Sports Psychology Visualization
Preparation for Athletes
Remember back when you were a
little kid, just how easy it was to use your imagination?
Children see almost everything clearly and in exciting and different
ways. Their perception does not always match up with objective
reality, but it is
creative and inventive. Kids play games imagining that they are
soldiers, or spacemen, or fire fighters, or scientists - in fact, anything they want to
be. They create playmates, situations, and amazing inventions
with no trouble at all, and have a ready answer for almost any problem
in the world (whether it's functional or not).
So what happens as we get older? We become
more "realistic" ("get real
man"), forcing us to give up some of that creativity for
well-thought-out answers that we can defend under difficult
questioning. Our environment
restricts us (more or less gradually) to the point that we nearly fear creativity because the
risk of humiliation or taunting is greater than our perceived
For some time, visualization in sports has been
granted "weird" status by many
who do not understand it. In spite
of that bias, visualization has continued to grow as a valuable tool
used by nearly every Olympic and professional athlete. There was
also a time when people pooh-poohed the idea of using computers to
analyze physical movement and train for improvement, but that is now
commonplace also. Whether you call it visualization, imagery,
mental rehearsal, or mental practice, the idea is to place importance
on improving your cognitive performance along with your physical
Studies demonstrate conclusively that the cognitive
aspects of athletic tasks are nearly as important as the physical
ones. Cognitive components of skill acquisition include memory,
interpretation of feedback, decision-making, problem-solving, and
visualization. This means that we must be able to (a) remember
what we have
done, what worked, and what didn't; (b) have an understanding of the
relative success or failure of our tactics; (c) develop an ability to
quickly from among our various options and make an informed, sensible
decision; (d) use our abilities to overcome unique or new obstacles we
(e) create a visualization of what exactly we are doing now, what would
best to do, and imagine ourselves performing the skill successfully.
There is a famous story about a gymnastics coach who
taught one of his students an entire routine with no physical practice
whatsoever. Because of an injury, she was prevented from actually
practicing the routine except within her mind, yet when she finally
went out to try it, she hit every move perfectly the first time.
The coach was so freaked out that he never used the technique
again. (Ironic, since you'd think he'd use it all the
time after that.) Is it advisable to quit physical practice
altogther and use only visualization to train for something like a
soccer match or football game? Of course not. But, if there
are ways to benefit by adding this technique to your arsenal, you'd be
foolish not to use
it, wouldn't you?
When we are mentally rehearsing, we are both
recalling skills we have already performed and
preparing our motor senses to perform successfully again. We are
our cognitive patterns through repetition, and making our successes
more automatic. We can use it to imagine exactly what we want to
do in certain game or personal situations. We can imagine
everything that might
go wrong in competition, and envision how we will handle it. Some
athletes have used specific types of visualization to speed their
recovery from injury. We can use it to block out "mind games"
that our opponents are trying to play on us, or anticipate criticism
from coaches, teammates, or parents and take the sting out of such
comments. We can even use them as "pep talks" to keep negative
thoughts out of our processing.
Good visualizations include 5 aspects: (1)
break your task down into tiny parts and see each part separately; (2)
see the activity in slow motion, and notice the nuances that you
might miss at full speed; (3) control the exact time and place of
occurence so it will fit your needs for performance; (4)
determine the exact outcomes of your actions, what will be the
results?; and (5) regulate your feelings about
those outcomes. Even in mental
practice, the discrete elements must be practiced correctly and
positively. In other words, you must practice as
efficiently and correctly mentally as you do physically, if you expect
to succeed. "Practice makes permanent!"
It is also important that we use all 5 senses in the
process. When you examine the methods and even the language we
use in sports, you can tell how important these senses are. A
good visualization should include all your senses, even when the image
is relatively short-term. Here's how they relate:
Sight - It is important to actually "see" what you
will do. Again, think of those bobsledders at the Olympics,
golfers, etc.who stand and "see" what they are about to do, then go and
do it. We even use the term "you have that look in your eyes", as
though we can recognize when someone looks as though they are about to
succeed (though we can certainly see determination or concentration or
seriousness of purpose.)
Touch - What will you literally feel during the
activity? It may be the touch of the ball/bat/club in your hands
or the grass/turf under your feet. We talk about an athlete
having "that feeling of power" when they are performing exceptionally.
Smell - Will there be popcorn, fresh grass, rain or
water, locker room odors,
etc. in connection with your activity? At a recent All-Star game,
Ted Williams was seen talking to Mark McGwire in a private
moment. When he was asked what the great hitter had said to him,
McGwire admitted that Williams asked him if he ever smelled the wood
burning on his bat after a hard foul ball. McGwire had to admit
that he had. Forty years after playing his final game, Williams
still remembered a smell as an indicator that he was close to great performance.
In a connected way, we often hear the phrase "the sweet smell of
success", even though we know that success has no actual odor.
Sounds - There are lots of natural ones that occur
in games and practices -
bat hits ball, pads crash, swish of the net - so it is important
for us to filter the ones we enjoy into our visualizations. We
say, "It sounds good to me".
Tastes - In sports, these are not always the
greatest things. We might taste our own sweat, blood in our
mouth, acrid odors, etc., yet we recognize others as positive. We
say that victory is "sweet", and that losses are "bitter". It is vitally
important that when you are structuring your visualizations, you
incorporate as much from your senses as possible, so the image will be
as real as
possible. The more real your imagery, the more successful your
technique will be.
Your visualization sessions should be internal, and
either be very short (less
than one minute) or of more than 10 minutes in length. The
short visualizations are best for use during practices and games, while
the longer ones are best suited for private times alone. It is
very difficult to concentrate deeply on your imagery if you have too
many distractions. You can easily use your longer "alone time" to
set up the shorter visualizations that you will use in practices and
games. As with any other skill, if you do not practice your
visualizations regularly, they will not function properly.
