Trending Topics

Instant pre-play: 8 tips for making tactical performance imagery effective

Though common and relatively simple to learn and use, Tactical Performance Imagery can become most effective when certain approaches are utilized


Mental imagery or mental rehearsal is a widely used psychological technique to maximize performance. Almost all Olympic athletes and coaches at the U.S Olympic Training Center agreed that mental imagery enhances performance. [1] Mental imagery or Tactical Performance Imagery (TPI) is also one of the most used psychological performance enhancement techniques reported by police officers with about 40% of officers reporting their use when on duty. [2] Of these, TPI was used by 87% of the officers on the way to a call. About 75% of officers used performance imagery to rehearse possible responses and about 40% used it as a “mental checklist” for preparation readiness.

Though common and relatively simple to learn and use, Tactical Performance Imagery can become most effective when certain approaches are utilized. [3]

Here are eight ways to maximize tactical performance imagery:

1. Call it imagery, not visualization or visualizing

As will be elaborated in the next tip, using the term visualization implies and influences you to mentally rehearse only what you see in a tactical situation. TPI is much more than this.

2. Use all five senses when you image

When you are engaged tactically, all five senses (and maybe your “6th sense”) are at work. To get the best transfer from imagery practice to the real world of policing, it is important to image in all five senses. Image what you see, hear, feel – both physically and emotionally – taste and smell during the encounter. This makes the experience much more realistic and increases transfer to actual encounters.

3. Practice your imagery

TPI is a skill and like any skill it improves with use and practice. Just because this is a “psychological” skill, that doesn’t mean that just “talking about it” makes you skillful at it. Practice.

4. Image your skills and responses correctly

TPI is like physical practice; if you mentally rehearse a response sloppily or incorrectly, you will perform it sloppily or incorrectly. It is essential to not be sloppy, lazy, or incorrect in your images. Perfect practice makes perfect.

5. Image in real-time

Just as with physical practice, it may be useful to begin imaging a skill or tactic in “slow-motion.” However, ultimately, the skill or tactic should be imaged in real-time speed for the best effect.

6. Move with your imagery

Again, just because this is a psychological skill, it doesn’t mean you have to sit or lay perfectly still in a chair or on a couch. It is beneficial to incorporate “kinesthetic” imagery and movement; softly perform simple movement while imaging a scenario or skill. Pantomiming the skill while engaged in imagery will increase the effect.

7. Image problems, but always a successful response

It is critically important that you spend some time imaging things going unexpectedly wrong or badly. But never stop there. Always image what your response will be to the negative situation. Even if there is no ideal strategy or reaction, image what you can do. This is a major strength of TPI. It allows you to experience and prepare for the unexpected, so when it occurs you have an immediate response and avoid the delay of the “Oh Sh-t” response trying to figure out “What to do now?”

8. Consider the best imagery “perspective” for you

There are two perspectives for Tactical Performance Imagery. The External or Third Person perspective is when your imagery is like watching yourself on videotape; being outside yourself, like a spectator watching what is going on. The Internal or First Person perspective is when your imagery is that of what you actually experience during a response; you are doing the action and experiencing the situation, not watching yourself perform. You see (hear, feel, taste, smell) what you actually experience during a response.

There are no firm conclusions about which perspective is best for enhancing performance. However, personal experience in working with athletes, police, and in other areas of human performance has engendered a preference for the internal/first-person perspective. The more involved and realistic First Person view is believed to be ultimately important.

There are some cautions in using imagery, such as recognizing that it can not replace physical training and that it may be problematic with individuals who have a history of trauma or PTSD. And, as with any skill, seeking out experienced and expert guidance is always a good idea. However, overall, tactical performance imagery is a very effective technique for preparing and executing police skills.


1. Murphy S. (2005). Imagery: Inner theater becomes reality. In S. Murphy (ed.) The Sport Psych Handbook. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics.

2. McDonald J. (2006). Gold Medal Policing. NY: Sloan Associates.

3. Asken M. (2005). Mindsighting: Mental Toughness skills for police officers in high stress situations.

Dr. Michael Asken is the retired psychologist for the Pennsylvania State Police, specifically the Special Emergency Response Team. He was involved with the selection and training of troopers, as well as cadet performance issues at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy where he also taught. Asken holds a BA in social & behavioral sciences from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at West Virginia University. He was a Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology fellow at the American Psychological Association. Asken has written articles for SWAT Digest, The Crisis Negotiator, The Tactical Edge, Law Officer, The Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police, and the FireArms Instructor.