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9 ways to use visualisation in sport

9 ways to use visualisation in sport

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

Close your eyes and imagine performing a skill – really picture yourself doing it.

What you’ve just done is called visualisation, which means representing a movement or routine, a process in which athletes use all their senses to create a mental image of what they want to achieve.

Chances are you’ve heard of it or even tried it before. This word is thrown around in sport, but athletes often don’t understand the impact it can have. So, why should you visualise? And how can you do it more effectively?

Our sport and performance psychologists weigh in with tips.

Why is visualisation important?

Visualisation is important for improving performance in a range of different ways. A vast amount of research has shown the many different benefits of visualisation, which include:

  • Allowing athletes to stay confident and focused by regulating any nerves or stressors. 
  • Motivating them by giving them a vision of what they want to achieve.
  • Growing muscle strength by enhancing the cortical output signal, creating a higher level of muscle activation and therefore increasing strength.
  • Increasing focus of attention.
  • Reducing tension and fear.
  • Helping athletes learn to be more positive – mental practice is characterised by positive and successful representations, eliminating negative thoughts.
  • Allowing athletes to develop a more disciplined, organised and planned type of thinking, raising a greater awareness of the skills they perform.
  • Better preparing athletes for stressful situations.
  • Helping with pain management and performance endurance.

Another interesting bonus is that it can even help you come back from injury stronger. Research has shown that simply visualising an action produces muscle patterns that are similar to those produced when the action is actually carried out. Therefore, whilst an injured athlete cannot practise their skills, they can practise visualising it to make the execution easier when they are able to practise again.

1. Make it physical

You’ve probably been encouraged to carry out visualisation when “lying or sitting comfortably”. However, this can be ineffective as it will relax you rather than offer the necessary arousal you need to perform well.

Instead, visualisation should be a physical process, where you imagine the relevant physical characteristics. For example, footballers should try and carry out visualisation standing as they would before a penalty, wearing the same clothes that they would play in, or even holding a football by their feet.

2. Use all your senses

When visualising, engage your body’s sensory system. Visualise a vivid picture so real you can almost touch it. Not just what would you see, but what you would hear and feel, too.

3. Get emotional with it

The role of emotions in sport is often underestimated. Try and visualise the positive emotions you will experience when on the pitch as this will improve your performance. However, don’t let any negative emotions creep into your visualisations. To find out more about how to better manage emotions, click here.

4. Replicate the environment

Research has also found that replicating the environment can be beneficial.

For example, golfers who visualised their bunker shots whilst stood in a tray of sand showed an enhanced execution of such shots on the golf course. Whilst it may be impossible to carry out visualisation on the actual competition course, athletes should try and carry out visualisation in an environment that is as similar as possible.

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5. Make it specific

When carrying out task visualisation, you need to try and be as realistic as possible to ensure the imagery is specific to your abilities and level of performance.

In other words, don’t visualise a skill that is way too advanced for you, and don’t visualise skills differently to how you actually perform them. It is vital that what you visualise is specific to you and realistically applicable to your performance.

6. Done in real time

Try to imagine the timing of the action you are visualising. Timing is key to the success of many skills, so visualising them in “real time” is much more beneficial. However, slow motion imagery can be useful at times if you want to focus on more specific movements and skills you find most difficult.

7. Keep it updated

As an athlete, you should be continuously reviewing and adapting your visualisations as you make improvements and develop. This is so that what you imagine matches what you are now able to produce. If you’re still visualising a basic skill when you are now able to do a more advanced version, this will not be beneficial.

8. Keep perspective

So, how should you visualise yourself playing?

Whether you see yourself in the first person (through your own eyes) or in the third person (as if you are watching yourself on the TV) probably does not matter too much and is simply down to personal preference.

It may be that you use a combination of the two: using the first-person perspective to mimic what you actually see when you are playing, and the third-person perspective to analyse the different components of the skill you’re visualising.

9. Visualise regularly

To perform at your best, you need to be pumping two key hormones: dopamine and noradrenaline. Visualisation releases both – so the more you do it, the better equipped you’ll be for performance. Improving your mental skills is the same as improving your physical ones – it takes repetition and focused practice.

Final thoughts

Visualisation isn’t a substitute for training, but using it regularly alongside your training will help you to become the best athlete you can be. Aim to carry out the process in a similar environment to where you will be performing it, imagine what emotions you will feel, and adapt your routine to your evolving abilities.

Visualisation is a complex process, made up of many different aspects. Therefore, it needs to be practised. You would never dream of showing up to an event and trying a new skill for the first time – and you should treat visualisation in the same way. Practise your visualisation so that when it comes to competition day, you can use it effectively.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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