Frontiers for Young Minds

Frontiers for Young Minds
Core Concept Neuroscience and Psychology Collection Article Published: April 4, 2022

Inspired by Imagination: How Imagery Can Help You Be Better at Sport


Have you ever pictured yourself scoring the game-winning goal or staying calm at a crucial point in a match or performance? If you answered yes to either of these, then you have used a mental skill called imagery. Imagery is creating (or recreating) situations in your mind. Many top athletes in the world use imagery to help them perform at their best. In fact, just like any physical skill, such as running or a tennis serve, imagery improves with practice. In this article, we explain how imagery works, suggest what to image, and explain when and where you can use imagery to improve sport performance.

Imagery is more easily experienced than explained. To illustrate this point, let us go through a short exercise. Close your eyes and imagine eating a slice of watermelon. Stop reading and imagine it.

Think About What You Saw

Now, repeat this exercise, but this time, imagine holding the slice of watermelon in your hand. See the vibrant colors—the green rind, the pink flesh, and the brown seeds. As you take a bite, taste the sweetness of the ripe watermelon, hear yourself slurp as you sink your teeth into the fruit, and feel the juice drip down your hand. Stop reading now and imagine it.

In almost every case, the second picture will have been more vivid because of the focus and effort you needed to use to create the image. Most of us can create a vivid experience (like eating a slice of watermelon on a warm day) when the instructions are detailed. This exercise is an example of imagery. Imagery is defined as creating or recreating an experience in your mind. It is more than just “seeing” the watermelon—it is tasting it, hearing the sounds as you eat it, and feeling it in your hand. The imagery of eating the watermelon may make you smile and wish for summer vacation.

You may be wondering why you are reading about watermelon if this article is about sport! The watermelon exercise demonstrates your ability to create powerful images that you can not only visualize, but experience. Imagery can be used for more than just recalling a memory; it can be used to create new images, such as performing a new sport skill. In fact, researchers have found that kids as young as 7 years of age use imagery in sport to learn and develop new skills and strategies, manage their emotions, increase confidence, and improve performance [1]. When combined with physical practice, imagery improves performance more than practice alone.

How Does Imagery Work?

Imagery works by triggering the same parts of the brain that are activated when you actually perform the task. For example, when athletes imagine themselves taking a penalty shot in ice hockey, the areas of the brain that become active when they physically skate toward the net and release the puck will also be active when imagining the shot. This is referred to as functional equivalence [2] and it can lead to improved sport performance.

Following the guidelines of the PETTLEP model helps athletes achieve functional equivalence between imagery and actual performance [3]. There are seven key factors in the model: physical, environment, task, timing, learning, emotion, and perspective (Table 1). Although any imagery training is beneficial, following the key factors from PETTLEP while practicing your imagery three or more times per week is recommended.

Table 1 - PETTLEP: 7 key factors when using imagery.
  • Table 1 - PETTLEP: 7 key factors when using imagery.

Imagery Helps With Skill Development

Young athletes can use imagery to help with skill development and skill execution. When a baseball player learns how to throw a baseball with correct technique, this is known as skill development. When a volleyball player does a serve as best as they can, this is referred to as skill execution. Research shows that if you imagine the proper execution of a skill, it will help with the actual execution of the same skill when you do it in real life. Also, athletes can perform a drill faster and with less mistakes when they use imagery compared to those who do not use imagery [4].

Imagery Improves Strategy

When the coach tells the basketball team to play a full-court press, this is known as a sport strategy. Imagery can help athletes learn and perform strategies in many different sports. In fact, athletes who use imagery in sport have been found to make quicker decisions about which strategies to use and when to use them. Young athletes have indicated that using imagery helps them to anticipate what will happen next in game situations [1].

Imagery Boosts Confidence

Researchers study two types of confidence in athletes: self-confidence and self-efficacy. If you believe that you are capable of performing successfully in your sport, you demonstrate self-confidence. Self-efficacy is similar to self-confidence, but it is specific to a task or situation. For example, a basketball player can have a high self-efficacy in shooting a free throw but can have a low self-efficacy in dribbling. If athletes imagine being confident, focused, and mentally tough in sport situations, they can gain more self-confidence and self-efficacy in their sports.

Imagery is not only beneficial for individual athletes—it can also help build the confidence of an entire team. This is known as collective efficacy and it happens when each player on the team believes that, together, they can be successful. A youth girls’ soccer team improved their collective efficacy in both training and competition by using imagery for 10 min each day over 13 weeks [5].

