The mind is a powerful tool that can help athletes prepare for competition and even perform better on race day.
Mental imagery, where an athlete can learn to visualize or see themselves accomplishing a goal, can be practiced anywhere, anytime. And yet, fitness junkies and endurance athletes often overlook this essential piece of training.
A 1988 study published in The Sport Psychologist is commonly referenced to explain why imagery is so important for athletes. The participants in the study were all Canadian Olympians competing in the 1984 Olympic Games in Sarajevo and Los Angeles.
Through interviews and questionnaires, the researchers examined the athletes' mental readiness for competition. They discovered 99 percent of these athletes used imagery and many practiced on a daily basis. The athletes also tended to rely more heavily on imagery exercises as they drew nearer to competition.
For male athletes, they found the quality of the imagery correlated with successful Olympic performance.
"With imagery you are recreating or creating an experience in your mind using all your senses," says Cindra Kamphoff, a certified sport psychology consultant at The Runner's Edge in Mankato, Minnesota. "To make imagery most powerful, I would encourage all athletes to try to use as many senses as possible, including sight, smell, sound, feel and the sensation as your body moves."
Kamphoff says mental imagery can play many important roles in an athlete's competitive life. The primary advantages occur before and during competition.
"It prepares you for what you want to get out of training," Kamphoff says. "It also increases your motivation and confidence in your ability, by seeing yourself accomplish your goals."
Through imagery, you imagine the athlete that you want to be. The more you're able to envision that, the more you embody that identity.
"Imagery definitely helps you to refocus during the race if needed," Kamphoff says.
This becomes especially important if something unexpected happens during the race. Rather than falling apart, imagery helps you prepare for anything and everything, allowing you to adapt to changing circumstances.
"It also can calm you if you are feeling anxious or excite you if you need to 'get up' for your race," Kamphoff says.