Your body is a beautifully evolved sporting machine, comprising, among other things, muscles that can be trained to a peak of fitness and nerves that control the muscles. The nerves are massively linked in your brain: vast numbers of nerve cells are linked with a hugely greater number of interconnections.
Part of the reason that human children take so long to reach maturity relative to animals is that we have many more nerve cells in our brain. Initially our brains are very disorganised. Much of the process of growing up, being educated, and becoming mentally mature is the process of organising the vast chaos of the interconnectedness of the nerves in our brain into useful pathways.
Much of the process of learning and improving sporting reflexes and skills is the laying down, modification, and strengthening of nerve pathways in our body and brains. Some of these nerve pathways lie outside out brain in nerves of the body and spine. These need to be trained by physical training.
Many of the pathways, however, lie within the brain. These pathways can be effectively trained by the use of mental techniques such as imagery and simulation. These are explained below.
Imagery is the process by which you can create, modify or strengthen pathways important to the co-ordination of your muscles, by training purely within your mind. Imagination is the driving force of imagery.
Imagery rests on the important principle that you can exercise these parts of your brain with inputs from your imagination rather that from your senses: the parts of the brain that you train with imagery experience imagined and real inputs similarly, with the real inputs being merely more vividly experienced.
So in its least effective form you can use imagery merely as a substitute for real practice to train the parts of your mind that it can reach. Even at this inferior level of use imagery is useful training where:
- An athlete is injured, and cannot train in any other way
- The correct equipment is not available, or practice is not possible for some other reason
- Where rapid practice is needed
However just to use imagery for the reasons above is to undervalue its effectiveness grossly.
Unleashing the Power of Imagery
The real power of imagery lies in a number of much more sophisticated points:
- Imagery allows you to practise and prepare for events and eventualities you can never expect to train for in reality. With practice it allows you to enter a situation you have never physically experienced with the feeling that you have been there before and achieved whatever you are trying to achieve.
- Similarly imagery allows you to prepare and practise your response to physical and psychological problems that do not occur normally, so that if they occur, you can respond to them competently and confidently. Imagery can be used to train in sports psychology skills such as stress and distraction management.
- It allows you to pre-experience the achievement of goals. This helps to give you confidence that these goals can be achieved, and so allows you to increase your abilities to levels you might not otherwise have reached.
- Practicing with imagery helps you to slow down complex skills so that you can isolate and feel the correct component movements of the skills, and isolate where problems in technique lie.
Imagery can also be used to affect some aspects of the 'involuntary' responses of your body such as releases of adrenaline. This is most highly developed in Eastern mystics, who use imagery in a highly effective way to significantly reduce e.g. heart beat rate or oxygen consumption.
Simulation is similar to imagery in that it seeks to improve the quality of training by teaching your brain to cope with circumstances that would not be otherwise met until an important competition was reached.
Simulation, however, is carried out by making the your physical training circumstances as similar as possible to the 'real thing' - for example by bringing in crowds of spectators, by having performances judged, or by inviting press to a training session.
In many ways simulation is superior to imagery in training, as the stresses introduced are often more vivid because they exist in reality. However simulation requires much greater resources of time and effort to set up and implement, and necessarily is less flexible in terms of the range of eventualities that can be practised for.
You should therefore use simulation and imagery together for maximum effect.
The following sections will explain Imagery and Simulation in more detail.