Imagery Helps to Manage Nerves

Have you ever felt nervous before a game? If so, you may have noticed your clammy hands, or felt your heart beating quickly. This is called competitive anxiety, and it can be harmful to your sport performance if it is not managed properly. Do not worry if you do not know what to do—imagery can help! If you imagine being calm and relaxed in your sport, this can help lower your anxiety and stress related to competition and performance.

Where and When Should I Use Imagery?

One of the great things about imagery is that it can be used anywhere! Imagery can be used before, during, and after both practice and competition. For example, you may choose to use imagery before practice, to help yourself mentally prepare, or after a game, to help yourself reflect on areas you want to improve. You may decide that the best time to use imagery is right before going to sleep at night. Although imagery use is important during the sport season, it is equally important to use in the off-season. Think about where and when imagery may work best for you!

What Should I Image?

When using imagery, it is important to create or recreate the content of the image as realistically as possible. Think of “content” as all the details you can include in your image to help make it more vivid—remember the watermelon exercise. For example, use as many different senses as possible to help make your images come to life. This could include imagining the smell of the freshly cut grass on the soccer pitch or the sound of the referee’s whistle. It may include the feeling in your leg muscles as you perform a corner kick, or the touch of your teammate’s hand as they high-five you. Also, keep your images positive. Think of times when you have done well or create images of goals you want to achieve. Finally, your images may be from either an internal or external perspective. That is, you could be seeing your image from your own eyes (internal visual imagery), or watching yourself as if you were on TV (external visual imagery). Both perspectives are great, and you are encouraged to use the one that works best for you.

How Do I Practice My Imagery?

To help you practice your imagery, you are encouraged to improve the vividness and controllability of your images. Vividness refers to how clear your image is, while controllability is your ability to change or control your images. Try this to help improve the vividness and controllability of your images: Imagine you are in your bedroom. What color is your bedding? How clearly can you see this color? Is it clear and easy to see, or cloudy and difficult to see? Now, can you imagine your bedding as a different color? How easy or hard is it to imagine this new color?

If this is challenging that is okay—keep practicing and over time you will improve! Take a look at Figure 1 for a summary of how to use imagery in sport.

Figure 1 - A summary of how imagery works and how you can use it to help yourself improve at sport.
  • Figure 1 - A summary of how imagery works and how you can use it to help yourself improve at sport.


Imagery is a powerful mental skill athletes use to improve performance. We are all capable of using imagery and we know that imagery improves with practice. While imagery may be easy for some athletes, others may take some time to develop their ability to image. We recommend using imagery at least 3–5 times a week for 10–15 mins a day. The more you image, the better your imagery will become! When you use imagery for sport, make it as real as possible and decide what you want the outcome to be. Imagery can be done anywhere at any time. You do not need a pitch, pool, or arena to imagine. Practicing imagery as part of your routine will help you become a better and more complete athlete.


Imagery: Creating or recreating an experience in your mind.

Functional Equivalence: When the parts of the brain that are activated while performing a task (like a penalty shot in ice hockey) are also activated when imagining the same task.

Self-Confidence: Trusting your own skills and abilities, and believing that you can perform well in your sport.

Self-Efficacy: Your confidence in being successful at a specific task (such as the free throw). The confidence of an entire team in their joint success is known as collective efficacy.

Internal Visual Imagery: Imagining through your own eyes.

External Visual Imagery: Seeing yourself from someone else’s point of view, as if you were a spectator or watching yourself on TV.

Vividness: The clarity and detail of images that you create.

Controllability: The ability to change or control your imagery.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


[1] Munroe-Chandler, K. J., Hall, C. R., Fishburne, G. J., and Strachan, L. 2007. Where, when, and why young athletes use imagery: an examination of developmental differences. Res. Q. Exerc. Sport 78:103–16. doi: 10.1080/02701367.2007.10599408

[2] Jeannerod, M. 1994. The representing brain: neural correlates of motor intention and imagery. Behav. Brain Sci. 17:187–202. doi: 10.1017/s0140525x00034026

[3] Holmes, P. S., and Collins, D. J. 2001. The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: a functional equivalence model for sport psychologists. J. Appl. Sport Psychol. 13:60–83. doi: 10.1080/10413200109339004

[4] Munroe-Chandler, K. J., Hall, C. R., Fishburne, G. J., Murphy, L., and Hall, N. D. 2012. Effects of a cognitive specific imagery intervention on the soccer skill performance of young athletes: age group comparisons. Psychol. Sport Exerc. 13:324–31. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2011.12.006

[5] Munroe-Chandler, K. J., and Hall, C. R. 2005. Enhancing the collective efficacy of a soccer team through motivational general-mastery imagery. Imaginat. Cogn. Pers. 24:51–67. doi: 10.2190/UM7Q-1V15-CJNM-LMP4