Imagery is an important tool that every gymnast should have in her mental toolbox.

5 Tips for Using Imagery In Gymnastics

In the Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women's Gymnastics series, Olivia Greaves talks about how she envisions herself doing a skill with the right technique before mounting bars to do that skill. 

She's using the power of her mind to help control her outcome on bars which is a great way to prime her body for what's to come. This is imagery.

In technical terms, imagery is the act of using your senses to re-create an old experience or to create a new experience in your mind. 

While it might sound like imagery is a silly exercise to do, the truth is imagery has been proven over and over to help athletes learn new skills, perfect old ones, and practice their skills when out of the gym such as due to quarantine or injury.

What makes imagery so effective is that a gymnast can imagine herself doing a skill which will cause her brain to interpret those images and fire the muscles in her body as if she's actually doing the skill

This is huge! Imagery isn't for nothing. It can actually alter the neural pathways in your brain.

Mind. Blown.

And yet so many gymnasts don't use this tool to help them, most often because it's something that takes time to learn and can be a frustrating experience along the way. Or some gymnasts haven't been trained in imagery techniques by their coaches.

That's why I'm giving you 5 tips for how to use imagery and am hoping you'll incorporate these into your mental training routine. Remember...gymnastics is not just a physical sport! Much of it requires mental skills that the best gymnasts are known to practice over and over.

So here goes...

Here are 5 tips for how to use imagery to help your gymnastics:

 1. Use imagery to re-create a past success or create a new one.

As a gymnast you can re-create your own positive successful experiences over and over in your mind. By doing this over and over you solidify the neural pathways to your brain that know what a successful skill or routine feels like.

One way to do this is to remember 3 or 4 successful routines in your gymnastics career. Think of a meet when you were on and hit all your routines. Or you can go back to routines from different meets or from practice that felt like your best.

You can then replay these successful routines in a row in your mind for 1-2 minutes every day. In a way you are making a virtual "highlight reel" for yourself. You "watch" one routine after another where you hit your routine and do your best. 

Note: you can also create a real highlight reel where you edit together various videos of routines you've done and watch them over and over for a boost of confidence. This is not an imagery exercise, but it's a great thing to do to help you feel more confident in your gymnastics.

But you don't have to do this with only past routines. You can also create new images of successful routines or skills in your mind.

For example, let's say you fell on beam during a meet, you can create a new visual of yourself doing your routine without the fall. This should happen soon after the meet so your body and mind start to relate your new imagery experience with beam as opposed to holding on to the experience of the fall on beam. 


2. Engage all of your senses when doing imagery.

The big mistake many gymnasts make is only using their visual sense while doing imagery. Instead, you should aim to involve all relevant senses such as visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smelling), gustatory (tasting), tactile (feeling), and kinesthetic (feel of your body as it moves in different positions). 

That's a lot of senses! But it's worth practicing using them all during your imagery practice.

For example, if you are imagining yourself doing giants on bars you might think things like this:

What am I seeing while doing giants? The floor? The wall behind me?

What do I hear? Your coach saying commands, your teammates talking in the background, floor music from a routine someone is practicing? 

What do I smell? Sweat? Chalk? The smell of your body lotion?

What do I taste? This might be weird during gymnastics but what do you normally notice in your mouth? Is your mouth dry? Do you taste chalk that you inhaled? Do you taste your last snack? 

What does it feel like? Are your hands ripped and hurting? Are you gripping on tightly? Are you squeezing your legs together? Is the wind blowing you as you go around the bar?

And finally, what kind of body awareness do I have? Are you getting dizzy? Do you know where you are in space? Are your eyes closed or open?

It might sound like a lot of things to think about but once you get the hang of it you can incorporate all of your senses. In fact, you might start with just a few senses and then add in more as you get better at it.

Some senses might be easier to imagine than others. If so, focus on the ones that are harder to imagine so you can get better at those senses during your imagery practice.

Also, when you first start practicing imagery, your images might not be very vivid (clear and detailed). This is normal and is something you can improve upon as you practice.


Confidence Course for Gymnasts

3. Engage your feelings during imagery.

This one might not be as obvious but the emotions you are feeling during these experiences is an important part of imagery.

