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AFM Magazine

Imagery: Practice Without Practice

by: Tim Mitchell
Sports Psychology Consultant
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We’ve all daydreamed. As a kid, I often drifted away to the football field, wearing a black jersey with the white number 40. I was running for touchdowns on the biggest stage. Defenders were diving at my feet as I sliced and diced my way to the end zone.The defender was diving for air behind me. I could be anyone in my mind. I would make the moves in my mind as I imagined myself becoming Gayle Sayers in that white number 40.    

In my mind I imagined myself emulating similar moves. The brain can do that. It can create and execute movement. In fact, it doesn’t know the difference between imagined movement and actual movement. The same neural pathways are being stimulated during imagined practice just as they would be during actual practice. Researchers have completed studies on this subject and found that imagery absolutely enhances performance. It’s been called “practice without practice”. As football coaches, I’m sure you can imagine the benefits of imagery. Reps without reps is what imagery can do. In a past article I talked about motor programming and the three different stages. Imagery can get your players closer to the autonomous stage by offering them an opportunity to get more reps.

There are two main types of imagery that are very useful for football players. The first is deliberate or planned imagery. This kind of imagery is what the team might do in the locker room before the game on Friday. The coach might have a lights out period and tell the team to “think about what you’re going to do tonight, imagine yourself doing your job”. Take this example to the next level by having imagery sessions during the week and you have deliberate, planned imagery.

The second type of imagery is quick imagery. This type of imagery can be done just before a particular moment takes place. For example, after the huddle breaks as the QB is walking up to the LOS, he could do one quick imagery rep. In practice, this would allow him to rep it, then do it. Think of how many more reps he could get over the course of a season. Quick imagery is very practical for football players especially if their responsibilities change due to the opponent’s alignment.

How long should the sessions last? Researchers have found that under 20-minute sessions are beneficial to enhance performance. Sessions lasting longer than 20 minutes are not beneficial due to the loss of concentration and attention. The mind can drift off task and lose attention. I recommend 10-minute sessions three times a week and the same session repeated on Friday in the locker room.

What are they actually imagining? To make imagery as powerful as possible, we must engage all the senses. Remember, the brain doesn’t know the difference between real and fantasy. Let’s take offense, for example. Most every team has their bread and butter plays. In the beginning, I recommend imagining those plays. I’ll use running backs for an example. You can tailor imagery to any position you coach.

Three times a week during 10-minute sessions, the RB coach can take the RBs to a quiet place on the field, where they can get comfortable. Sometimes, the field is not available which is another reason imagery is such a great tool. It’s mobile. That’s why I call imagery “practice without practice”. Have the RBs visualize themselves running the bread and butter plays to perfection. Keep in mind that when they do this they should be as realistic and as detailed as possible. Have them incorporate the experiences of all of their previous runs. The way it feels to bulldoze, or the feeling of a perfect straight arm, the cuts and jukes. Have them relive every highlight run they have. They can incorporate as many details as possible. The coach can have the players in uniform with helmets on and a ball in hand. Get creative and incorporate all the senses. This is deliberate imagery. Make it a routine and do the same session Friday night in the locker room or on the bus on the way to the game.

During practice, for quick imagery, the position coach can make sure the RBs are repping the play in their mind after the break of the huddle on the way to the LOS. If you have a no-huddle, up-tempo system, the RB can use imagery in fast forward mode. That’s the beauty of imagery - the user decides how fast the images play.

One more thing about imagery is perspective. There are two kinds of perspective an athlete will use when doing imagery – external and internal. External is when the athlete sees himself from a camera point of view from various angles. This external perspective is great for self correcting form and technique. The second perspective is internal. This perspective is first person and is great for duplicating feel and building muscle memory. Both perspectives are recommended and both have the same advantages. As athletes get more proficient at imagery, they will switch perspectives many times during one session.

This is only a glimpse of one of many different mental skills. Please feel free to email me if you have any questions about imagery or how we can make it part of your team’s practice routine. I realize that time is a precious commodity within your football program. There are so many things to cover and never enough minutes in the day. Remember what you’ve probably said many times, “The game is mostly mental”. Well then, let’s train the mental part of the game.

About the Author: Tim Mitchell has been coaching football from the youth league level to the high school level for over 20 years. A Sports Psychology Consultant,  he is currently a mental skills coach and performance expert for the U. S. Army.


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