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Developing a Mental-Skills Performance Plan for a Client
Alison Morag Murray, Ph.D. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.

Article reviewed:
Weinberg, R. (2008). Does imagery work? Effects on performance and mental skills. Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity. Volume 3(1), 1-21.

Have you ever visualized yourself winning a race, completing a physical feat, or attaining a performance goal and it happened? There are numerous anecdotal stories and testimonials how recreational enthusiasts and competitive athletes have used imagery to achieve some type of physical objective. However, what does the research conclude as to the effectiveness of imagery? And, more specifically, how can personal trainers and fitness professionals aid their students and clients in using imagery to positively affect physical and performance outcomes? This research column will explore these questions and other fascinating findings discussed in this imagery research review by Dr. Robert Weinberg (2008).

What is imagery?
Weinberg (2008) defines imagery as “using all the senses (or at least all senses that are appropriate) to create or recreate an experience in the mind.” He elaborates that studies indicate that the brain interprets highly vivid images as identical to the real situation. For example, the tennis player may see the tennis ball being struck by her/his opponent's racket (visual), feel the core, shoulder and arm muscles preparing for a powerful return (kinesthetic), and then hear the crack of the tennis racket (auditory) as contact is made with the tennis ball.

Does imagery work?
Weinberg (2008) identifies several sports including basketball, golf, tennis, figure skating, triathlons and gymnastics where studies have demonstrated improved performance with some type of mental training program. Although the scientific evidence connecting imagery and performance is positive, it is not without it's limitations. One obvious constraint is the fact that imagery cannot be directly physically observed, as compared to other areas of physical performance such as maximal aerobic capacity or repetition maximum tests. Secondly, much of the research on imagery has been completed in laboratory settings, as opposed to in the field, under actual performance conditions. That acknowledged, Weinberg concludes that it has been found that elite athletes use visualization more systematically, expansively and with superior skill than less accomplished athletes.

What about 'psyching up'?
In the moments before any competition, physical effort or bodily challenge numerous images flash through the mind. The concentration on the successful completion of this task (or tasks) is a preparatory imagery, which athletes refer to as 'psyching up'. Research shows that preparatory imagery can favorably enhance performance, even if the person hasn't been practicing imagery (Weinberg, 2008).

Are there other applications of imagery?
Although the thrust of research and practical application of imagery is in the physical domain, Weinberg summarizes other evidenced-based research using imagery to improve self-confidence, self-efficacy, competitive anxiety and motivation.

Self-confidence and self-efficacy
Self-confidence is a belief in oneself and one's own abilities. Self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of performing certain tasks to attain certain goals (Wikipedia, 2009). For example, with self-efficacy a person could visualize herself/himself doing cardiovascular exercise (the task), which would result in losing weight (the goal). Weinberg notes that imagery research has been shown to improve these psychosocial factors.

Competitive anxiety
One of the challenges of performance in physical and intellectual areas (such as giving a speech) is when a person's arousal for the event produces a heightened anxiety that impedes or obstructs the resulting outcome. Ideally the anticipation excitement will provide a facilitative effect to the performance. Weinberg (2008) notes that visualization can be utilized in these situations to help a person perceive the raised anxiety as a welcome 'friend', providing a stimulus for success and not misfortune.

According to Wikipedia (2009), motivation is a set of reasons that determines one to engage in a particular behavior. It has been shown that athletes who are lacking in motivation for their sport can use imagery (by visualizing success) to improve their enthusiasm to train and perform (Weinberg, 2009).

Creating a Mental Training Program for Your Client
The following are some steps and examples how personal trainers and fitness professionals can create a mental training program for their clients.
Step 1: Goal Setting
As with work-out goals, a mental training program (MTP) should begin at the end! What is the desired outcome? It needs to be real so that when the client visualizes it, her/his mind KNOWS that it can be accomplished. This sets an authentic tone to the entire MTP approach. Goals should be jointly set by the trainer and client, but the client should be in the 'drivers seat'. The role of the fitness professional is to serve as a facilitator.
Guide your client to state her/his goals positively. Here are some tips to follow.
1. “I want to attain more strength in my legs”. “I want to improve my lean muscle mass and reduce my fat percentage”.
2. Keep the goals realistic, tangible and measurable.
3. The MTP should be designed upon realistic actions (regular exercise and behavior change, such as portion control in eating) the client CAN do. This is not a wish list.
4. Be progressive, just like with workouts, creating 'mini goals' that provide a pathway to the primary goal.
5. Once a goal is attained, acknowledge it and reflect on it.

