I am a Sport and Performance Psychologist in Australia and I also have Aphantasia. I literally work with athletes and performers (performers being anyone from singers, dancers, doctors, artists, musicians, to fighter jet pilots) every day and talk about visualisation and mental rehearsal…but of course have no personal experience of it. Given the intersection of my work with athletes and performers (and my own athletic endevours) I have a particular interest.
Although the research may have advanced since I last looked at it in depth the main theory used to explain why imagery works is the “psychoneuromuscular” theory – which essentially says that when the brain processes imagery then impulses are sent to the muscles involved (allbeit at a lower intensity). The neural pathways are thereby strengthened and learning and practice of motor skills is facilitated.
From both the research and my experience working with clients; visualisation or imagery is useful and helpful for the majority of those who use it. Imagery capability is a continuum from low to high, however, and as each individual will sit somewhere on the continuum; some athletes and performers can do it well and some not so well. Regular imagery practice seems to improve imagery capability. I have generally found that more elite athletes have more effective imagery (in terms of control and vividness of the image).
With my clients, I always talk about mental rehearsal rather than imagery per se as the use of the other senses (hearing, smell, tough, and taste) seems to increase the effectiveness of the mental rehearsal. So, depending on whether you are all senses aphantasic or not you could try and utilise the other senses into mental rehearsal (but without the visual aspect) and this may have utility.
Assuming, however, you are all senses aphantasic, I would say this. Mental rehearsal, although advantageous, is primarily helpful because it allows an athlete or performer to practice mentally when they can’t practice physically. So simply practicing more physically and training smarter versus harder may allow you to reach a similar point. Talent is necessary but insufficient for success. Successful athletes also have an enormous appetite for hard work and many “outwork” their opponents, competitors, or teammates.
But after devoting most of their lives to a particular sport or discipline, I would say that most elite and professional athletes and performers have physically practiced so extensively they reach a comparatively similar “expert” level. At this point, in my experience, its no longer the physical skill or capability that distinguishes success….rather, at least in part, a host of psychological factors are also important. In my experience, emotional regulation (particularly controlling performance anxiety, anger, and frustration) become just as important, if not more so, as the actual physical skills. Therefore if you can’t visualise you could still focus on other aspects of performance like emotional regulation.
Personally, I also think there are advantages to aphantasia for performance. For example, its highly likely you will never “relive” unsuccessful sporting moments or failures or not to the same level and thus your confidence and motivation may not be impacted in the same way as someone who does relive those moments and dwell on the past. Practically, I would suggest, therefore, that it may be useful for you to investigate how your aphantasia might help your performance and not just hinder it.