During an especially grueling (and delightful) workout at AX Fitness, we were running sprints while starting from a plank position. The sprints were fine – a familiar pain – but the planks were becoming more and more intense as my quads and abs started to burn and my breath was hard to catch. At one point during a plank, I thought I would have to put my knees down, go into downward dog, do something to stop the pain. Then our trainer says something along the lines of, “Everyone hold this plank! The more you twitch, the longer we hold it! Everyone in plank now!”
In that moment when my abs and quads were burning and all I wanted to do was stop, I didn’t distract myself by thinking about the strength I was building, or how much better this would make me at roller derby – I started imagining myself as the main character in the fantasy novel I am currently reading.
Side note: I love fantasy novels. I’m not as drawn to science-fiction or murder mysteries, but I LOVE high-fantasy. These fantasy novels all have the same general story line – there is a young guy or gal from a poor upbringing, who then discovers he/she is actually some magical human or chosen one that has to then save the world (or worlds, depending on what book you’re reading). I get so entranced by these types of stories. When the fantasy series are especially long (such as the Wheel of Time, 14 books with an average of 830 pages each), I feel like I’ve lost friends when the series are over.
So back to my plank situation – I am enduring physical discomfort by comparing it to the physical trials endured by the characters in my novel. This plank may be painful, but it’s not as bad as holding onto the side of a ledge for dear life, or fighting the ultimate enemy to save the world. Imagining these intense situations helped me dig just a bit deeper, focus on my breathing and endure more physical discomfort than I thought I could.
Of course, wanting to make sure I wasn’t crazy, I started researching the psychology behind this type of mental imagery. After some searching, I was delighted to discover a research article in which they found that “reading a novel invokes neural activity that is associated with bodily sensations,” referred to as “embodied semantics” (Berns et al., 2013).
As noted in a follow-up review of this article, embodied semantics is akin to the visualization used in sports imagery: “…reading fiction was found to improve the reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and flex the imagination in a way that is similar to the visualization of a muscle memory in sports” (Bergland, 2014). So just as mental imagery of a sport can actually help your skills improve, you can also improve your physical stamina through imagined scenarios.
If you feel like you struggle with mental imagery in sport scenarios, try practicing mental imagery with fantasy-like situations. Being able to master this type of imagery may make effective sports imagery much easier for you. Imagining fantasy scenarios might not improve your roller derby skills, but it may help you work harder during workouts.
So next time you sit down on the couch and get ready to turn on the TV, grab a novel with a strong main character instead! It just may help you both improve your mental imagery in sports and also help you persist through your grueling workouts.