If an upcoming event has ever kept you awake at night, then rest assured (no pun intended!) you are in good company. In her autobiography, international event rider Pippa Funnell describes her previous cross-country ‘mind demons’. Fences that worried her would grow out of proportion and cause sleepless nights. The ditches grew deeper, wider, and seemingly ‘unjumpable’. Pippa goes on to talk about how using imagery now helps her to mentally prepare for the cross-country phase at events: “After I’ve got changed, I sit down and ride the course in my mind in a positive way, visualising jumping every fence very well.”

What is imagery?

Imagery involves using some or all of your senses – sight, sound, feel, smell, taste – to create a mental image. For example, a rider might view themselves approaching a showjump; hear the rhythmic snort of their horse; and feel the powerful, punchy canter underneath them. These sensations can also be combined with helpful emotions within the imagery, such as feeling confident in the quality of the canter, and committed to the line taken to the fence. Using these multiple senses and emotions often helps to create a more vivid and meaningful image. What’s more imagery can be used to re-live previous great performances, or to plan future performance.

Where’s the evidence?

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support using imagery in sport. In an interview, rugby star Jonny Wilkinson talked of regularly using imagery prior to games, to get used to pressure environments: “You are creating the sights and sounds and smells, the atmosphere, the sensation, and the nerves, right down to the early morning wake-up call and that feeling in your stomach. It helps your body to get used to performing under pressure.” Likewise, in his autobiography, Olympic cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins, describes how imagery has been a key part of his preparation for competition: “The routine for this time trial is the same one I’ve built and perfected over fifteen years; as I go through it thoughts and images flash through my mind…I always pick a power to ride at. If it’s 460, 470 watts, I’m imagining being there, at that power. In my head it’s feeling strong, flowing, everything’s working. It’s easy, I’m floating along, I’m gliding, it’s feeling great. I can sustain this feeling for up to an hour.”

But, is there a scientific basis to using imagery? Research indicates that our brains can tell little difference between vivid imagery and real-life scenarios. In fact, very similar neural and muscle activity is activated when we imagine participating in sport, and when we physically participate. That is, during imagery we activate interconnected nerve cells that link what the body does to the brain impulses that control it. Therefore, by using imagery it is possible that brain-body associations can be strengthened.

Not only this, but we can strengthen our psychological reactions to certain scenarios by using imagery. The scenario might involve anything from approaching a trakehner on a cross-country course, to driving the lorry to an event alone for the first time. By imagining the senses involved in that scenario (e.g., seeing the fence approaching, hearing the fence judge’s whistle), and then including the thoughts, emotions, and actions you want to experience (e.g., “Look up”, committed, leg on), you are more likely to react in this way to the scenario in real life. As such, we can mentally practise and strengthen our ideal mindset prior to performance.

What about equestrian-specific evidence? During my masters degree, I undertook some research with riders; all amateur competitors in eventing or dressage. The key  take-home message was that across several schooling sessions, imagining riding chosen dressage movements before physically riding them helped the riders to perform these movements better (as rated by the riders and by independent trainers). That is, they were better able to plan how they would ride the movement by mentally rehearsing it first; theoretically producing clearer aids and more positive, confident riding.

What could imagery be used for?

There are many possible uses of imagery, and some examples include:

  • Confidence / self-belief. e.g., building confidence in your ability to jump the ditch, drive the lorry, or tackle any task that you are worried about (such as Pippa’s example).
  • Skill acquisition. e.g., recalling the aids or feeling needed when learning or improving a technical skill (such as my research within schooling sessions).
  • Focus. e.g., aiding memory of a dressage test or a jumping course.
  • Strategy rehearsal. e.g., creating plan b’s: “If I land short over element A, I’ll…”
  • Motivation. e.g., imagining future successes or the feeling of satisfaction, as a motivator to get up early and ride in the rain

Whilst people may differ in their natural ability, imagery is a mental skill that can be learned and perfected, just like physical and technical skills. In my next blog, I’ll focus on some practical tips for using imagery. Until then, I’d love to hear from any riders who use imagery already! Tweet me at @jdpsychology.

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