Effective visualisation can help to enhance performance through the following benefits:
- Improved confidence
- Improved concentration
- Enhanced motivation
- Emotional control
- Acquire, practice and hone specific skills
- Strategy improvement
- Preparation for competition
- Coping with pain and injury
- Problem Solving
One of the biggest sources of enhancing confidence is through previous performance achievements. Effective visualisation techniques can help you to recreate those successful moments in detail, leading to the mind-set ‘if I’ve done it before I can do it again’ and improving confidence. Crucially, visualisation can also help us create images of us doing things that we haven’t done before and seeing ourselves do them well. Research shows that the running of successful movies in our mind builds confidence and therefore improves subsequent performances. This can lead to an upward spiral to good performance, visualising and re-running the performance, making adjustments and then re-running an improved image next time.
Visualisation is a great tool to help with concentration. Even during a performance, you can visualise how you want things to turn out, constantly seeing images of success. In stop-start sports such as football or rugby, visualising the things you want to happen and imagining these, you can help stop your mind from wandering to distracting or unhelpful thoughts.
Visualisation can be used to rehearse your responses and reactions to certain situations. A tennis player that normally screams and berates themselves when missing an easy shot can learn through visualisation how they might react in a more productive way; seeing themselves calmly review the error and refocusing on what they need to do next. By repeating these movies over and over again, they’re more likely to respond better in pressurised situations, leading to improved decision making and aa improved focus on the relevant cues.
Visualisation has been shown to be most effective for improving motivation. By visualising the adjustments you might like to make, and seeing the changes in your mind, you’re much more likely to want to go out and improve that particular skill. You might, for example, see yourself standing up in front of an audience and giving a powerful speech and then be highly motivated to actually go out and give that speech. As another example, a person who undertakes a new training and fitness regime will benefit by seeing their new slim healthier self and be motivated to keep going and improve their diet. Visualisation has also been shown to enhance motivation by adding purpose to repetitive and monotonous exercises, for example, a young tennis player hitting 50 cross-court forehands. By continually visualising correct body position and movement, along with the ball trajectory, speed and depth – motivation to achieve this will be enhanced, making practice more enjoyable and effective.
Controlled Emotions and Responses
Visualisation can be used to get you at the right ‘emotional temperature’ what we call your optimum zone for performance. This will depend on the sport and the individual, sometimes you’ll need to psych yourself up, many times you’ll need to become calmer and more relaxed. The highly successful women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt would use visualisation with the team for relaxation before big matches. Likewise, the highly respected Football manager Steve Coppell would ask all the players in the dressing room before a match to close their eyes for a few moments and visualise what they wanted to do in that game and see themselves doing it well. In many sports, this is a great strategy, as many athletes will simply get themselves so pumped up they lose focus and find it difficult to make the right decisions and choices.
Acquire, Practice and Correct Sports Skills
One of the best-known uses of visualisation is practicing particular sports skills. The nice thing about visualisation is you can play a tape in your mind of the perfect execution and see yourself doing it. The more complex the routine or skill, the more beneficial it will be to use visualisation – science has shown over and over again that mental rehearsal helps skill acquisition.
This type of visualisation can be used to review what you’ve just done and then make adjustments in your mind to practice how you intend to do it next time – so it can be used to help detect and correct errors. As an example, if a track and field athlete is having trouble leaving the blocks at the start of the race and with the first step and transition into full speed, by visualising and feeling the perfect start over and over again their confidence can be improved by the mental rehearsal. Which, as we’ve seen, cannot be distinguished by the mind from actual practice. That’s precisely why using visualisation alongside physical practice has been shown repeatedly to be more effective than simply just doing the physical practice alone. And as we’ve seen, the more detail you can add, the more effective your visualisation will be. By using video footage you’re likely to improve even quicker as you’ll see exactly how you’re performing and then you can visualise the small adjustments you have to make.
We’ve just seen how visualisation can be used to practice a specific skill. More generally, you can also use it to look at your overall strategy. So a soccer player might imagine a volleying technique including contact with the ball when thinking specifically and then envisage his position in relation to defenders, and the goalkeeper when imagining strategically. Again, as the mind cannot distinguish between real and imagined pictures it’s like actually practicing the strategy in real life. Hank Aaron, an all-time leading home run hitter, would use this type of visualisation before going to bat, by imagining the various types of pitches a particular pitcher might throw at him and rehearse in his mind the strategies he would use to counteract these pitches. The legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson used this technique: “I was always trying to add imagination to my coaching, emphasising the need for players to have a picture in their minds, to visualise how they could have a creative impact on the shifting pattern of the game”.
Prepare for competition
Athletes will often use visualisation just before competition to get them ready to compete. Unfortunately, this is a time when controllability of those pictures is essential as it is the prime time that focus could be diverted to negative images. Using visualisation pre-competition is an opportunity to get yourself into your optimal zone by taking some time to imagine, for example, all of your preparation and the things you’ve been working on – in particular, what has been going well for you.
It’s a matter of finding what works best for you at competition too. Some performers prefer thinking of anything but the competition whilst waiting – it really depends on a number of things – your personal preferences, the duration of the event, and time between competing if there are multiple races or matches for example. It might be that a combination of distraction techniques and then using visualisation say 30 minutes before competing works best for you. Try different combinations to find out what your preference is.
Coping with pain and injury
Evidence has shown that visualisation can help with coping with pain and injury. Using relaxing imagery can help cope with pain and positive imagery can actually help speed up recovery, furthermore, there is ample evidence that it is really effective at keeping skills intact whilst you are injured.
Visualisation can help performers identify and correct problems. A tennis player who is finding it hard to get the right shape on his backhand might review a video of himself making the shot and then visualise the corrections he has to make. Teams might visualise the way their opponent is likely to play and come up with images on how they’ll counteract any strengths and exploit weaknesses.
Visualisation is a flexible tool and if used in a structured and systematic way, it can really help you on your journey, building confidence and improving performance.
Before your next training session, take some time to imagine getting changed in the dressing room and then walking onto the pitch or track where you train – What’s around you? What can you hear? What colours can you see? Smells? What else can you see or feel? Try and make the picture as real as possible and then when you actually go through the process in reality try and compare the image you had with the reality…keep practicing this and your ability to produce vivid images will improve.
Next, recall a previous good performance and replay this over and over again, adding detail as you go. So at first look at the colours, feel the clothes and apparatus, the feel of the ball hitting your racket or your feet in the blocks, feel the texture against your fingers. What does it smell like? What noises do you hear? What distractions were there and how did you ignore them? What were you feeling as you performed so well?
How did it feel afterwards?