What is visualisation?
Visualisation – also called ‘imagery’ or ‘mental rehearsal’ is one of the key psychological skills available to enhance performance. It is the process of mentally creating an experience or intention, typically from memory, which imitates reality. We all visualise when we day dream or see things in our mind’s eye. Many successful athletes routinely use visualization techniques as part of training and competition.
Michael Phelps, winner of 28 Olympic Gold medals stated: “Before the Olympic trials I was doing a lot of visualisation. And I think that helped me to get a feel of what it was going to be like when I got there.” Phelps visualisation is so accurate that when he imagines performance using black out goggles he can time his tumble turn to perfection.
Italian and Chelsea super striker Gianfranco Zola said of his remarkable goal-scoring record through set plays: “My success with free kicks is 5% skill and 95% visualisation”.
Golfer Jack Nicklaus similarly believes that rehearsing a shot in his head before taking it was hugely beneficial – he said that hitting a good golf shot is 10% swing, 40% stance and 50% mental picture. He said: “Before every shot I go to the movies inside my head. Here’s what I see, first I see the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then I see the ball going there – its path and trajectory and even its behaviour on landing. The next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous image into reality. These home movies are a key to my concentration and to my positive approach to every shot”
Many athletes report that picturing themselves performing a task perfectly not only enhances their mental awareness and confidence, but also allows them to make any minor technical adjustments before doing it in reality. Visualisation can also enhance well-being allowing an athlete to feel relaxed and calm.
How can you best use visualisation?
Neuroscience research has shown that visualisation uses many of the same parts of the brain used in actual performance. (Jacobson 1931, Suinn, 1976). During imagery, neuronal groups interactively fire in defined patterns, structurally modifying themselves in a way that makes them more effective. Thus we gain functional equivalence with the same areas of the brain firing whether a skill is actually performed or just imagined. This functional equivalence means visualisation can supplement physical practice, as an athlete can benefit from the extra ‘imagined’ practice but without the additional risk of injury or fatigue.
Although visualisation is often based on memory, it doesn’t have to be limited to something you can already do, it can also be about creating a new skill or movement with the power of your mind. Have you ever woken up from a dream with your heart racing or sweating? This is the senses in body reacting to what was going on in your mind. The mind can’t tell the difference between an image you recreate and one you create from new. So imagining a new skill can allow your body to feel like you’ve already done it! Therefore, as well as recreating previous positive and successful performances, try picturing successful execution of new skills or movements, or performing well in an unfamiliar setting. You can call up these images over and over, enhancing the skill through repetition, similar to physical practice. With visualisation, minds and bodies can become trained to perform the skill imagined.
The key to successful visualisation is in the detail; the image should be as realistic as possible and the more detail you can add to the image the better. A footballer might mentally rehearse what is likely to happen in a game and their responses, decisions and action after each play. Their thoughts might be guided by how their opponents play, who their teammates are on the field, the kit they’re wearing and where they’re playing and so on. It can be helpful to think of the colours, making them bright and vivid for images you want to recall and faded, or even black and white, for things you want to dismiss. When imaging future events it gives the feeling of already having played the game or executed a particular skill. As before, detail is key. It’s beneficial to walk around a new competition venue, so you can make your visualisation as realistic as possible. And it’s not just for sport. You could, for example, imagine a complete run-through of a business presentation you’re going to make.
Belgian footballer Romelu Lukaku spoke of his use of visualisation, recalling a wonder goal he scored against Chelsea with photographic precision. Recreating the moment frame by frame in his head, he said:: “I can see an image clearly, like on a camera. I know what I’m doing. I always play with my head up because I take pictures and think about how to get between them … I see Azpilicueta behind me, Ivanovic just inside, Cahill here, Mikel here so I thought – just let me try and see – and then its about determination and skill….”
Recent research has found that visualization can improve both physical and psychological reactions in certain situations. Repeatedly rehearsing visualisation can build both experience and confidence in an athlete’s ability to perform a skill under pressure, or in a variety of possible situations. The most effective visualization techniques result in a vivid experience in which the athlete has complete control over a successful performance and a strong belief that they are prepared for the challenge ahead.
More than just the visual – the synesthetic approach
All of the senses are important in sport It’s not just about the picture you can see. Mental imagery can be even more effective by adding emotional and sensory elements. Kinesthetic (how the body feels), auditory (the roar of the crowd), smell and even taste can be incorporated to make the mental rehearsal as realistic as possible. By picturing a scene, complete with images of an earlier best performance or a future desired outcome, athletes are instructed to really ‘step into’ how it really feels to perform in the desired way.
In tennis, for example, an awareness of the sound of the ball coming off an opponent’s racket can give clues as to the spin, depth and speed of the shot. These sounds together with the sound of the bounce and the sound as you hit the ball back can be used as cues for your own action and can easily be tied in with a visualisation exercise. Start with your pictures. Make them as clear, and detailed as possible. Then go through each of the other senses one by one and add that element to your imagery. Like learning any skill it takes practice and will become easier over time. You can really exaggerate each of the sensory perceptions in your mind – turn the sound up and down, focus on relevant noises and cut out or turn down the unhelpful or irrelevant ones. You can focus on any smells or tastes in the same way.
