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Ninety Percent of the Game... Imagery and Athletic Performance

Jessica Varney's picture

My first exposure to psycho-cybernetics was as a seventh grader on the Milan Middle School cross-country team. The sixth and seventh grade girls traveled with the high school team to compete in our first overnight meet. Before bed at the hotel that night, Lindsey, the team captain, called the middle school room. "Don't forget to do your psycho-cybernetics!" she chastised.

"Coach Hasselbring," we asked, "what is cyber-psychonetics?"

Psycho-cybernetics, as performed by Milan High School athletes, is a set of relaxation and imagery exercises done to increase athletic performance. Defined by early pioneer Norbert Wiesner, cybernetics is “the science of control and communications in the animal and machine." It is closely related to the theory of automatic control and the physiology of the nervous system. Contemporary cybernetics arose during the 1940s and has influenced fields ranging from mathematics and computer science to psychology, biology, and even architecture [1]. Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz is a self-help book published in 1960 that, aside from lauding the benefits of positive thinking, serves as inspiration for the mental imagery exercises practiced by generations of athletes. The legend behind psycho-cybernetics, told to me by Coach Steven Porter and confirmed by a review of Maltz's text, is as follows:

Junior high basketball players are separated into three teams and asked to shoot free throws, with each individual's accuracy recorded. One of the teams practiced shooting free throws every day, while another didn't practice shooting at all. The players on the third team sat on a bench and imagined themselves shooting free throws. When the teams were tested in free throw shooting at the end of the experiment, the team that practiced every day showed the most improvement while the team that never practiced didn't improve at all. The third team, which never touched a basketball, improved by nearly as much as the team that practiced every day [2].

It has long been established that if you visualize yourself succeeding, whether on the golf course or addressing an audience, then your performance will improve. Is there an underlying neurological process behind this improvement, or is it just the result of the placebo effect? I endeavor to use my personal experiences with imagery, published studies on imagery and athletic performance, and some class vocabulary to explain how imagery can change behavior.

Imagery is a process by which sensory information is represented in working memory. Though "imagery" evokes vision, it can be a multi-sensory experience and quite vivid. McInnis and Price claim that perceiving, which I assume is the experience of receiving input from sensory neurons, and imagery - recalling this sensory information without input from sensory neurons - share the same "physiological machinery," and that imagery produces physiological effects that mirror perceptual processes including muscular reactions, heart rate, and galvanic skin response [3]. During the semester, we have suggested that there are signals in the nervous system that arise without sensory input. Imagery is one example of this phenomenon.

When I "imagine" the start of a race, I recall stored sensory input from previous racing experiences and recreate the scenario. I have a visual picture of the starting line. I have tactile memories, like the feel of my spikes scraping the track and the closeness of the other competitors. When I imagine the starter calling for runners to take their marks, I feel my left leg pushing into the track, and I can clearly hear starting gun's crack!. Just by describing the experience of imaging the starting line, I experience a genuine physiological response. My pulse quickens, I feel tension in my hamstrings, and I had been holding my breath.

Dozens of world class athletes cite imagery as playing a role in their athletic accomplishments. Jack Nicklaus claimed that imagery, in the form of visualizing the ball's trajectory, made up fifty percent of his golf game. Arnold Schwarznegger used imagery to perfect his technique while competing as a bodybuilder, while East German shot putter Udo Beyer watched a graphic image of himself in order to visualize the technique required to achieve a world record throw [4]. Even novice athletes, such as the basketball players studied in Psycho-Cybernetics, can increase their skill level by incorporating imagery into their workout routine.

There are numerous theories that try to explain why athletic performance is improved by imagery, though the two most popular are the neuromuscular theory and the cognitive model. The neuromuscular theory proposes that imagery can excite the same neuromuscular pattern associated with performing a particular skill, but without accumulating fatigue. Without fatigue, the athlete can practice the skill for a longer duration of time. The cognitive model suggests that physical practice leads to the development of physical nodes. By establishing a replicate mental node and using imagery to strengthen it, the associated physical node will also be strengthened [5].

Both theories suggest that the neurological mechanism behind the improved athletic performance associated with imagery is a central pattern generator. The neuromuscular theory insinuates that imagery activates or reinforces the central pattern generator responsible for the physical activity, while the cognitive model implies that the imagery creates a second central pattern generator for the imagined activity, and this second pattern generator reinforces the first.

Imagery may also hold uses outside of athletics, including public speaking or cessation of smoking. My high school coach, Steve Porter, claims that former athletes have told him that the imagery techniques garnered from psycho-cybernetics at track practice have helped them during childbirth. I strongly feel that there is sufficient data to conclude that imagery (mental rehearsal, psycho-cybernetics) in conjunction with physical practice can play a positive role in athletic performance, if the athlete is imagining a positive experience without outstanding technical flaws.


[1] "Cybernetics." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 4 Apr. 2008 <>

[2] Gray, Michael C. "Psycho Cybernetics Book Review." 4 Apr. 2008 <>

[3] MacInnis, Deborah J., and Linda L. Price. "The Role of Imagery in Information Processing: Review and Extensions." The Journal of Consumer Research 13 (1987): 473-491. JSTOR. 5 Apr. 2008.

[4] Sheikh, Anees A., and Errol R. Korn. Imagery in Sports and Physical Performance. Baywood Company, Inc. Google Book Project. 5 Apr. 2008 <>.

[5] Rushall, B S., and L G. Lippman. "Introduction to Imagery in Physical Performance." 1997. 5 Apr. 2008 <>.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Imagery: improvement without input?

Its an intriguing perspective that one can generate from inside the nervous system activity that will enhance one's abilities to respond effectively to the outside world. And it leads to some further interesting questions not only about the ways that is achieved ("neuromuscular theory," "cognitive model," other possibilities? what does your own experience suggest?), but also about what the limitations of such a process are? Can we think ourselves into anything or does there remain a need for actually interacting with the outside world?