Mental Games (Part I – Imagery)


A recent question was posed in the Volleyball Coaches & Trainers group on Facebook (search for it and ask to join if you want some great discussions).  I will paraphrase, but the questions was “How do you train your team in the mental aspects”.  My first response was that we (as coaches) have to be careful not to lump everyone together.  Too often, we use the generic term of mental training for anxiety, self-confidence, concentration, motivation, and a slew of other terms.  The problem is, much like all other training, there are different aspects and training methods to the mental game.  I then posted a copy of the Mental Skill Questionnaire that I use with my players during the season (usually the first day, mid-season, and end).  Without getting too deep in to the boring history, the questionnaire I use is a smaller version of one that was developed by two sports psychologist from the University of North Wales.  The questionnaire focuses on seven key areas:

1. Imagery Ability

2. Mental Preparation

3. Self-Confidence

4. Anxiety and Worry Management

5. Concentration Ability

6. Relaxation Ability

7. Motivation

The questionnaire is pretty self explanatory.  The person filling it out is given a few key statements and they circle the number that closest represents their agreement or disagreement.  The key is making sure the user fills out the answers in relation to their sport, and not life in general.  A copy can be found at  You then have the user (or coach) add up the sections and do the percentages (score divided by possible times 100).  Once you have the percentages, you can see where the player may be having issues.  This is helpful in numerous way.  The biggest is making sure you are training the right methods.  If you have a player who is motivated, but lacks self-confidence, you need to train them differently then that of a player who has anxiety.  While on the surface the two issues may seem the same, they are very different.

The next question posted was, “Ok, so we know where the players need help…Now what?”

I need to really stress this point.  Much like you would not want an untrained person teaching your players how to do dead-lifts or squats, you don’t want an untrained person playing around in the heads of your team.  I understand that most teams and clubs do not have the money or resources to bring in professionals.  So please, use the following as very broad and introductory methods into mental training.  I would also suggest getting a copy of Dr. Stepen J. Bull’s book The Mental Game Plan.  It is where I first learned most of these concepts, and is a staple in almost event Sports Psychology program.  The link to is below.  The book is very hard to find in print, but there is now a Kindle version (Sorry, as of this post there is no Nook version).

This blog series is broken into seven posts covering each of the key areas.  You will see the above text prior to each post.


Most people have heard of imagery.  They think of it simply as “seeing in the minds eye”.  The truth is that people who master imagery also incorporate the other senses such as smelling, hearing, and feeling.  One of the very first encounters I had with imagery was in my senior year of high school.  The sports psychologist for the Pittsburgh Steelers visited our Sports Leadership class.  That was in 1991, and unfortunately I forget his name.  The one exercise he had us do was to think about running a mile on the track at the school.  The first time we did it, the exercise was pretty much done on our own.  The second time we did it, he assisted us through the entire thing.  We took our heart rates before we started.  I remember mine being around 72 bpm to start.  He had us think about the heat, the texture of the track, the shoes we were wearing.  He would guide us through the four laps.  Having us think about our strides and breathing.  At the end of the mile, we checked our hear rates and I was in the 120’s.  I actually felt tired and thirsty.  Most of us were even sweating.  We had tricked our brains in to thinking we were physically active.  I did not know it then, but that moment would stick with me forever.  In fact, it is that day that led me of my path (and it has been a long 20 years) of becoming a sports psychologist.  So how to we train our athletes to use imagery?

Imagery is the brain making a reproduction of your basic senses.  The example I gave above is one of many ways to train in imagery.  You can use imagery to:

– Mentally train a skill by practicing it in your head (ie.  going over your serve mentally).

– Improve your confidence and positive thinking (Imagine your last few successful serves you have done in the past).

– Tactical rehearsal (imagine different conditions and things that my alter your perfect plan).

– Controlling arousal and anxiety (Imagine calming images to relax your mind and body).

– Performance review (review your serves for strong and weak points and errors).

– Preparation for performance (imaging of serving at game point being up or down, different crowds, etc).

– Within pre-game routine (imaging the serve during warmups and stretching).

– Maintaining mental freshness during injury (imaging your serve when you are physically unable to move your arm).

There are the many times that imagery is helpful to the athlete.

So Why Does This Stuff Work?

The simple reason is because you are reinforcing the plan of action, even if it is mentally.  Only a small percentage of an action is the physical movement.  By working on the skill or situation multiple times, it makes your plan stronger.  Now, that does not always mean you have the best plan, but it does mean you will execute your plan to the best of your ability.  Also, the more your mentally see yourself achieving your goals, the more likely you are to  actually reach them.  The builds the self-confidence.

How Will It Look?

There are two basic ways you will see things when using imagery.  Internal or external.  Internal is seeing it as you would in real life.  Basically like you were looking through your eyes.  External is like watching yourself on film.  Some people are just naturally guided towards one way or the other.  I personally am in the minority and usually have external imagery.

How Often Should I/We Train?

There is no set session time or length.  I would suggest you do two short sessions every day for a week or two when starting out.  The sessions can be 5 minutes long, no need to be long and tedious.  Once your get more advanced, the images and situations you produce will be more complex.  So this could increase your session times.

So What Should We Practice?

This is a loaded question.  It really depends on what you are having issues with.  If you have self-confidence problems, focus your sessions on building yourself up by thinking of all the successful times you completed that skill.  If you are having a problem with a skill, use imagery to break it down and find the problem.  If you have problems with the crowd or officials, use imagery to make them controlled by you.  Think of situations that would make you anxious or angry and then learn how to cope with them.  I normally use imagery after a match to see what we did right and what we did wrong and how to correct it.

Any Tips?

Yes.  The biggest tip I can give you is to make sure you try to get all the senses involved.  Even if you are just using imagery to work on a serving action, try to think of the taste in your mouth.  The more realistic you can make it, the more the brain will be tricked and give you more vivid actions and sensations.  You want to feel like your muscles are being worked.

This Is Great and All, But I Need a Specific Drill to Train This!

That is the beauty of mental training.  There are very few specific drills.  You can start by having your team (or player) sit alone and thinking of things.  You can do it as a guided exercise as well.  The key is to give it time and frequency to get it working.  I personally think this is one of the top tools in the mental skills toolbox that we, as coaches, need to use.

In closing, I wanted to include this quick checklist of how to get imagery to work for you.

To borrow from Bull (1996):

1.  Mentally warm-up before you begin imagery training.

2.  Focus on “real-time” imagery, using as many of the senses as possible.  Try to be realistic as possible.

3.  Use your natural imagery perspective (internal or external) to begin with.

4.  When starting to use imagery training, start with short sessions for an entire week.

5.  Don’t compromise quality of the session for quantity of sessions.  If you are having trouble focusing after a few images, stop the session.

6.  Once you have the basic skills, experiment to see what works best for your.  Change when you try it (i.e. after an activity as reflection or before training as prep).  Alter your body positions (laying down vs sitting).

7.  Practice regularly.  Don’t stop training.  The mind is a muscle and needs to be worked.

That is all for this week.  Next weeks post will be on: Mental Preparation

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