How to Use Mental Imagery to Gain Confidence in a Skill
Almost more important than being highly skilled is the belief that you are highly skilled. In sports, if you lack confidence in yourself, it doesn’t matter how good you actually are. Your play will always be a level below your potential.
Working tirelessly on your skills and still feeling unconfident is exhausting and frustrating. Luckily, through mental imagery, you can build much-needed confidence to finally achieve peak performance.
Why Do We Lack Confidence?
Confidence can be a very tricky subject. Some people seem to naturally have incredible belief in themselves and their skills, while others seem to struggle in this area. I was one of the ones who often struggled with my confidence.
It was difficult to deal with, especially since I did everything I was supposed to do to build confidence in myself. Many extra hours were put into training my skills so that they would be perfected come competition.
Yet, for some reason, I still doubted myself whenever games rolled around. What I realized was that my lack of confidence was not coming from a lack of proficiency in skills, but rather was derived from the image I held of myself when it came to competing.
This is what happens a lot when there is a lack of confidence, especially once you reach a higher level of play. In college, most athletes will be highly proficient in their sport.
You likely have no trouble performing in a safe environment, like practice or training. If you’re anything like me, the difficulty comes when there is added pressure. This pressure can come from competition or even practice.
I would often find myself doubting my abilities in practice due to my concern about messing up in front of my coaches.
So where does this lack of confidence come from? Well, as I briefly mentioned earlier, it is typically due to the image we hold about ourselves. What causes this poor self-perception is a triggering event, usually in the form of a bad game or performance.
Nothing has really changed in our capability, but there is now doubt embedded in our minds as to how skilled we actually are. This doubt then leads to a dangerous way of viewing ourselves and our performances.
Overanalyzing & Second Guessing
When it comes to improving your performance, a valuable skill is the ability to analyze your strengths and weaknesses. However, when this is taken to an unhealthy level, it proves to be damaging to your confidence.
Once I would have one bad game, what then ensued was a pattern of overanalyzing and second-guessing myself.
For me, this usually involved my swing since it was the most mechanical aspect of my play. I would spend hours tweaking my mechanics, trying to find the cause for my bad performance. As a result of the continuous examination, I felt worse rather than better about my swing.
Once the next game rolled around, I would be second-guessing my abilities and questioning the correctness of my swing.
In reality, bad performances happen. Sometimes mechanics need to be worked on, but most likely the culprit is either mental or the fact that the opponent was better than you that day.
This kind of overanalyzing and second-guessing greatly contributes to a lack of confidence. In order to counteract the effects of this type of thinking and regain confidence in ourselves, we must alter the way we view our skills.
The best way to accomplish this is by seeing yourself be successful. That can be difficult on the physical plane, which is why incorporating mental imagery is so powerful.
What is Mental Imagery
Also referred to as sports visualization and mental rehearsal, mental imagery is the process of creating a scene in your mind about how you would like a situation to go.
When talking about it in reference to gaining confidence in your skills, mental imagery will involve visualizing yourself performing the act in which you lack confidence.
For example, let’s say you are a basketball player who is doubting your ability to make free throws. Maybe you missed a couple of free throws late in a game recently and feel the weight of the loss on your shoulders.
As a result, you now are second-guessing and doubting your ability to make a free throw. So, what you would do is perform a mental imagery session where you see yourself successfully making the shot.
Mental imagery involves using your imagination to depict a certain scenario in your mind. Only, instead of allowing your imagination to wander like you did when playing make-believe as a kid, you are now using it in a deliberate way.
What’s really interesting is when you get into the details of how and why mental imagery can have such a positive impact on our lives.
How Imagery Improves Confidence
Defining mental imagery is very easy to do. It can be summed up with a simple explanation of creating a picture or scene in your mind. Exactly how imagery works to improve our confidence levels is much more interesting.
To begin, what comes to mind when I ask the question, “How do you build confidence in a skill?”
My answer to this question would be by seeing ourselves successfully perform the skill. That is why continual practice and repetition is such a great way to gain confidence and mastery in a sport.
We must see ourselves succeed in order to have the confidence to believe we can do it again. Our perception of our capabilities is driven by past experiences. Sticking with the example from earlier, if you have a track record of making game-winning free throws, then you’ll have great confidence when placed in such a situation moving forward.
On the other hand, if what comes to your mind is the memory of you missing those two free throws and your team losing, well then, your confidence will be lacking.
One of the toughest parts about confidence is that one negative experience can significantly alter our self-perception, while it takes many successful experiences to regain confidence.
So, if we know that the only way to build confidence is through seeing ourselves successfully accomplish a task, then another problem arises. How can we succeed at an act in which we now lack so much confidence?
This is where mental imagery comes to the rescue.
A Safe Place to Practice
Instead of having to put yourself in a situation that triggers unconfident feelings, you can imagine the scenario instead.
Mental imagery provides a safe environment where you can see yourself successfully perform the skill or skills that you currently struggle with.
The reason imagery works in this way is due to how the neurons in your brain respond to the mental rehearsal. When you perform visualization, the neurons in your brain interpret the imagery as an equivalent to real-life action.
When you’re picturing yourself performing an act, your brain is sending signals to your neurons to then perform the movement.
