through its influence on the immune system, to control pain and to override the negative effects of chemotherapy. Similarly, peak performances come from the mind’s ability to enhance physical talents and to override outside influences that undermine performance. Peak performers not only have physical or mental talents but know how to use the power of the mind to enhance those skills and thereby create a winning combination.

The key to a top performance is practicing in the mind or what is often referred to as mental visualization. Visualization is a vital component of managing performance anxiety and distractions that can cause an athlete to over think a play or lose focus. Research has demonstrated that the same pattern of electrical changes in the brain occur whether an athlete is actually performing a physical task or simply imagining it. The brain interprets both the visualization and the physical performance the same.

Consider that when a player actually performs an act like hitting or catching a ball, the brain sends signals from the primary motor cortex of the brain to the secondary cortex and then down the spinal cord to send signals to the muscles. When visualization is used, the same signal starts in the primary motor cortex then to the secondary motor cortex but instead of sending the signal to the muscles it transfers it the frontal lobe where a mental memory is created.

The power of mental imagery is that a player can create a vivid image that not only includes the mechanics of the task but also the emotions that go with it. That is, every player knows that there will be anxiety, nervousness and aggression during a performance, imagery gives them the power to feel it but to overcome and manage it. The more vivid and realistic the imagery is to the actual game day performance the more powerful the control.

The saying, “it is all in your head” is particularly true when we are taking about athletic performance. To compete or be at ones best requires the ability to quiet the conversational areas of the brain and “turn on” the mental images in the brain related to performance.

Become your own best performer by learning to harness the power of the mind.