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THE USE OF MENTAL IMAGERY IN SOCCER
 
WHAT IS & WHY MENTAL IMAGERY ?
 

Mental imagery in soccer may be described as the repetition of a particular skill or movement sequence using pictures rather than actual physical movement. In other words it requires players to imagine themselves playing soccer. Imagery creates or recreates experiences that players have "lived" and aims at familiarising players with their tasks. Other terms describing are mental rehearsal and visualisation. There are two types of imagery:

External: Where a player experiences imagery as though they were watching themselves on a video cassette.

Internal: Where a player experiences imagery as though they are actually performing the action.

It seems that internal imagery is more beneficial as it is more likely to recreate the actual sensations of competition performance. However, external imagery may be useful to build up confidence levels as footballers can see themselves "playing well" and also know that the coach and fans are seeing the same thing...

So why use imagery ? Many players and coaches believe that it can help improve their game through the systematic mental practice of skill and helps players to focus and refocus before, during and after competition. Besick (sports psychologist for Manchester Utd) lists several benefits of imagery for players and coaches:

- Reinforces self-belief and players see themselves as winners
- Learn self-control and developed strategies to cope.
- Practice mentally what they experience in the game
- Learn to focus and shut out distractions
- Improve relaxation and links mind and body to produce the right state of energy.

It can also be useful to allow players to visit the opponents ground prior to a match. This allows the imagery about next day's game to become even more vivid and thus more effective. Players can also use pre-match visualisation during their warm-up. They can rehearse their first involvement in the game such as a pass or tackle and also the general quintessence of their match play.

In certain situations such as penalty shootouts, a player with effective visualisation training may be at an advantage. This can prepare them for the pressure of the kick by creating disciplined performance routines. Thus, whilst preparing for their turn, they can be mentally rehearsing their technique (already mastered through training and visualisation) and this will help keep their confidence and remove any distractions such as crowd noise.

Visualisation may be useful in stress management. Players can ask themselves what if a stressful situation arises and how they will feel. They can then visualise how they should react to regain control. Imagery is useful alongside relaxation techniques to avoid stress. To read more about relaxation in soccer, click here.

Another area where imagery can play a part is player confidence. Players who visualise themselves as winners are more likely to succeed in soccer. Also, finding the right state of energy is important. Mind and body are one so the body of a player who visualises positively, will prepare itself positively through increasing energy. Of course, players who negatively visualise performance will suffer and this needs to be turned around.

Finally, imagery can also allow players to rehearse skills when training is not possible. An injured player can use imagery to visualise his injury in a more positive way and to mentally practice his skills in preparation for being back in training.

 
THE MENTAL IMAGERY SESSION
 
When undertaking visualisation sessions, it is important to respect several major points in order to fully benefit from this type of practice:

- Use consistent, short, intense sessions and build up them up slowly
- Use a quiet room where you will not be disturbed
- Be relaxed but alert
- Set realistic attainable goals
- Picture should be done in a real environment as is more realistic, e.g. a penalty kick in a game
- Perform the skill from the beginning to end and at normal speed
- Always imagine the action is successful & avoid rehearsing errors
- Try to feel the movement using all your senses - physical sensation, sight, smell...

Players must imagine themselves in action on the soccer field. They can clearly see the scenes, the colour of the shirts, the sound of the boot on the ball, feel the ground under their feet, hear the sound of the crowd and recognise the voice of their coach. Everything must be done correctly, nothing negative can be allowed to affect them and everything is vividly realistic. Once players have mastered the basic habits of imagery, they can start working on specific problems such as technique - shooting, heading, passing, ball control...

It may be useful to have a written copy of a visualisation practice using a stimulus-response procedure. This involves the stimulus from the situation (defender, pitch etc) and the response of the player undertaking the action. For example, an indirect free-kick situation.

Stimulus: I see our player touching the free-kick and the ball laid off in front of me. I hear the defence shouting "close him down" and see their defender moving towards me at pace, perhaps too quickly. I see the goalkeeper positioned slightly to the right of his goal.

Response: I fake to shoot and pull the ball back onto my other foot. I adjust my body and make room for the shot.

Stimulus: I see and feel the defender go past me and then see a slight gap at the left post. I hear my teammates shouting "shoot". I see the goalkeeper, seemingly off-balance after my dummy.

Response: I see and strike the ball, feeling my head over it, my non-kicking leg next to it and my shooting leg following cleanly through. I feel my body slightly overbalance as I watch the ball whistle into the bottom left-corner of the net.

Analysing your session can be useful as well. Could you see and feel yourself perform the skills, was it clear and at normal speed ? Were you relaxed but alert and was the picture clear ? Taking notes can as well be useful for highlighting any weaknesses in your imagery session in order to work on and gradually improve them.

 
CONCLUSION
 

Overall, imagery can be useful in helping improve soccer performance. The better players see themselves and their performance, the greater the chance of success. Various aspects of the game such as confidence, stress management, technique and game preparation can all be improved using good visualisation methods. Remember, what you see is nearly always what you get !

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