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What Is Mental Imagery and Mental Rehearsal?

Updated on November 1, 2012

Mental imagery & Mental rehearsal are used within sports to help improve an athlete’s overall skill level and to help their minds become more accustom to the skills they need to perform as best as possible to do well within the sport. Mental imagery and rehearsal are equally important and have major benefits and can have major flaws if used incorrectly.

Please note that this article is mainly based on sports psychology, although it can be used on anyone who is willing to learn the techniques.

Some theories have been put out that try to explain how mental imagery works, below are the theories with a brief example.

Symbolic Learning Theory

This theory suggests mental imagery functions as a coding system within the brain and the CNS, this helps the athlete perform the move more effectively because the body recognises the movement pattern.

Psychological Skills Hypothesis

This theory suggests mental imagery can be used to improve concentration, reduce anxiety and enhance confidence with an athlete. This is important for maximising an athlete’s performance and for them to achieve elite level.

Bio informational Theory

This Theory suggests an image is a functionally organised set of propositions stored by the brain, these are known as stimulus propositions and response propositions.


Senses are used by an athlete to gage the situation and are by the body to function. Below is an example of the use of senses by a baseball player.

Visual – Watch the ball as the pitcher releases.

Auditory – Hear the sound of the bat hitting the ball.

Tactile – How the bat feels in your hands.

Kin aesthetic – Know where the bat is, and to transfer your weight at the proper time to maximise power.

Olfactory – Smell freshly mowed grass.

Below are two uses of mental imagery within sports.

Controlling emotions

When performing at any level of sports emotions are and will always be one of if not the strongest motivators for a person but also deadly if used in the wrong way. Examples of this are someone who weightlifts needs to be psyched up and angry to lift a large amount of weight. It wouldn’t work if the athlete was calm. This shows that the using of the anger emotion positively improves athletic performance.

Opposite to the weightlifting someone who is performing technique after technique and following a game plan such as a boxer, letting frustration get a hold of you will lead to anger and potentially your mind, causing you to make mistakes and potentially lose the match because of poor emotion control.

Anxiety and stress are pretty much not good in any sporting situation. This is because when stress and anxiety is present the body releases cortisol and adrenaline which again is negative towards performance as it destroys the positive mind to body state which is needed for optimal performance. Someone who is nervous too will also have a negative performance due to tight muscles, poor CNS performance and negative thoughts.

Developing Confidence

Confidence is one of the most important traits an athlete can possess to do well in a performance. Someone who is unconfident will also have negative thoughts before, throughout and after the event leaving them underachieving and having a bad mind set to recover from the performance.

Confidence is hard to build up and so easy to lose which makes it a difficult thing to keep hold of once you have it. Many things can affect confidence depending on your level e.g. an elite level athlete has more pressure that may lose their confidence e.g. 1,000’s of people within a stadium watching you live waiting for you to either do well or make a mistake, this is intense pressure.

Below are two uses of metal rehearsal within sports.

Practice for Events

Mental rehearsal can be a big part of an athlete’s preparation for any event especially a big event. It is said that mental rehearsal of set scenarios can help improve overall performance because the brain and CNS are working at optimal level and know what they have to do.

Mental rehearsal is used to practice set skills such as a free kick in football, this will include things that may seem small like the noise of the crowd, smell of the grass this is also mental imagery but needs to be considered when practising for an event with mental rehearsal.

Replay Performance

Replaying a past performance could be make or break in the world of elite level athlete’s. It may mean the difference of winning and losing and is used to identify physical and mental flaws that they might possess or even bad habits. Mental rehearsal is the tool used by athlete’s to go over past performance’s to evaluate them and improve.

Mental rehearsal at this level can be very hard to do because it can be affected by things such as emotions and negative thoughts which may leave the athlete pondering on the past which they cannot change, instead of using those experiences to improve and be strong in the future. This is a technique that can be hard to master but once it can be used is one of the most powerful tools available.

Techniques Used To Control Arousal in Sport

Arousal is – ‘’ an energising function that is responsible for the harnessing of the body’s resources for intense and vigorous activity’’ (Sage, 1984)

Stress can have a positive outcome which is – the more aroused we are the more interested and excited we become to perform as best we can at the activity.

Arousal Reduction

There are several ways to reduce arousal levels, below are some examples.


What is it?

PMR is the use of tensing and relaxing specific muscles in order. Tension and relaxation are mutually exclusive meaning that you can’t have both at the same time. Relaxation of the body through muscle tension = decrease in the mental tension an athlete is subject to.

What are its uses?

Athletes experiencing the symptoms of somatic anxiety e.g. muscle tension and ‘’butterfly’’ sensations that the athlete can feel. This is also a great technique for athletes that don’t have good mental imagery skills as it is easier to carry out.

Breathing Control

What is it?

Breathing in and holding your breath increases he muscle tension within the body, which means breathing out decease he muscle tension within the body which is essential for providing oxygen for the muscles to work. There is a 1: 2 ratio of inhalation to exhalation which helps slow down the breathing and deepens relaxation.

What are its uses?

Breathing control is used to coordinate breathing with a performance of skill. Rhythmic breathing patterns are used to maximise the effectiveness of stretching and lifting movements e.g. a weightlifter about to lift heavy weight.


What is it?

Biofeedback is the awareness (signs & symptoms) of what happens o our body as we become more aroused and anxious from our autonomic nervous system e.g. heart rate, skin temperature etc. This method usually involves an electronic measuring device called electromyography which identifies tension which can then be controlled e.g. visualisation.

What are its uses?

This method identifies tension levels within an athlete. It is also useful pre competition to identify anxiety within an athlete while there is still time to change this. This method possesses the ability to improve performance (e.g. rifle shooting)

Mind to Muscle Techniques (Imagery)

What is it?

This technique incorporates imagery e.g. PMR and other procedures such as hypnosis and centering. Centering focuses on controlling an athlete’s CoG as a means of controlling he bodies tension.

What is its use?

Athletes who are experiencing cognitive anxiety as identified via CSAI – 2. (Competitive State Anxiety Inventory – 2) This is one of the most utilised tools when assessing competitive state anxiety. Doubts on this technique have risen about the factorial validity of both the Greek and English versions of the scale. There has been a revised version called (CSAI-2R) which has been suggested to be more balanced and applicable.


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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very cool. I guess athletes are just trained in this stuff from a young age. It never occurred to me to act differently. See it, be it, feel it, do it.

    • Kaili Bisson profile image

      Kaili Bisson 5 years ago from Canada

      This is really interesting stuff. Voted up!