Step 2: Provide a framework
Imagery may take several months to refine, yet it is still beneficial in the early learning stages. Give each client a framework, which will aid her/him in all aspects of their daily life (work, leisure time, exercise and with family). The framework is the 'lifeline' to keep the client on track, and a source of self-autonomy when the personal trainer is not around. Below is a framework based upon the concept of focusing one's attention, referred to as centering.

First Focus. Identify and reframe the distracter
Bring the distracter (i.e., something that may impair the workout) to the forefront of the mind (e.g., hunger, fatigue, family problems, worry about work, bills, etc.) and acknowledge it. Here is an example. “I'd really like to go workout, but it's getting cold and I am tired and starving.” Have the client reframe the distraction by challenging her/him to take it on: “I know it's chilly and that I feel a little tired and hungry. That's okay, I can put my sweats on and have an apple to hold me over. After the workout I will take a peaceful shower and enjoy my healthy meal”. For an additional assist with this first focus, have the client visualize how they wish to look and state an affirmation such as, “I am getting stronger and healthier each and every day”.

Second Focus: Reduce and/or block out the distracter
Remind the client that some distracters (e.g., bills, work, family problems) will be there afterward the workout and she/he can pick them up later. Or, suggest to the client to 'turn down the volume' or totally block out the distracter. Share with the client that she/he will be a much healthier and fitter person after the workout and able to deal more capably with the distracter.

Third Focus: 'Zone' the mind and energy into your task at hand
Encourage and empower the client to put forth her/his best mental and physical effort into the workout. Perhaps suggest a switch to a lighter and shorter session (if the client is tired and hungry), while still bringing total focus to the desired final goal(s).
For each focus, encourage the client do a simple breathing technique. Take a deep inhalation to signify a readiness for accomplishment, while the exhalation will designate letting go of the distracter. For instance, during the inhalation have the client say “I am” and during the exhalation have the client say “ready to train”.
Step 3: Adapt the MTP to the client's training needs and current situation
Be flexible and responsive to the client's current mental and physical self and adapt the training accordingly. Training is seldom (if ever) a combination of perfect conditions. Encourage the client to regularly visualize their short-term (weekly) and long-term (yearly) goals. Remind the client that even the best of athletes make mistakes and run into obstacles along the way. They use these same MTP techniques to overcome their barriers.

Final thoughts
Achieving success in weight loss, competition or performance is a process, not a destination. Guide your clients through these mental training program steps and join them in celebrating their successes along the way.
Side Bar 1: Coping Imagery
It is important that clients occasionally envision situations where they do may make an error (such as miss several workouts in a row) and visualize how to feel about it, how to recover and how to get back on track. Athletes and exercise enthusiasts alike need to mentally practice how to recuperate from a lapse or relapse. Picture these occurrences and then use imagery to cope with them. Encourage your client to be proud and be fearless as she/he feels vulnerable in these mental exercises. This may help the client who constantly doubts herself/himself to turnaround their thoughts. “Worried about your butt?” Create a positive statement: “I am grateful I have one and now I am off to exercise so that I will make a difference.” For clients going through tough times, it is helpful to create enjoyable workouts and endearing affirmations, such as, “I am strong, healthy and a lifelong survivor”. “I am committed to my goals and with each workout I am one step closer to my aspirations”.

Alison Morag Murray, Ph.D. is an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque). As well as coaching track and field at high school, collegiate and professional levels, she served as sports psychologist to the British Artistic Gymnastic Association, the Division 1 Rugby Football in the United Kingdom, and to Mexican collegiate and professional basketball teams. A former national champion and record holder for Scotland, Alison remains the all-time #1 ranked pole vaulter for Scotland and #2 for Great Britain.

Len Kravitz, Ph.D., is the Program Coordinator of Exercise Science and Researcher at the University of New Mexico where he won the "Outstanding Teacher of the Year" award. Len was honored with the 2006 Canadian Fitness Professional “Specialty Presenter of the Year” awards and chosen as the American Council on Exercise 2006 "Fitness Educator of the Year”. He was recently presented with the 2008 Canadian Fitness Professional “Lifetime Achievement Award”.

Additional References:
Wikipedia (2009).
Retrieved January 22, 2009

Wikipedia (2009).
Retrieved January 22, 2009