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The importance of mind and body imagery in sports and beyond

Written by Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP
Member of ACSM

Imagery may be defined as using all the senses to re-create or create an experience in the mind. When constructing vivid, clear, and controllable images, an athlete’s brain interprets them as identical to the actual stimulus situation. In other words, for an Alpine skier, the same areas of the brain that are activated when he imagines skiing a downhill run are activated when he actually skis the course. This makes the practice of imagery so powerful.

If we develop the ability control the images that are viewed in our mind’s eye, it will, then, not only produce positive feelings but also structural changes in our brain.

From a nonathletic standpoint, research demonstrates the effects of imagery on breast cancer patients. In a 2008 study, cancer patients received a relaxation and guided imagery intervention. They showed significant improvements in several immune functions, including natural killer cell activity, than patients who received standard care alone. This suggests that imagery may have an effect on the cellular level.

Research from Carnegie Mellon University on dieting has shown evidence for the benefits of imaginary eating. When people imagined themselves eating candy or pieces of cheese, they became less likely to gorge themselves on the real thing. The phenomenon of sensitization (thinking of food makes us more eager to eat it) is eventually counterbalanced by habituation, in which sufficient mental imagery minimizes our physical cravings.

Findings amongst athletes demonstrate the power of imagery on sporting performance. It has been found within students having no prior experience playing basketball that groups who spent their time imaging shooting free throws yielded nearly identical improvement percentages (23%) as the group who spent their time physically practicing shooting free throws (24%).

In sporting rehabilitation literature studies suggest that for people recovering from ACL reconstruction, practicing mental imagery is associated with gains in strength, less reinjury anxiety and less pain.

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Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP Member of ACSM: Greg Chertok is currently a Sport Psychology Counselor and Fitness Trainer at the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Center. He received his B.A. in Psychology at Tufts University and M.Ed. in Counseling specializing in Sport & Exercise Psychology at Boston University in 2007.

Note: The views expressed in ACSM Olympics Hot Topics are those of the contributors only, and should not be construed as official statements of the American College of Sports Medicine. 

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