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Visualisation. The when.The where. The how

Types of Visualisation

There are two main types of visualisation used by athletes, motivational and cognitive. Both types can be used to improve self-confidence and then ultimately performance.

Motivational visualisation is used to visualise goals and goal orientated behaviours around performing well, it is also used to relax or psych up. Motivational visualisation should put you in a place where you are expecting great things of yourself and create feelings of confidence, mastery and an ability to cope and focus under pressure. As Michael Jordan said “You must expect great things of yourself before you can do them”.

Cognitive visualisation focuses on practicing mechanics of a skill or overall game plans and strategies so execution becomes more automatic. Cognitive visualisation may be specific and refer to the execution of specific skills such as executing a forehand in tennis or general and focus on overall game plan and strategies. For example, a centre back seeing the whole soccer pitch in front of him and visualising how his team can move to counteract the oppositions attacking play.

Where and When?

Although athletes mainly use visualisation at their training and competition venues, the beauty of visualisation is that it can be used anywhere and anytime. Some examples when visualiation may be used:

  • Learning skills (or mastery)
  • Imagining performing well
  • Enhancing positivity / confidence
  • Maintaining focus, and mental toughness
  • Psyching yourself up / increasing arousal levels
  • Relaxing / calming down
  • Maintaining control

Distinct periods when visualisation can be used are:

Before, during and after practice

Research shows that using visualisation alongside technical practice can be more effective than physical practice alone. Training could therefore be a beneficial time to visualise; especially when rehearsing a new skill or technique. Spend a few minutes (less than ten) before training imagining what you intend to do and the specific skills you are going to practice – you may need to ask your coach in advance. This can really help get you focused on the session and help you get more from it.

Visualisation can also help you get through tough periods in training by visualising specifics. Breaking down a big task by picturing the small things you can do, you’re less likely to focus on the magnitude or difficulty of a potentially long and tough session.

It is easy to get swept straight back into other things after a training session – but taking a few minutes to review the aspects that went well can be hugely beneficial in creating those neural pathways for a new skill for example, or enhance confidence from thinking about the successful aspects of training while they are still fresh in your mind.

Before, during and after competition

Visualisation is most often used most prior to competition; there’s more down-time available before competition than training and competition holds such importance to athletes they’ll tend to spend more time visualising what might happen. Former England and Liverpool goalkeeper David James once said “When I’m driving on my way to a game I might catch a couple of crosses if I’m stick at the traffic lights”

Like in training or practice, be sure to schedule some time, even a few minutes before competing, to visualise the outcomes you want and the processes you might go through. As competition gets closer it’s possible that nerves may lead negative images or outcomes to come into your thought processes. Practice visualising your responses to potential obstacles or things that might not go according to plan.

With practice visualisation may also be used during competition, particularly when you learn to control it well. There is a risk that using visualisation in the wrong way during competition may have a negative outcome for example visualising poor outcomes when things start to go wrong, or even pre-empting good outcomes too early when things are going well leading to complacency. Use time during breaks in play – or in team sports when you’re not directly involved in the play, to help you visualise what to do next.

During the off season

Many athletes extensively use visualisation as part of their rest and recovery period. Remember, the brain doesn’t distinguish between images you create or recreate, so using visualisation regularly is almost like keeping up some form physical practice. Using both motivational and cognitive visualisation can not only help maintain skills, but also help to build confidence and motivation for the upcoming season.

When injured

Visualisation is also a great technique to use to rehearse your performance when you’re injured or returning from injury. Again, research has shown that rehearsing certain skills in your mind can, and does, help maintain those skills when you can’t physically perform them.

During personal time

Tennis player Andre Agassi once said: “I’ve won more matches in the shower before playing than at any other time” referring to his use of visualisation to rehearse his game plan whilst in the shower! Using visualisation just before going to sleep, when you’re really relaxed, is a great time.