In this way, your brain interprets the imagery work in a similar way to real-life action. So, you can build confidence by repeatedly seeing yourself succeed in the act in which you lack confidence.
On top of that, once you feel the emotions that accompany the successful achievement of the task, a link is created between those positive emotions and the scene you were imagining.
After performing mental imagery work for a while, you will build memory in your mind of seeing yourself successful. Now the act will have shifted from something you lacked confidence in, to something you know you can do.
Mental Imagery Technique to Build Confidence
Knowing that seeing ourselves successfully accomplish a task or activity is the best way to build confidence, we can now begin to use mental imagery as a safe way to do so.
Just like when you practice and train physically, mental imagery work should follow a structure. This ensures the work will be targeted towards your specific needs and will be done in an optimal manner.
You want to make this practice as efficient and effective as possible. The better your visualization practice, the quicker your confidence will grow.
The mental imagery technique I am going to show you is not complicated. But, if you want to see results as soon as possible, I advise beginning to implement it into your routine on a daily basis.
Step #1: Identify the Skill
The first step is where you want to identify and get clear on what exactly it is you want to visualize. The more specific you can be in your imagery work, the better of a result you will get.
It may seem obvious what you need to work on but take this time to really fine-tune what is causing you to lack confidence.
For example, let’s look at the situation I described earlier regarding the basketball player who is lacking confidence in shooting free throws.
Their confidence has dwindled ever since those late-game free throws were missed. The player now feels terrified about being put in a similar situation out of fear they will let their teammates down again.
The player doesn’t, however, have any trouble making free throws early in the game. There is no added pressure at this time and so the player’s confidence is fully intact.
For the first step in the mental imagery process, this athlete will need to get very specific about what part of the game they feel the least amount of confidence in. It may prove useless in building late-game confidence to simply visualize a free throw.
The player will want to set their scene to mimic that late-game feel. That way, the imagery will be as closely aligned to the real-life situation as possible.
For yourself, get as specific as you can about what aspect of your game or performance you feel the least amount of confidence, as well as what type of situation is impacted the most by low confidence.
Step #2: Get into an Optimal Environment
Mental imagery work requires a calm, relaxed, and quiet mind. In order to achieve this state, you must put yourself in an optimal environment.
This includes two parts: a quiet location where you will be undisturbed and a comfortable position.
You want to make sure you are in a location in which you will not be disturbed for about five to ten minutes. The imagery process does not need to take long but does require complete focus in order to achieve the best results.
This could mean putting your phone on silent or in airplane mode for the time being as to not get distracted by a notification.
Once you are in a nice and quiet location, get yourself into a comfortable position. Knowing the visualization work will take about five to ten minutes, your position needs to be one you know will be comfortable for that amount of time.
I personally prefer to either sit in a chair or on my knees on the ground. Feel free to lie down if you like or in any other seated position that suits you. Just be sure that your position is not going to be distracting to you during the mental rehearsal.
Step #3: Breath Work
With the third step, you are seeking to get your mind in a relaxed state.
Think of this step much like warming up before a game or a performance. You are priming your mind for the practice that is about to take place.
I like to think of breathwork as a way to create a blank canvas of my mind. Much like a painter prefers to paint on a blank canvas, we want to create a similar experience in our heads.
It can be difficult to quiet all of the ruminating thoughts that flood through our minds. Simply sitting down and trying to perform mental imagery can be frustrating if different thoughts keep popping up.
So, to counteract this you can utilize breathwork to bring stillness to your mind and prepare yourself for the mental rehearsal.
There are numerous breathwork exercises you can do. Count breathing is some of the most popular. This requires you to choose a specific number to breathe in for and then a specific number to breathe out for.
Some examples include breathing in for a count of five and then out for a count of ten. Breathing in for a count of four, retaining the breath for a count of four, and then breathing out for a count of four.
Also, you could simply take deep rhythmic breaths instead of using count breathing. Either way you choose is fine, just be sure to perform anywhere from ten to twenty breaths in order to achieve a still mind.
Step #4: Envision the Scene
Step four is where you will bring your scene to life.
If you adhered to the previous three steps, you should be in a perfect state to perform the mental imagery. Here is where your own creative experience will happen. There are no rules about how to perform your mental imagery.
The situation you imagine will be completely tailored to you and what you feel needs to be envisioned successfully.
Go into great detail here, really making the experience real. The more you can make it feel as if you were truly experiencing it, the greater of an impact the imagery will have.
Be sure to feel all the emotions that would accompany the successful achievement of the activity. That way, you begin to create a positive correlation between the situation and the feelings that it creates within you.
Once you have finished with the scene, take a few deep breaths to ground yourself back into the moment, open your eyes, and you’re finished.
Begin to make this imagery process part of your daily routine and you will feel a shift in your confidence.
Lacking confidence in a skill drastically hinders performance. Belief in yourself is an important piece to the puzzle of success. When confidence is missing, you must begin to see yourself as successful in order to change the belief.
Mental imagery provides you with a safe place where you can repeatedly envision yourself as successful. By making mental imagery part of your daily routine, what once was an area of low confidence will grow into a skill you know you can do.
If you have any questions about mental imagery or any other sports psychology topic, please feel free to reach out to me.
I hope that this article was helpful, and you can begin to use the imagery technique to build confidence within yourself.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all you do.
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