NMSU branding

New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

Imagery research uncovers how athletes mentally prepare

A New Mexico State University faculty member's research has helped shed light on the way athletes use imagery to mentally prepare for competition.

Phillip Post, a New Mexico State University assistant professor of human performance, dance and recreation in the College of Education, researches how the mental skill imagery affects performance and how athletes use and employ imagery. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Phillip Post, assistant professor of human performance, dance and recreation in the College of Education, has researched the subject of imagery for six years. While his overall interest is looking at what great athletes do, he currently is exploring how imagery affects performance and how athletes use and employ imagery.

"Imagery is so interesting to me, because it is something that can be done with minimal resources, but yet has so many benefits," Post said.

Imagery can be described as a multisensory experience that mimics real-life experiences. It is the mental skill most frequently used by athletes, and the number of athletes and coaches who report using it is increasing.

This is because physical and mental practice is functionally the same in the brain. Rehearsing something repeatedly creates a pathway from the mind to the muscles, and the desired performance gets stored in long-term memory. When things become overwhelming, the athlete can simply recall their imagery and put that image into action.

"It's a mental skill best used in addition to an athlete's regular training. An athlete can not only mentally practice the technical aspects of their performance, but rehearse their desired emotional states and what they need to do to accomplish a task successfully," Post said.

While obtaining his doctorate at the University of Tennessee, Post worked with a high school in Kentucky to train the head coach of a girls' basketball team how to use imagery. The coach led the team through 10-minute imagery interventions before some of their games. During these interventions, team members imagined not only the technical aspects of a free throw, but also the emotional aspects they would feel during a game.

The frequency of missed free throw shots during the games was then examined. Post found there was a significant difference in terms of free throw percentage between the games where imagery was practiced before and those where it was not. When the imagery intervention was practiced before the game, shooting accuracy increased.

Post also has studied the experience of high-level athletes' imagery use. To do this, he interviewed 10 gymnasts from across the United States competing in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I. The study participants all had extensive experience with imagery and used it on a consistent basis.

He found the gymnasts used imagery to fix mistakes, perfect skills and get extra practice rehearsing their routines in preparation for their performances. When imaging, it was important for the gymnasts to "feel the skill," incorporating body sensations into their imagery practice.

Imagery also helped the gymnasts to prepare mentally by dealing with anxiety or fears associated with performance and building confidence. Post found that the gymnasts used imagery in various settings, but primarily right before a competition. Some also practiced the night before and others even used it during the middle of a routine.

Although Post's interest lies in investigating how athletes use imagery, he points out that imagery is a skill that can be used in a wide range of areas outside of sport, such as rehearsing for a test, dealing with stressful situations or assisting rehabilitation patients to re-learn motor skills.

And just like any other skill, imagery is one that needs to be practiced. It's much like lifting weights - hard to do at first, but gets easier the more it's done. When Post implements an imagery intervention, he first assesses the person's ability, and then tailors the intervention for that person's particular needs.

In the future, Post would like to examine imagery use and benefits in other sports. So far, most of his research has focused on discrete tasks such as a golf swing or basketball free throw, so he would like to look at how imagery affects continuous tasks like biking and swimming. To do this, he plans to conduct a study with a local swim club, the Las Cruces Aquatic Team.