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.

In most psychological matters, the likely feature to be listed as an "additional consideration" is individual differences--and imagery associated with mental practice is no exception. It seems obvious that if any rehearsal tactic relies upon imagery, then the more vivid, complete, and multifaceted the images, the better for influencing physical performance. As might be expected, there are tools for assessing imagery and imagery control (e.g., Hall & Pongrac, 1983; Hall, Pongrac, & Buckholz, 1985) and programs for improvement (Rushall, 1991; Vealey, 1986).

An example of a confused and contradictorily researched area that is often promoted as part of mental practice routines is relaxation. Relaxation is often stipulated as a prerequisite for mental training regimens (e.g., Suinn, 1984). This practice does make sense if the goal is imagery control for the purpose of mental rehearsal of a developing skill, that is, skill acquisition. It could facilitate attention to the details of an intended performance alteration or adjustment. It could also be a reasonable prerequisite when the goal is to achieve better management and control of qualities of attention. However, performance preparation is an entirely different matter because it would rarely make sense to strive for a relaxed state. Usually, relaxed states are incompatible with optimal levels of arousal and do not replicate the energizing conditions of an intended performance. Imagery without the accompanying level of physiological arousal will not result in the best mental practice for performance preparation. Relaxation has been shown to be unnecessary for cognitive behavior modification (Kearney, 1976). There may or may not be a role for relaxation in mental practice procedures associated with physical activity. If there is, it is likely to be for specific uses in particular circumstances.

The present commentary might appear to suggest that there is a sequence for use of mental practice tactics, that is, complete task mastery, aided by mental practice, followed by learning of performance-preparation tactics. However, in a real application it would be highly unlikely for one to completely precede the other. Rather, the individual learner probably would go back and forth, cycling between the two activities. An individual who is mastering some skill might engage in an intermediary performance or competition; then further refine the skills, engage in additional performances, etc.; thus applying imagery-based tactics both for skill learning and for performance preparation in overlapping and repeating alternation.

There is an additional set of considerations concerning performance preparation, but which is more broad than preparatory focus and physiological arousal level for optimal execution. While there are various forms of cognitive and cognitive-behavioral applications, perhaps the clearest representative of the current concern is coping tactics (see Heyman, 1984; Weinberg, 1984). The procedure is essentially an extension of desensitization. Ideally, the individual imagines a performance situation and some "unforeseeable" distraction or other occurrence that could disrupt performance, then imagines coping successfully with the problem and producing a high-quality performance. Presumably, such training could be extended to deal with far more than competitive-performance anxiety or management of pain associated with endurance events (Meichenbaum, 1977). One should be able to view pictures of an unfamiliar performance setting and then, through imagery, imagine successful performances. That process could prevent performance decrements that would be associated with a first performance in a novel situation. A member of a visiting team could imagine hecklers and the sound of a hostile crowd, and thus rehearse effective coping. Generally, one could list all the possible things that could go awry in a competition and deal with each of them through imagery. Such practice would not only serve as a general form of performance preparation but would also build confidence (Aderman, Bryant, & Domelsmith, 1978) and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977).

Contemplations about the factors associated with the use of mental practice in physical activity pursuits could continue at great length. Understanding the dynamics of mental imagery involved in physical learning and performance preparation is far from complete. It is reasonable to ask what elements and procedures are appropriate for each stage of learning? Are there differences in imagery forms for types of activity, for example, for a fine motor skill such as playing a piano, or a gross motor activity such as pushing a bobsled? How are those different from what occurs in performance preparation? Are there different forms and requirements for effective mental practice at different times before a contest? Does the competitive task itself delineate a sub-set of mental activities as being appropriate? The questions abound. Within the broad categories of learning and preparation, it is contended that the processes, procedures, and elements are sufficiently different to warrant distinctive descriptions.


  1. Aderman, D., Bryant, F. B., & Domelsmith, D. E. (1978). Prediction as a means of inducing tolerance. Journal of Research in Personality, 12, 172-178.
  2. Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.
  3. Hall, C. R., & Pongrac, J. (1983). Movement imagery questionnaire. London, Canada: Faculty of Physical Education, University of Western Ontario.
  4. Hall, C. R., Pongrac, J., & Buckholz, E. (1985). The measurement of imagery ability. Human Movement Science, 4, 107-118.
  5. Heyman, S. R. (1984). Cognitive interventions: Theories, applications, and cautions. In W. F. Straub & J. M. Williams (Eds.), Cognitive sport psychology (pp. 289-303). Lansing, NY: Sport Science Associates.
  6. Kearney, A. J., Jr. (1976). A comparison of systematic desensitization and covert positive reinforcement in the treatment of fear of laboratory rats. Dissertation Abstracts International, 37, 809A.
  7. Meichenbaum, D. (1977). Cognitive behavior modification: An integrative approach. New York, NY: Plenum.
  8. Rushall, B. S. (1991). Imagery training in sports. Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.
  9. Suinn, R. M. (1984). Visual motor behavioral rehearsal: The basic technique. Scandinavian Journal of Behavior Therapy, 13, 131-142.
  10. 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.
  11. Weinberg, R. S. (1984). Mental preparation strategies. In J. M. Silva III & R. S. Weinberg (Eds.), Psychological foundations of sport (pp. 145-156). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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