What to Imagine

Research suggests that 4 factors are important in considering WHAT you should be imagining;

  • The surroundings
  • Positive Vs negative
  • Internal / external images
  • Dimension (2D / 3D)


Whatever the performance, whether it’s preparing to compete or giving a presentation, it’s useful to imagine yourself in or at the venue. It’s worth taking a walk around a new venue prior to the event to familiarise yourself before. Anything that makes your visualisation more realistic is helpful and so setting the scene of the performance venue in as much detail as possible, is beneficial. One reason the home advantage phenomena is so strong is the familiarity aspect of being somewhere you know well and are comfortable with. Visualisation can help get you close to that point of being comfortable– even if you’ve not performed at a venue before. For example, if a football team has made a final, and is playing in a new stadium for the first time it would be useful to visit the stadium beforehand so players can desensitise themselves to the new experience, they may be in awe of the size of stadium, the dressing rooms, the route to the pitch etc. Familiarising themselves beforehand will allow them to focus 100% on match day. Once a player has seen the venue, they might imagine arriving at a stadium, getting off the coach and walking down a corridor to the dressing rooms, getting changed and walking down the tunnel. He will know where his family is sitting and be familiar with parts of the pitch he needs to be in at certain times – in team sports many players use advertising boards or other cues as to their positions on the pitch.

Choose your Channel – Positive or negative pictures?

Although visualising positive outcomes is more beneficial than visualising poor outcomes, many athletes report seeing positive images when visualising training and pre-competition, but negative images in competition. This is understandable as many athletes start worrying about what might go wrong at competition when it really counts. Remind yourself that this is a choice, it’s like watching TV and not enjoying what you’re watching – you can choose to change the channel – you can also do that with visualisation. Although the majority of visualisation should focus on positive images it can be worth visualising how you can best respond if things do go wrong.

As with general thought processes, thinking of what you want, rather than what you don’t want is hugely beneficial – but not the norm. A tennis player thinking she doesn’t want to hit the net may be setting herself up for failure by having these thoughts in the first place. Creating an image of an outcome they don’t want (the ball flying straight into the net) may lead to exactly that. Imagining a successful shot is always the way to go. Even thinking of ‘not doing something’ – (such as hitting the net) can impair performance. Awareness of not wanting to hit the net will bring the image of the net to the front of the mind still and may negatively effect concentration and focus. Thus research suggests that the accuracy of thoughts is important, we discussed controllability in the last visualisation blog – have a look back to refresh your mind.

Inside or out – it’s a question of perspective

Another consideration when using visualisation is the perspective you use. Whichever perspective you use will depend on your preference and the situation, experiment with both types to see what works for you, most athletes find that changing between the two can be beneficial.

Internal visualisation refers to visualising actually being in the action and seeing things as you normally would through your own eyes like having a GoPro camera on your head. This type of visualisation can be really realistic if you add the senses and emotional elements. Internal perspectives are useful when learning new skills in order to imagine yourself doing that skill. It’s also a great tool to use for rehearsing correct techniques – for example as a post shot routine in tennis – taking a shadow shot and making those small wrist adjustments so you hit the next shot a little better. When using internal visualisation you activate the electrical impulses within the body that would be activated if you were actually doing the activity.

External visualisation is almost like seeing yourself on TV or watching yourself play as a spectator. There is little feeling or kinaesthetic element – but it could be useful particularly from a strategy point of view, being able to see your position compared with the rest of the team for example. External perspective could also be useful when learning or improving a skill for example when you see how your whole body should look and move – a tennis player for example converting to a two handed backhand might image how it would look from an external perspective before transferring to an internal perspective. Watching a video of the shot would enhance the image when visualising too, as sometimes we just don’t realise what our bodies are doing until we see it on film which makes it easier to make the small adjustments that can make significant differences.


Another aspect of using visualisation is to consider whether your image is 2 dimensional or 3 dimensional. Generally, an external perspective might at first be in 2D as if watching something on TV for example – but you can change that by taking a helicopter type view and also moving around the image like wearing 3D glasses or being there in reality. Whatever perspective or dimension you use and whether like most athletes you flick between external and internal visualisation, it’s important to control that image as much as you can. We discussed controllability in the first visualisation blog – check it out!

Play around with the different opportunities to use visualisation and schedule time to visualise into your routine – even if its just 2 or 3 minutes a day. The more you practice in the right way the more effective it’ll be for you. Make a note of when you’re using it and how long for – record what happened in your performance afterwards.