How to unlock the power of mental imagery to lift performance and aid recovery

The mind and senses can recall and create physical sensations and improve athletic prowess, correct movement and heal injuries faster

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2016, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 11:25am

Try this: lift your arm up over your head as high as you can. Put your arm down, and now imagine a jar on the top shelf of a cupboard. Take it down and hand it to me, please.

Did you notice that you did two very different movements? Not only is the range of motion different in the arm, the quality of the movement is different.

In the first instance, the mind (nervous system) recruits the arm to lift to the range the mind believes the arm is capable of extending at the shoulder. In the second instance, the mental preparation is completely different; the goal is to lift the object off the shelf, so the mind brings the shelf within reach of shoulder girdle extension, with full body intention – slight rotation of the trunk recruiting the abdominals, back extensors – and preparation to receive the load as the object is picked up, thereby creating greater shoulder, elbow and wrist stabilisation.

Try it on someone who hasn’t read this article and observe the difference in movement, as well as the belief in performing the movement successfully. You will witness the difference between simple muscular conditioning and neural training through imagery.

Economy, longevity and effectiveness of movement are not possible without mental presence. Presence during movement happens effortlessly and naturally if one actually enjoys the movement – which often happens when the mind recalls a positive movement experience, and relates it to the “exercise” at hand. Through visualisation, the brain recalls and reconstructs pieces of information stored in memory into a meaningful image.

Another important characteristic of imagery is that it is multisensory, involving all five senses. Although the terms imagery and visualisation are sometimes used interchangeably, imagery is more than just visual recall. In fact, the more senses are invoked, the more powerful the image and neural recall. Of particular importance is kinesthetic recall (how a muscle feels as it moves), as well as touch (tactile), sound (auditory), smell (olfactory), and taste (gustatory).

For example, not only do athletes visualise the environment in which they train (pool, track, field, etc), they “feel” in their mind the sensations in their muscles as they perform certain moves. They may also feel their running shoes on their feet, smell the pool, the grip of a basketball in their hands. In some instances, emotions involved in a game or training may also be invoked, affecting the nervous system almost identically to the actual experience.

There are multiple theories dating back to the late 19th century on why imagery is so powerful. Most movement specialists believe however, in the psychoneuromuscular theory (based on ideomotor principal) of imagery, which states that a vivid image will produce neuromuscular activity similar to that during the actual movement, but of a lesser magnitude.

That is, the images produced in the brain transmit impulses to the muscles for the execution of the imagined skill. These impulses may be so minor that they do not actually produce movement or the movement may be undetectable.

However, the slight muscle impulses provide kinesthetic feedback to the brain, which in turn strengthens the neural pathways between the muscles used in performing a physical skill and the brain. Evidence has shown that this neural training transfers to the actual practice setting of the real movement, thus improving movement quality.

Through internal imagery (often called kinesthetic imagery), athletes can recall previous experiences or create an image of an event that has not yet occurred. For example, a tennis player may recall what it feels like to serve immediately before serving.

Imagery can also be used to create new experiences by piecing several parts of our internal picture stored in our memory systems together in unique ways. For example, an Olympic athlete may have not have competed against a certain opponent. However, he can image how he would respond to that opponent’s moves or various scenarios that may develop during the course of the match.

Imagery may also be used for injury recovery or correction of faulty movement. Movement dysfunction is when one muscle works too hard or not hard enough. Dysfunction is biomechanical, neurological or both.

Neurological dysfunction is more difficult to correct, because the brain often doesn’t realise there is a faulty movement pattern. If we try to correct the faulty movement on just a muscular level by adding weight, endurance or increasing flexibility, the imbalance will only grow more pronounced.

Imagery as a corrective tool trains the mind to call up the desired situation in the body, even if the body isn’t there yet in practice.

One of the reasons imagery is such an effective healing tool is that pain is subjective and typically relates to the perceived outcome predicted after the injury. Imagery can: improve the quality of rehabilitative rest, visualise productive outcome of treatments, and help the injured party visualise healthy movement in the injured area by strengthening the neural connection to the area. Imagery can also be used as an effective pain management tool.

Finally, imagery is efficient. Close your eyes and visualise “your shoulders melting down your back like ice cream in the sun” as a strategy to relieve neck, shoulder and upper back tension. That one thought has the power to release many muscles at once, without having to concentrate specifically on each muscle in these parts of the body.

Under the correct guidance, the power of imagery can be used as a neural training tool to fast track sports performance, and serve as a powerful aid to recovery and reconditioning.