Mental Training: discovering the importance of sport

It is quite normal to see today, in the media, how athletes spend a great deal of time practicing before competing in their disciplines. Practicing sports is one of the best tools athletes have to acquire and improve their skills and techniques on the field.

But there is one area of these practices that does not usually receive much media attention, and yet it is widely used in several sports disciplines. I refer to the great influence that psychologists have on improving the performance of sportsmen and women. The science of psychology has been expanding exponentially into fields that years ago were totally alien to its influence. This is due to the fact that research and interventions that have been developed increasingly cover a wider range of behaviours and mental processes , including those executed in sports.

Thus, relatively recently a new area was born within sport and psychology, in which both converge to enrich each other for the understanding of behavior and the improvement of performance and quality of life of athletes: the Psychology of Sport.

This new batch of psychologists appears to obtain an understanding of the behaviours and mental processes that occur in sport and physical practice, as well as to develop techniques and interventions that help to increase the skill and abilities of athletes. Among these techniques developed by sports psychologists is, for example, mental training through the regulation of the imagination.

Mental Training Through Imagination

The Mental Training through Imagination is based on the principle that imagination is a basic process for the elaboration and management of information processed by the brain. Imagination is directly influenced by both sensations and emotions and is used to order, explore and examine thought. It facilitates, to the extent that it adapts to reality, an understanding of the demands of each situation. It serves, among other things, to recognize a situation quickly without great difficulty and without a great display of energy by forming coherent stories about reality. As the British neurologist Oliver Sacks says in his lecture at TED on hallucinations

We see with our eyes but we also see with our brain, and seeing with our brain is often called imagination.

The regulation of the imagination , both in Mental Training through Imagination and in any other field, assumes an important role for the development of all motor processes. One learns, through the imagination, about objects, people, environmental conditions and experiences. Each experience is made up of certain relationships that model our behavior in the face of their existence.

In short, the imagination influences, consciously or unconsciously, our action (this principle is based, for example, on therapies of exposure to phobias by means of computer simulations). This is due to the fact that every time we have an experience, it takes shape in our brain forming patterns of activation of neurons that correspond specifically to that experience. Each time we perform the action of imagining, we are reactivating those patterns of neurons and as these circuits are activated in a recurrent manner, they are strengthened in such a way that they manage to conform learning, automating movements, reactions and skills.

Applications of Mental Imagination Training

Cognitive development

Imagination can play an important role in cognitive development. This has been highlighted by a number of social scientists; the most notable of these in the 20th century is the work of Jean Piaget. Popular beliefs allow us to believe that children spend a greater amount of time imagining than adults, demonstrating its importance in development. However, we are not aware of any studies that have attempted to ‘quantify’ the amount of time spent on imagination among age groups.

Skill acquisition and improvement

Data in the literature indicate that the functioning and practice of the imagination of a specific motor skill can improve the functioning of that skill in ‘real life’. This has been proposed in athletes (as described in this article), surgeons and musicians.

Behavior Test

The behavioural test within the stages of the mind is perhaps one of the most important human qualities. Imagination provides a unique and safe platform for the testing of behaviour prior to its actual development , without the risk of negative consequences for the imaginer. The multiple alternative solutions to problems, considering the numerous potential results, can be tested and practiced safely within the field of the mind. It is widely used in the field of psychotherapy because of its positive effects on the acquisition of new behaviors.

Anxiety reduction

Imagination provides a scenario for safely carrying out the sequences of behavior that can help improve anxiety. For example, revenge for a wrongdoing is possible and easy within the realm of the imagination, with no apparent consequences. Many psychotherapeutic modalities use the process of imagination to treat anxiety, phobias, and other disorders.


George Bernard Shaw indicated “Imagination is the beginning of creation. Imagine what you desire, desire what you imagine, and in the end create what you desire. While the cognitive process involved in creativity is not clear, many creative individuals, like artists, explain that they imagine a creation before they create it in the ‘physical’ world. In fact, within the stage of our imagination, we are free to create with fewer limits than exist in the ‘real world’.

Mental Training through the regulation of imagination in sport

Research shows a great positive influence of imagination on sports performance . Both scientifically controlled studies and experimental reports on the use of imagination to improve performance provide positive results. (Robin S. Vealey, 1991).

Through the techniques of imagination it is intended that the athlete assimilates and internalizes the movement through a coded system, which represents it in a symbolic way and makes it more familiar and more automatic. It is so important that its correct application leads to an improvement in the process of retention and memorization of motor tasks. (Damián Lozano, 2004)

Psychoneuro-muscular theory (Weineck, J. 1998), holds that similar impulses occur in the brain and muscles when athletes imagine movements without putting them into practice. Scientific evidence maintains that living events in the imagination generates an innervation in our muscles similar to that produced by the actual physical execution of an event.

What is the process of applying the imagination technique as mental training? Kemmler (1973), stable three degrees in mental training:

  1. Verbalization of the whole movement . This responds to mentally repeating the sequence of the movement and narrating it verbally, in such a way that the movement (which is usually very automated) begins to take on a more conscious dimension of the way it is executed.
  2. Viewing a demonstration-model . It is another way of being able to make the sequences of movements conscious, to this extent one can externally visualize how such a sequence develops. It has much to do with the activation of the mirror neurons involved in observing the behaviour of others.
  3. Execution of the movement by representation of the gestural development , taking into account the kinesthetic sensations that accompany the movement, as well as the specific technical difficulties of the structure of the movement. At this level, the kinesthetic sensations that occur in the movement are made aware of, that is, what it feels like to move such a muscle group. In this way, corrections can be made to facilitate the improvement of movement and sports skills.

Practical applications of Mind Training through Imagination

In this way, thanks to Mental Training through Imagination, different applications can be developed in the sports field, among which we can highlight:

  • Accelerate and activate motor learning processes, especially technical skills and abilities.
  • As a rehabilitative and integrative technique in competition, after a period of inactivity, whether due to injury or other factors.
  • As a complementary reparative technique in situations where the physical or psychic load is very high, or the volume is very prolonged and monotonous.
  • As a technique that helps to reduce the stress produced by competition itself, it manifests itself through the appearance of traumatic experiences in the form of failures.
  • As an element that helps the transition in the training phase after the competition.

So you know, next time you need to train for your sport don’t hesitate to use Mental Training through Imagination, a resource developed and implemented by sports psychologists. The results obtained are of great magnitude and do not require great effort or energy to be applied.

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychological Association (APA). Division 47, “Exercise and sport psychology”
  • Drubach a,b, E.E. Benarroch a , F.J. Mateen. (2007). Imagination: definition, utility and neurobiology. Journal of Neurology .
  • Gil Rodriguez Cristina. (2003, May). The psychology of sport: implementation and current state in Spain. Magazine Encuentros Multidisciplinares .
  • Kemmeler, R. (1973). Psychologisches Wett-Kampftraining. Blv Leistungssport , Muchen-Bern-Wien.
  • Ossorio Lozano, Damián. (2004, June). Mental training: the regulation of the imagination. Digital Magazine .
  • Sacks Oliver. (2009), TED Conference: “What do hallucinations reveal about our minds?
  • RS. (1991) “Conceptualisation of sport confidence and Competitive orientation: preliminary investigations and instrument development”. Journal of sports psychology .
  • Weineck, J. (1998) Optimal training . European Hispanic.
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