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Just Imagine: How Imagery Can Bring You Success

Sports Psychologist Erin Prior explores how you can get the most out of the popular technique

With the majority of the world in variations of lockdown, competitions cancelled and local clubs open for limited training, athletes all over the world may be feeling at a loss not only in terms of the competitive season ending before it began, but also being unable to train as they usually would, and socialise with fellow athletes. While some athletes may be able to maintain limited practice, the competitive season and many local and international sporting events are still in question. But all is not lost. Now is a great time to be working on your mental game to not only help you to hit the ground running when you can begin competing again, but also to give you a sense of progress during what can be a challenging time.

Imagery

A popular technique within sports psychology is known as imagery (or visualisation). Imagery can be defined as ‘using the senses to create an experience in the mind’. Essentially, this means imagining performing a certain skill in a certain environment. As an example, an archer may visualise seeing the target through their sight or scope, feeling the physical technique of their shot, and hearing the sound of their arrow hitting the target.

Many athletes have heard of imagery and may have tried the technique in some form as it is a technique often recommended by coaches and sports psychologists. However, many athletes are unaware of the various ways they can practice imagery and the various benefits it can bring. By taking a closer look at the technique and how to use it, athletes can increase its effectiveness. This article focuses on just that – the finer details to not only allow you to practice your skills, but also enhance your performance, build your confidence and help you achieve your optimal mindset.

Why is Imagery Useful?

Quite simply, imagery can be effective in improving performance. When we execute movements or techniques while playing sport or exercising, our brain is constantly firing neurons around our bodies to tell us what to do and how to do it. Similarly, when mentally rehearsing these movements or skills, our brain fires the same neurons as if we are actually completing the movements. This means that imagery is a great way to rehearse your technique and key skills to supplement your practice – which is ideal for anyone with a limited opportunity to train during lockdown or at any other time.

This technique can also be used to increase confidence and achieve your optimal mindset when performing. By confirming the correct execution of your technique, you begin to feel more prepared and confident in your ability to perform successfully. You may also wish to increase your confidence when performing in certain competition environments. Many athletes experience an increase in stress and nerves when either competing somewhere new or somewhere they deem to be important. To combat this, many international athletes use imagery to familiarise themselves with their competition environment, to help them feel comfortable when they compete there. This is a popular technique amongst Olympic and Paralympic athletes who often visit their venue at the Games before their competition. This helps them to accurately imagine performing successfully within the venue, therefore increasing their confidence and sense of preparedness.

How to Implement Imagery

Firstly, decide which perspective you would like to use to imagine your scenario. This could be from first person (e.g. imagine the situation as you would usually see it), or the third person (e.g. imagine the situation as though you are watching yourself on a TV screen). There is no right or wrong answer, just a personal preference.

The second thing to consider when trying imagery, is to build a detailed sensory experience as accurately as possible. By this, I mean imagine things in as much detail as you can, and think about what you can hear, feel, see, and maybe even smell. Creating this level of detail helps your mind to become familiar with the environment and with the technique you are executing. Taking the time to write down the key aspects of your technique or process, plus some key features of your environment may help you to do this.

Thirdly, consider writing an ‘imagery script’. When working with clients, I begin by reading them a generic ‘script’ based on their sport, getting them to think about their chosen event or environment and imagine their process in detail. We then discuss which aspects of the script that they found useful and perhaps which areas challenged them. From here, I create a personalised script for each of my clients and voice-record it for them to listen to when practising the technique. The use of the voice-recording is particularly useful for athletes who have minimal experience with imagery and who may benefit from some guidance to get them started. So, what could you include in your imagery script?:

  • A detailed description of your environment using various senses
  • A detailed run through of your process or key skills needed in your sport
  • How are you feeling in this situation (e.g. confident, calm, excited, focused)?
  • What are you thinking about/focusing on in this situation?
  • Imagining positive performance results

So, now you have an idea of what you could include, how exactly should you be implementing this technique?

Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Use the ideas above to consider which areas you would like to focus on and visualise (i.e. this could be aspects of your technique, confident body language to increase feelings of confidence, aspects of your environment to increase familiarity).
  2. Try writing this out, almost as if you are telling yourself a story – this will help guide your imagery practice.
  3. Once you have created yourself a script, get practising! Like anything in sports psychology, imagery takes practice and patience. Try to make time to practice as regularly as possible so you can become familiar with the technique and can learn what works best for you.
  4. Looking forward to when you can compete again, consider when you may wish to use the technique (i.e. the evening before a competition, the morning of the competition, or even during the competition itself). – Whenever you choose to use it, try to make it a consistent part of your competition preparations.
  5. Don’t be afraid to evaluate and change your imagery. If something isn’t working for you – change it up! Try something different and see if it helps you progress.
  6. Add more layers. The more in-depth your imagery script, the more effective it will be. Keep adding useful details as you progress.
  7. Lastly, I always remind clients that this technique is not a ‘cure’, but a way of preparing your mind to perform – so use imagery consistently.

Athletes sometimes say they have little time for techniques like imagery, but by taking the time to follow these steps, imagery can become far more impactful. So, now is a great time to invest in yourself and try something new. Yes, it is challenging when you are unable to train or compete and enjoy the sport you love, but lockdown will end, and when it does, you will be mentally prepared.

If you would like a personalised imagery script created to enhance your performance, head to our services page for more info!

FIGHT FOR PROGRESS: EXPRESSIONS OF GENDER & SEXUALITY IN WOMEN’S BOXING

With awareness and understanding of the LGBTQ+ community increasing within society, the world of sport is no exception when it comes to re-evaluating and challenging previously held ideas surrounding sex, gender and sexual orientation. In line with this progress, one area of sport psychology research where inroads have been made is the study of gender and sexuality. This contributes to what is known as Cultural Sport Psychology (CSP) research which involves understanding and finding solutions to challenges that limit expressions of identity, and inclusion within sport.

Previous research finds that despite the possibility for a range of gender and sexuality expressions within athletes, the way in which women in sport are viewed contradicts recent progress. As an example, women are deemed to be accepted within sport as long as they conform to typical standards of femininity, including being attracted to the opposite sex, being passive, and quiet in terms of temperament and less muscular in physicality (Cahn, 2015; Krane, 2001). These ‘standards’ are learnt through the media, sport opportunities and language used when discussing female athletes. Consequently, when female athletes deviate from heterosexuality and femininity through expressing so-called masculine traits such as physical strength and aggression, they may be excluded and have their identities and status as ‘real women’ called into question (Cahn, 2015; Waldron, 2016).

Sports Psychology research on LGBT identities is in its infancy, however, it has been noted that some cultural expectations surrounding masculinity, femininity and sexuality have changed, resulting in some level of inclusion and acceptance of LGBT athletes within pockets of sport (Krane, 2016). One particular sport which challenges the key ideas of femininity is boxing, which involves women demonstrating characteristics typically linked with masculinity, such as strength, aggression and a muscular physique. Previous research suggests that boxing provides women with the opportunity to challenge socially acceptable forms of femininity that can constrain them (Channon & Phipps, 2017). However, contradictory research suggests that women’s boxing may restrict women’s expressions of their gender, as some women feel pressured to be ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ to align with socially acceptable forms of femininity. As an example, female boxers may feel compelled to wear certain clothing (e.g. skirts, satin shorts and pink gloves) to gain media attention and male gaze (Lafferty & McKay, 2004; Tjonndal, 2016; 2017). As a result, although women are seen to be accepted within typically male-dominated sports such as boxing, they are perhaps still pressured to participate on men’s terms.

