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Mental Imaging

This is an excerpt from Tennisology by Thomas Rowland.

Why waste money on Wimbledon tickets when you can imagine a perfect serve? We humans are capable of manufacturing moving pictures in our brains, so why not let motor neurons observe the mind's own visual images to improve your service technique?

Mental imaging is the technique of repeatedly projecting in one's imagination the act of tennis play. Mental imaging has been around for a long time - not just in sport but also in such diverse realms as education, medicine, and music - and many people are convinced that it works. Hundreds of research studies have been performed in an attempt to verify this conclusion (but, unfortunately, most of these studies are considered to be of low scientific quality). There even exists an electronic journal - Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity - that is devoted to the subject. Sport psychologist Robert Weinberg at Miami University wrote an article titled "Does Imagery Work?" After reviewing all studies examining the efficacy of mental imagery, he concluded that "the weight of all this evidence most certainly would point to the fact that imagery can positively influence performance."20

In mental-imaging studies, participants are typically randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions: imagery with a positive outcome (e.g., a service ace), imagery with a negative outcome (e.g., a double fault), and control (nonimaging). Most investigations of this type indicate that mental rehearsal of a positive outcome improves performance, whereas negative imaging leads to deterioration. Just how or why mental imaging works remains a mystery. It's possibly all a matter of stimulating motivation. However, fMRI does reveal that objective changes in particular brain centers can be observed when an individual performs mental imaging. This suggests that any positive effects of mental imaging are more than psychological. Evidence also suggests that, in addition to directly improving performance, mental imaging might enhance mental skills that influence performance. For example, it might increase self-confidence, suppress competitive anxiety, and improve motivation.

However, because this body of research certainly has its limitations, the final answer regarding the efficacy of mental imaging isn't in. Some studies have assessed the effects of mental imaging when used just before an athletic competition rather than as a training tool. In such studies, the specific effectiveness of mental imaging is often difficult to isolate because it was used along with other mental skills, such as relaxation. It is difficult to verify whether the research participants actually used valid imaging techniques, and very few studies have been conducted in real competitive situations.

Also, not all research information on mental imaging in tennis is consistent. For example, Ricardo Weigert Coelho and colleagues at the Research Center for Exercise and Sport Science at the Federal University of Paraná in Brazil demonstrated that a combination of observation and mental imagery improved serve accuracy in national-level 16- to 18-year-old tennis players but that this intervention had no effect on skill in the serve return.4 The authors felt that this finding was consistent with the idea that the athlete can precisely visualize the serve in his mind because it is a predictable motion that the server controls. The serve return, on the other hand, is unpredictable and thus cannot be so easily imagined visually.

However, Nicolas Robin and colleagues in the Laboratoire Performance, Motricite et Cognition in Poitiers, France, showed that 15 sessions of imagery training improved the accuracy of serve returns in experienced French players.14 This study also examined the extent to which a player has the ability to create mental images. They found that good imagers (as determined by a questionnaire) had better results than poor imagers, although the latter still showed more improvement than nonimaging participants.

The general consensus is that these investigations support the idea that repeated mental imaging of a motor task or complex sport skill can improve performance of that task or skill, at least to some extent. However, these studies suggest that mental imaging is not as effective as physical training, so one still has to put in the hours of organized practice. But, for many people, mental imaging appears to help.

The following tips and guidelines might help optimize your ability to gain skill via mental visualization training.

  • Create an image of tennis play as viewed from the stands or put yourself right into the action on the court. While you yourself might be the player you are portraying in this brain video, it is probably best to use your favorite professional tennis player, who is likely a superior model.
  • Don't just close your eyes and watch your mind's imagery - get right in there and make it real. Sense the kinesthetic motion of your muscles as they move. Feel the heat and sweat. Hear the crowd roar and the racket striking the ball.
  • Perform mental imaging in a peaceful environment for at least 15 minutes 2 or 3 times a week.
  • Studies indicate that mental imagining can be effective in youths as well as the elderly.
  • Watch it as the action occurs. Researchers initially believed that imagining in slow motion was better because it allowed more time to focus on different parts of the physical act. Now, however, most sport psychologists feel that you should imagine in real time because you want your brain to learn the motion as you're going to use it - at full speed.
  • Try it with some soothing Debussy or Tchaikovsky. At least one study suggests that background music may make mental imaging more successful.

Learn more about Tennisology.

More Excerpts From Tennisology