The role of the imagination as a conscious component in the preparation program of elite athletes is well documented. Numerous athletes including the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Ingmar Stenmark and Dwight Stones have declared imagery an integral element in their repertoire of skills. Studies done on Canadian Olympic athletes following the l984 Los Angeles games showed that imagery use was a key factor separating those who were successful (personal bests) from those who were not. The highly successful athletes did 2 1/2 to 3 times more imagery (actual time) than the unsuccessful athletes.
An early study done at the University of Chicago also illustrates the effectiveness of imagery. Based on a free throw shooting test, basketball players of comparable skill were divided into three equal teams. Team 1 served as a control group; Team 2 was given 30 minutes of instruction and practice daily for 3 weeks, while Team 3 imaged free throw shooting in a relaxed state for 20 minutes daily for 3 weeks. Team 2's free throw shooting improved 24 percent, while Team 3, the imagery group, improved 23 percent. The control group did not improve.
As Emile CouŽ observed decades ago, will power devoid of imagination leads nowhere: "When will power and the imagination are in conflict, are antagonistic, it is always without exception the imagination that wins. When the imagination and will power are harmoniously pulling in the same direction, irresistible force is the result."
The term imagery conveys a broad set of possibilities. I like the word imagery as opposed to visualization. The latter implies you have to see pictures. I have worked with many elite athletes and one world champion who did not have clear pictures in their imagery. But they could use several of their other senses - - feeling, hearing, smelling - - very effectively. Imagery, then, involves using as many senses as possible to generate an image of a situation.
Although I encourage all performers to personalize their imagery, I believe there
is a need for some clear guidelines. There must be clarity of purpose in how one
uses imagery. Imagery can be used in setting longer term personal direction, in
short-term moment-to-moment mental rehearsal, as well as for problem solving.