Not only can imagery be used to control and enhance body mechanics, it can also be used to control anger, anxiety (nerves), and pain. 

For example, if you are re-creating a routine at a meet, think about your nerves and what those felt like? Did you feel butterflies in your stomach? Did your stomach feel rigid or maybe it was making gurgling noises?

Did you feel happy, sad, or have neutral feelings? 

If you fell, did you feel angry after your fall? What did that anger feel like to you? A warm feeling in your chest or belly? A pressure in your head?

In order to positively influence experiences in your mind, you have to be able to recreate the original experience down to the littlest emotion. From there you can focus on changing the emotions to what you want them to be. 


4. Practice using different imagery perspectives.

When you practice imagery, there are two different ways you can see yourself. You can see yourself as if you're watching yourself on video, called an external imagery perspective. Or you can see yourself from inside your own body the way your eyes would normally see, called an internal imagery perspective

Either perspective can be valuable and in fact, switching between the two perspectives can offer benefits.

Research has shown that for gymnastics, external imagery is often more useful since gymnastics involves skills that require very specific form. By utilizing an external imagery perspective you can see your entire body performing a skill or routine with good form, as opposed to just viewing the world around you as you flip and twist from the perspective of your eyes.

However, both types of imagery offer value and neither should be ruled out. You should try out both perspectives and see which one feels more helpful to you in different situations. On different events you might even use different perspectives. On beam, it might be easier to engage an internal imagery perspective while on vault it might be easier to use an external imagery perspective. Again, there is no right or wrong way to do this.

Overall, it's important for gymnasts to be comfortable with both types of imagery. One way to practice these different types of perspectives is to do a skill or routine and then immediately close your eyes and try to recreate this skill or routine in your mind starting with an internal perspective. Do this over and over until you feel you've mastered it and then try the same thing again but using an external perspective.

Just like physical muscles, getting good at the different types of imagery takes time and consistency. But the ability to be able to switch between perspectives and to control the type of perspective you use is a skill that comes with practice.


5. Practice imagery often.

In order for imagery to count as a mental training tool, you have to do it on a regular basis, even if it's in small doses. Daily practice is ideal although research has shown that 3 times per week is also effective.

When you first start out, it's common for your imagery to lack vividness or not to go the way you want it to go. Manipulating images in your mind is tough! 

Controllability is your ability to be able to imagine what you want to imagine and to be able to change different aspects of your imagery as needed. In order for imagery to be effective, you have to master the ability to control your images. 

Again, controllability gets easier the more and more you practice it and is a skill that takes time to learn.

Another aspect of imagery that's important to practice is timing. Imagery should happen in as real time as possible, down to the second.

So when you're imagining your routines, you can actually use a stop watch to time your mental routines. Do these routines take you the same amount of time to complete as your actual routine? If not, they should!

If you find that you're going too fast in your mental routines, then it's worth slowing down and trying again until the timing is more accurate. And if you're going too slow then you'll want to practice speeding up your imagery.

The only exception might be when you're trying to create a new skill in your mind, one you haven't yet tried or mastered. It may feel like slow-motion to you when you go through this skill and that's ok. It will get faster as you practice and actually try the skill in real life.


Imagery in Gymnastics - Stick It Girl 

Imagery is such an important tool for gymnasts to learn and master. I've given you a few tips to help you get started with imagery in gymnastics, but I've only just scratched the surface. Expect more articles on imagery in the future!

In the meantime, practice trying to recreate a skill or routine in your mind immediately after you've done it. Try engaging all of your senses and feelings and remember to keep the timing of your skill/routine as close to the actual timing as possible. Practice often and practice switching between the different perspectives of imagery until you find the one that works for that particular event.

Imagery is definitely a skill that takes time to perfect but is, without a doubt, worth practicing. Good luck!




If you or your gymnast needs support, in addition to the resources below I also offer one-on-one coaching sessions via Zoom.


Gymnastics Mental Blocks Guidebook for Parents


Helpful Links:



Gymnastics Mental Coach Anna Kojac, M.Ed.



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