Item extracted from Rushall, B. S., & Lippman, L. G. (1997). The role of imagery in physical performance. International Journal for Sport Psychology, 29, 57-72.

A major use of mental practice is for performance preparation. It is possible that preparations may take a number of forms, for example:

  1. Executing a performance and including a new element of skill or strategy (e.g., playing to a usual high standard and trying a new defensive alignment).
  2. Achieving a level of arousal or excitedness (e.g., psyching up for a championship game).
  3. Attending to all practiced details so that perfect replication is possible (e.g., having a perfect score in rifle shooting as a goal).

Adapting established skills to special circumstances (e.g., an elite skier memorizing and mentally running a newly-set slalom course; an expert musician memorizing and mentally rehearsing a new composition or a different interpretation of a known composition), seems to be one major function served by mental practice. In such cases, the focus probably would be on some form of mastery of a task and would usually be aided by self-generated feedback and supplemented by covert reinforcement. It involves some learning of organizational changes and moderations in intensity of skill elements. In sport competitions that often is done without practice. Many contests require adaptations to the idiosyncrasies of a specific competition as well as preparing to compete in the best manner possible (a mix of learning and participation).

Some other uses could be purely organizational, such as positional playing in football or sequencing stunts in figure skating. Others could be motivational. A player trying to make an Olympic team may use the imagined consequences as a goal-focusing technique. Another may be purely activational as is the case with power lifters who go through almost theatrical activities to generate the highest level of excitation possible prior to a competitive lift. In other events attention and mental rehearsal may be directed toward achieving an optimum level of arousal for a particular competitive task. Neuromuscular facilitation is very important for events such as high jumping. It is not unusual to "see" world-class jumpers mentally "practicing" their jumps prior to initiation of each attempt. The minor head, arm, and leg movements are in concert with intended rhythms and sequences of activities. These examples, and their combinations, are usually a relatively brief transient process aimed at a specific performance, whereas the use of mental practice for skill learning has the goal of bringing about a relatively permanent behavior change acquired gradually over prolonged time. The temporal factor is one feature that differentiates performance-preparation imagery from skill-learning imagery.

Ordinarily, performance preparation procedures are applied to tasks that are fully automated. With such tasks it is not only unnecessary to attend to performance components, such as portions of a golf swing or elbow position when shooting a basketball, but it could be ill-advised and highly destructive to performance to allow such attention to take place. During learning, attentional resources are needed for creating a mental performance template and for modifying and correcting features of performance. Highly developed skills, once achieved, leave attentional resources available for other uses (Norman & Shallice, 1986). If pre-performance attention is on specific features of cognitive control during non-fatigued execution, physical performance will be disrupted. Thus, one of the purposes for performance preparation tactics can be to practice imagery in order to prevent cognitive/verbal attention to singular components of the physical act. One means for achieving this could be to focus upon some overall interpretation of performance or to attend to effort expended.

Thus, the goals of a performance largely will be responsible for the type of mental practice that will be executed. It is possible that specific types or elements of precompetition preparations will be emphasized while others are excluded. The bounds of performance preparation imagery have yet to be fully determined.

There are a number of additional sources that discuss mental practice tactics for athletes (e.g., Harris & Harris, 1984; Orlick, 1986; Porter & Foster, 1986; Vealey, 1986), but the reader is cautioned to take care to recognize the separate functions and processes of mental practice for skill acquisition and for performance preparation. It is also of interest that more educated and elite performers tend to report use of mental practice or "visualization" (Ungerleider & Golding, 1992; Ungerleider, Golding, Porter, & Foster, 1989). Nideffer (1985) recommended that use of various mental practice aspects needs to be adjusted, depending upon the circumstances for which the mental practice is to serve. That requirement has largely gone unheeded. Evidence (Ungerleider & Golding, 1992) indicates that performance preparation tactics can be more suitable for some skills than for others. For example, performance preparation and effective mental activity during an endurance event, such as a marathon canoe or running race, would differ extensively from activities applied to a briefer and more directed activity, such as a jumping or throwing event.

A major difference between imagery for learning skills and performance preparation involves arousal. Although arousal is usually treated as an energizing factor, Thayer (1978) proposed that it has two dimensions: the degree of focus of intent (a tension-placidity dimension) and the usual energizing attribute (an energy-sleep dimension). To be effective for skill learning, imagery requires focus; energizing arousal could be used to power the effort of focusing but above a certain level could be expected to interfere. More recently, it has been suggested that both dimensions of arousal should be employed in order to optimize the effectiveness of performance preparation (Rushall, 1992, Rushall & Potgieter, 1987). Athletes and other performers should intensify their attentional focus, thus harnessing tension needed to control energizing arousal and maintain positive self-efficacy, while also exciting their physiologies for maximum performance.