TECHNIQUES: There are many different techniques for
applying visualizations effectively. As with any other strategy,
you must choose what feels most comfortable and effective for
you. Here are some options you can explore:
~ Write down specific visualizations you want to use -
be very complete about the details. Make a "script" from this
writing. Record a tape of yourself reading this "script" - it
will help you visualize. Then play the tape while you are
relaxing, so you can concentrate on the images.
~ Make a video of yourself during a practice or game,
and use the best clips to help you see exactly what you look like when
you are doing an excellent job. Use these images when you are
visualizing a good performance.
~ Focus on the key moments that will occur during your
will be the most important moments? What are the key moments
during warm-ups, the first minute, the point at which something
goes wrong, a time when we're behind, when we go ahead, at
halftime, the critical
moment, the big play, a major turning point, at the final buzzer, in
your postgame locker room,
and with your family afterward? If you have visualizations that
"predict" these moments (or even a few of them), and you then
have a plan for how you will react, you are 100% closer to handling
them effectively. [As an example here, if you knew your coach was
going to berate you about one specific skill that you've been
struggling with, and you had already visualized that confrontation, and
you had prepared a positive response that would make both you and your coach feel better,
then when your coach came to talk to you, the exchange would be both
positive and productive.]
~ Some folks use anchoring
with their visualizations. If you have a quick and easy physical
"key" that allows you to immediately access your imagery, then you can
call it up on demand. This is especially helpful if you only have
a brief moment during a practice or game to visualize. For
example, you line up to kick a field goal, take a foul shot, or smack
your serve. You don't have much time to use your visualization,
but your anchor helps you reach it all immediately, so you can "see"
your success before it happens.
As with any technique, not all of us will feel
accomplished or comfortable with using the tool as quickly as someone
Therefore, we might need some practice, and Harvey Dorfman, author of The Mental Game of Baseball
has listed some exercises to develop your visualization skills.
(Which I adapted slightly for you, of course.)
(1) You have just been called in by the
police. They have informed you that in order to be released, you
must describe your own bedroom with nearly perfect accuracy.
Imagine that you are
observing your bedroom very closely (within your mind, don't do this in
your bedroom silly!). See the colors, positions of
objects, sizes and shapes. Feel the textures present, smell the
odors, hear the usual sounds that
are there. Make a mental note of every item in your room, and see
just how many things you can recall. Then go and look at your
room, and see what you left out.
(2) Imagine you have 3 colored balls on a table in
front of you.
Practice moving them around on the table, slowly at first, then faster
and faster. (Kind of like the guy with the walnut shells and the
pea.) When you are doing well, add
another ball of a different color. See the details of all the
balls - shades of color, imprints,
indentations and flaws in them.
(3) Invent a vacation spot, and put in all the
you can think of. How does it smell? What sounds are
there? Fill in all the plants, people, buildings, etc. that might
conceiveably be there.
(4) Imagine that someone hands you a paper
bag. Inside the bag are some objects, but you haven't been told
what they are. Pull out the imaginary objects and explore them
carefully. See them in sufficient detail that you could describe
them to another person who had not "seen" them.
As a word of warning, you must beware of
overvisualizing. You don't want to play the game so many times in
you become exhausted before it actually gets played. There is a
story abou a
4 X 100 meter relay team who had very little time to practice together,
so they ran the race dozens of times mentally on their own. This
worked very well, and they were actually a better team when they came
together for their few practices. On their way to a major
competition, they "ran the race" many times over in their minds, and
actually measured what would be a record time for them.
Unfortunately, when they got to the competition, they ran very
poorly. Afterward, they described being exhausted. They had
used up all their energy in mental practice, and were too
tired to actually perform. You may have experienced something like this if you have ever
anticipated a "big game" all day long with great excitement, but then
found yourself "flat" at game time.
~ (1) Visualize the most
upset, angry, or failed you have
ever felt. Really get into that moment, work at it, feel those
feelings, make the memory as real as possible. (Do this right
Afterward, how does your body feel?
Likely, you feel upset and uncomfortable - this shows the power of
visualization. We will feel actual physical effects of mental
practice. Does your heart rate escalate when you visualize?
It should, if
you are visualizing competitive situations. You may even feel
"winded" if the visualization is extremely realistic. (Of course,
less so if you are using the proper Breathing
~ (2) Use
exercise #3 from Harvey Dorfman (above) to create a "special
place" for yourself. In the following section, when you
develop your relaxation technique, it will be important to have a
comfortable, peaceful, protected place to go in your mind when you feel
threatened, need to concentrate fully, or simply want to "get away"
from it all. Develop this "special place" as fully as you
possibly can, and be certain that it is a place you can feel completely
relaxed, fully at peace, protected and safe from any care or concern in
the world. Practice seeing your special place at least once every
day from now until your season ends.
~ (3) Go back
to the Problems and Goals you have previously constructed. These
are the important things that you want to control about your athletic
life. Create a visualization, even a brief one, that relates to
your goals. Have your visualizations contain elements related to
goal achievement - what exactly do you need to do to "succeed"?
See yourself performing your skill successfully, or handling situations
effectively. Make these visualizations as real as possible.
Use all your senses, as it was described above. If you need to,
write down what each of these visualizations look like until you get
them fully internalized. Practice each visualization every day - maybe several
times a day if it is a recurring thing. Remember that as your
season progresses and your success rate improves, you may need to
modify these visualizations so they will carry you further. If
you are struggling with this, write the visualization more fully so you
will have a sort of "script" to go by.