A recent study by Mcgannon, Schinke, Ge, Blodgett (2018) of Laurentian University explored the identities of 10 elite female boxers in relation to inclusion and marginalisation on the Canadian National Boxing Team. Participants fought in different weight categories and were from diverse race and ethnic backgrounds, with five identifying as queer, bisexual, or lesbian and five as heterosexual. The study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, involved arts-based interviews to encourage story-telling. Participants were asked to draw a circle (i.e., mandala) on a blank piece of paper and include an image reflecting “who they are” as boxers on the Women’s National Team in relation to parts of themselves. Arts-based methods broadly, and mandalas specifically, have been used in sport research to assist participants in explaining lived experiences. These drawings were then used to facilitate an unstructured, conversational interview.

Through this research, the central theme ‘boxing as empowering and constraining’ was identified. Within the Canadian Women’s Boxing Team, open expression of identities in terms of physicality and sexuality was encouraged. This challenged socially normalised expressions of femininity by placing value on aggression and skill to gain power and status as female athletes. However, the study also found that not all of the women’s gendered identities were accepted within their environment, particularly in terms of femininity and physicality. This resulted in a literal fight for female boxers to gain respect and resources.

This fight for equality resulted in the female boxers missing out on the positive psychological experiences that are associated with inclusion within a team, such as confidence, focus and satisfaction. Instead, the marginalised women felt less valued and less motivated. The study also found that the perception that men’s boxing is superior to women’s boxing is unintentionally (and perhaps sometimes intentionally) reinforced both by others within the sport – such as coaches and heterosexual women – and through less organisational support which often manifested in the form of verbal slights or jokes.

Interestingly, despite the findings suggesting that boxing can be considered a ‘safe space’ in terms of gender expression and sexuality for homosexual women, this same tolerance is less afforded to homosexual men. This further highlights the prevalence of cultural constructions of masculinity and perceived ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ for sportsmen. As a result of these restrictive expectations surrounding masculinity, male boxers who were ‘not heterosexual’ were not afforded the same inclusion or sense of cultural safety.

The aim of this study was to explore and increase understanding of inclusion and marginalisation within an elite sport context. The present study has added to Cultural Sport Psychology (CSP) research that demonstrates the value of exploring self-identity as socially constructed. Therefore, this study has further added to work on gender and sexuality in Sport Psychology within elite sport. As the current climate shifts towards an understanding of gender being socially constructed, further research of individuals’ experiences of their gender and sexuality is necessary in order to allow the sport and exercise industry to further understand individuals, challenge antiquated views of gender and sexuality, and essentially, move with the times. Therefore, this study contributes to the growing body of research which is facilitating this transformation.

Despite contributing towards this area of research, the current study is not without limitations. Although the research provides a snapshot of the social construction of elite female boxers’ negotiation with gender and sexuality, this research was limited to North American female athletes who exist within the concept of binary gender and sexuality. Future research could look to go a step further and explore the experiences of individuals who do not exist within this binary, such as intersex, transgender and pansexual people, in order to give voice to a diverse range of individuals within the LGBTQ+ community. In addition, the interaction between gender and sexuality with race, ethnicity and social class may another dimension to research.

Other individuals within the sporting context could also be interviewed such as family members, coaches, sport science support staff and also male boxers regarding their own identities and how these relate to the identities of female boxers. Additionally, given the importance of others within the boxing environment in terms of embracing or marginalising aspects of individuals’ cultural identities, observations of performance environments and how athletes interact with coaches and peers could also provide further insight into female athlete experiences when negotiating gender and sexuality within the world of sport.

Although there are significant further avenues for progress within research – and consequently practice – when considering expressions of gender and sexuality in sport, this study of female boxers’ experiences in navigating these challenges, paves the way for future research to continue exploring these societal shifts and the role of the sporting world within them. By giving voice to a diverse range of individuals through research, the field of Sport Psychology can increase understanding and knowledge in an effort to inform practice and facilitate safe spaces for all individuals within sport.

*This article has been peer reviewed by members of the LGBTQ+ community. o