Paivio (1985) discussed functions of "imagery training" for activities and listed both a motivational and cognitive role, each of which can operate at a general or specific level. The motivation role pertains to imagery-driven physiological arousal and emotion that can "psych-up" athletes but, if in a general form, will not direct the energy effectively. If specific, then energy can be directed toward some goal, and the likelihood of achieving a particular performance outcome should be enhanced. The motivational value of mental practice depends on the ability to channel and direct the concomitant arousal and emotion. The motivational feature of imagery (see Rushall, 1979, 1986; Rushall & Potgieter, 1987) also includes mental representation of behavioral contingencies; the most obvious involving covert reinforcement (Cautela & Kearney, 1986). Imagery also can be used to maintain orientation to remote, rare, or long-term goals (Paivio, 1985). Positive imagery in performance preparation (Rushall, 1979) and positive thoughts during a performance have been shown to improve performance levels (Rushall & Shewchuk, 1989) and physiological functioning (Taylor, 1979).

As noted, the cognitive feature can be general (e.g., overall strategies for performance), specific (e.g., designated skill control), or varying degrees between those two extremes. The cognitive component virtually would have to remain general in tasks where symbolic components are limited or absent (e.g., power lifting) and thus, imagery's potential contribution to performance would be limited (Feltz & Landers, 1983). When skills involve considerable symbolic features (e.g., maze tasks), the imagery would have considerable likelihood of influencing performance. It would seem that language or the utility of verbal coding of a task would provide prediction of the value of imagery, but that matter seems not to have been explored directly. Similarly, it would be expected that highly symbolic activities, or even activities that have been overlearned, would allow for generation of vivid imagery that would permit recall of significant events, such as a crucial play or scoring attempt in a game. But evidence seems mostly anecdotal. A further question involves the nature of the physical task, for example, predictability (whether the skill is closed or open), whether there is a target and, if so, whether it is stationary or moving. It would seem that the ease of implementing imagery for performance enhancement would depend upon these factors, but most applications seem based on intuition and guesswork. However, the use of language during performance has been shown to be highly effective for producing performance enhancement (Rushall & Shewchuk, 1989). Its role in imagery has yet to be explored.

Imagery for performance preparation focuses on developing a transitory state. It involves producing:

More features than these are required to produce consistent beneficial effects (Rushall, 1991, 1992). The content of imagery is highly situation dependent, but the structure is consistent. Research is needed to explore main and interactional effects to produce one or more complete models for performance enhancement.


  1. Cautela, J. R., & Kearney, A. J. (1986). The covert conditioning handbook. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.
  2. Feltz, D. L., & Landers, D. M. (1983). The effects of mental practice on motor skill learning and performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sport Psychology, 5, 25-57.
  3. Harris, D., & Harris, B. (1984). The athlete's guide to sports psychology: Mental skills for physical people. Champaign, IL: Leisure Press.
  4. Nideffer, R. M. (1985). Athlete's guide to mental training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  5. Norman, D. A., & Shallice, T. (1986). Attention to action: Willed and automatic control of behavior. In R. J. Davidson, G. E. Schwartz, & D. Shapiro (Eds.), Consciousness and self-regulation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 4, pp. 3-18). New York, NY: Plenum Press.
  6. Orlick, T. (1986). Psyching for sport: Mental training for athletes. Champaign, IL: Leisure Press.
  7. Paivio, A. (1985). Cognitive and motivational functions of imagery in human performance. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Sciences, 10, 22S-28S.
  8. Porter, K., & Foster, J. (1986). The mental athlete. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown.
  9. Rushall, B. S. (1979). Psyching in sports. London, England: Pelham.
  10. Rushall, B. S. (1986). The psychology of successful cross-country ski racing. Ottawa, Canada: Cross Country Canada.
  11. Rushall, B. S. (1991). Imagery training in sports. Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.
  12. Rushall, B. S. (1992). Mental skills training for sports. Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.
  13. Rushall, B. S., & Potgieter, J. R. (1987). The psychology of successful competing in endurance events. Pretoria, South Africa: South African Association for Sport Sciences, Physical Education and Recreation.
  14. Rushall, B. S., & Shewchuk, M. L. (1989). Effects of thought content instructions on swimming performance. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 29, 329-335.
  15. Taylor, D. E. M. (1979). Human endurance: Mind or muscle? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 12, 179-184.
  16. Thayer, R. E. (1978). Toward a psychological theory of multidimensional activation (arousal). Motivation and Emotion, 2, 1-34.
  17. Ungerleider, S., & Golding, J. M. (1992). Beyond strength: Psychological profiles of Olympic athletes. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown.
  18. Ungerleider, S., Golding, J. M., Porter, K., & Foster, J. (1989). An exploratory examination of cognitive strategies used by Masters track and field athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 3, 245-253.
  19. Vealey, R. S. (1986). Imagery training for performance enhancement. In J. M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (pp. 209-234). Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield.

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