Mental Imagery in Sport

Personal Training with a Difference – A case study using ‘mental imagery’.

I had a fascinating discussion over Chicken Biryani with the recently crowned, under 23, 2018 Scottish Kick Boxing Champion, Scott McAlpine. I began by asking him the question, ‘what does Mental Fitness mean to you’? He said, ‘do you mean, how you prepare yourself for training or an event’? I said, ‘well, yes, let’s begin right there’.

This kicked off (intentional pun) a discussion about how Scott prepares for hard training sessions and events, using mental imagery. What transpired was a rare and valuable insight into the personal training mindset and motivation of an elite athlete. What he subsequently told me, people would pay thousands of pounds to learn. What’s more, he constructed this unique imagery approach within his own creative sporting mind-set.

Scott’s Story:

Scott and his family are close-knit, sport-focused, and dedicated. Scott’s dad, Kenny, used to pick him up from High school at lunch-time and they would head to the gym where he would blast out a 5k run, whizz home, grab a shower whilst dad made lunch, then arrive back at school before lessons began again. Quite a feat! Kenny told me, not only did Scott train hard, he started his running career at the back of the pack.

Kenny said,

 he was always at the back, and I wondered, ‘what is the right thing to do’? To support him to keep going, or to redirect him to something he would get better feed-back from.

Kenny had no answer to this question, but he kept supporting him. I believe this is the backbone of Scott’s philosophy and practice. So, all you parents out there who are diligently dedicated, keep chasing your champion – they might yet reach personal heights.

Scott on training –

When approaching a difficult training session, Scott uses a visual approach – he imagines the encouraging presence of his dad, his family, and others close to him, to support and motivate him to train harder. Scott also utilises the imagined presence of these people to engender a sense of accountability – knowing he is due to pay-back their support with effort. Afterwards, he imagines and feels the back slaps from his supporters and takes in the sense of accomplishment. Powerful stuff!

Visualization is a method characteristically aimed at building up an athlete’s confidence and self-belief to overcome performance anxiety. However, visualization is used in a different way here. Namely, manifesting energy that anchors a sense of community support within body phenomenology. Phenomenological approaches in sport psychology are useful in helping us break down what we do and analyse how we do it.

Talking to Scott, and Kenny, I understand the depth of their family connection, they show their care for each other at the table via mirrored phenomenology.

My thinking here is that Scott’s approach is not only technique based but involves a set of ‘secure attachments’. Attachments are important in any sphere of life and are often, but not always, predictors of success.

When studying human behaviour in any context, what I am most interested in is a person’s phenomenological self-awareness. I view self-awareness as the fundamental access point to training with insight, developing a greater well-being, and attaining sporting performance.

Deepak Chopra on self-awareness, says,

At its most basic, self-awareness is simply self-appreciating the self. To find an answer to a question we are all interested in – “How am I doing?“. It is much more beneficial to your health if you feel your way through life than think your way through life.

Let’s throw in a little bit of brain science to the mix now –

Cortisol is a brain chemical that gets a bad rep’ for corroding our insides and inspiring fear. But mostly if you don’t move your body – that’s for another blog-post so check back again on that one. However, just like John and Robert Kennedy, or Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, or the Kray twins, Cortisol has a brother and his name is Oxytocin.

Oxytocin is said to have a cohesive effect on our social psyche, by way of social buffering. Social buffering is a phenomenon where the presence or actions of a bond partner reduces or eliminates the stress response in another individual (Silk et al 2010). This is a feeling of being-with, or together.

In a 2017 study, by Catherine Crockford et al suggested that groups of animals facing a stressor together, such as a hostile out-group, showed anticipatory oxytocin release and coordinated in-group behaviour against the out-group. In other words, the animals felt good together, whilst fighting other groups, and this feel-good was activated by Oxytocin.

Who would have thought that fighting others together creates bonding – well as a Scotsman I know about this when we take on other sporting nations. We usually lose but we feel closer to each whilst we are on the journey.

Nearing the end of our micro journey in the restaurant, Scott and I agreed to meet up to discuss this further. My motivation is to pick Scott’s brain a little further to uncover his drives for utilising this strategy. Scott said an interesting thing – ‘at the least it will give me an opportunity to reflect on what I do’. To me, this is a mature approach beyond the years of a 23-year old athlete. I am possibly projecting myself onto Scott here as I was nowhere near this level of self-awareness at Scott’s age. What’s more, I think we can learn from each other if we journey further.

If you want to discuss this further with me – my approach, your approach, or anything related. Please leave a comment below.