As an example, let’s think of how a soccer player might incorporate all of his senses into a visualisation exercise. In rehearsing taking a pass from a teammate, in order to shoot on the volley, he will first want to picture the ball coming towards him. But he can also focus on the rest of the sensory experience, starting with the sound of the ball as it actually leaves his teammate’s foot. At this point, he engages his kinaesthetic sense – his sense of touch and feel, as he adjusts his bodyweight to respond – perhaps leaning back to get ready for the volley, transferring his weight onto the back leg and moving his arms out for leverage and balance. He may be able to feel the defender close to him, even smelling the fresh sweat on his shirt. He feels his opponent dig an elbow into him, and feels how he’ll adjust his body position to absorb the challenge. As he prepares to take the ball on the volley, his kicking leg is raised off the ground and he feels his bodyweight absorbed by his back leg, which is firmly rooted to the ground as he holds off the defender. The action requires split second timing to connect firmly with the ball and send it into the top left hand corner of the goal. Finally, as he falls to the ground, the player smells the wet turf and feels the moisture on his arms, and he feels great after scoring a tremendous match-winning goal!
Check out the video clip on YouTube of Cristiano Ronaldo taking crosses and scoring goals with a blindfold on. He uses only the sound of the crosser’s kick as a cue to tell him about the trajectory and speed of the ball before making contact and scoring. Ronaldo’s so familiar with the sounds of the game that he can use these along with intuition based on past experiences to inform his play to achieve extraordinary results.
You can also attach some emotion to the visualisation. Visualising performance is not solely about positive thinking and rehearsing how wonderful everything is going to be. Recreating emotions such as pain, anger or anxiety can be useful because you can rehearse how you’re going to deal with each of these if and when you experience them, particularly in a pressure situation. In sport as in life, things can go wrong, and we can get anxious and angry. It’s important that we can prepare ourselves for this and rehearse how we might respond when we feel such emotions. Visualisation can be used to rehearse recognising and dealing with these emotions to get us into our optimum performance state.
For example, a tennis player who gets angry after making an unforced error can rehearse a more measured response, creating space in her mind for a new calmer response, which can serve to suppress any negative behaviour. She can also go on to link the behavioural change with a keyword – or an anchor – this anchor would then become her reminder to stay calm on court each time she feels herself getting angry. The anchor can be a key word or an action. For example a tennis player may use a tactile anchor to offload the frustration of a bad shot. In her mind, she could simply wipe away the error through the handle of her racket. One swipe and the error can be symbolically dismissed. Practice experiencing the emotions and thoughts that go through your mind in the actual competition such as excitement, anger, frustration, and elation. Practice changing what you feel or think if it’s not useful.
Using all of your senses will enhance your visualisation experience and effectiveness. Vivid images really focus in on the detail. A footballer might not only see the ball coming toward him, but also make out the colour, the logo and the panels on the ball, he will then feel the ball as he brings it under control. By adding more details such as the stands in the stadium full of fans, the length, colour and feel of the grass, the officials in their black kit with the UEFA logo on their chest etc – the image will come to life. Using Colour in your visualisation is important. You should make images you want to remember bright, colourful and full of life. In contrast, you should try to make images you don’t want to focus on dull and grey so they fade into the background.
Another key to effective visualisation is the ability to control what you see. Invariably sometimes your mind will drift off and the images you see or your self-talk will not be helpful. Understanding that this is normal and accepting it will help you move on and change the image – remember it is about choices you make. This is particularly difficult when you’re going through a slump and nothing seems to be working, the natural instinct is often to think of not making an error again rather than thinking of what you would like to be doing. Remember when we focus on performance we should always speak in the language of what we want and how best we can get there, rather than focussing on what we don’t want. The concepts of Solution Focused Therapy can help here – asking the question “What do I want?’ and then “How am I going to get there” – it’s the same with the control of your images. A quote from an Olympic diver typifies this concept:
“It took me a long time to control my images and perfect my imagery, maybe a year, doing it every day. At first I couldn’t see myself, I always saw everyone else, or I see my dives wrong all the time. I would get an image of hurting myself or tripping on the board, or I would see something done really bad. `I continued to work at it, I got to the point where I could see myself doing a perfect dive and the crowd yelling at the Olympics. But it took me a long time. I read everything I had to do and I knew my dive by heart. Then I started to see myself on the board doing my perfect dive. But somedays I couldn’t see it, or it was a bad dive in my head. I worked at it so much it got to the point that I could do it all in my head easily”
Timing is an interesting area to play around with – do you see your images in real time, slow motion or even sped up? It might be useful for you to practice going between different speeds. 100m sprinters or swimmers struggling to focus during the race may benefit from running the race in real time in their head – allowing them to focus on various aspects of the race in real time. Similarly, a tennis player or golfer with a 20s pre shot routine is likely to benefit from rehearsing this routine against a stopwatch over and over again to be precise about what will happen in reality.
You’re the Director
The quote below from a highly successful medal-winning swimmer highlights how they consciously worked to perfect their visualisation skills over time and felt this was a crucial part of their success.
“I started visualising many years ago; my visualisation has been refined more and more as the years go on. That is really what got me the World record and the Olympic medals. I see myself swimming the race before the race really happens, and I try to be on the splits. I concentrate on attaining the splits I’ve set out to do. About 15 minutes before the race I always visualise the race in my mind and see how it will go, you are really swimming the race. You are visualising it from behind the block. In my mind I go up and down the pool, rehearsing all the parts of the race, visualising how I actually feel in the water”
Once we are able to build up realistic, life-like visualisations in our minds, we can start editing out the bits we want to change and replacing them with more effective responses – it’s like being your own film director. By tailoring the visualisation to your specific needs, you can learn how to cope in a pressure situation by feeling like you have been there before. Like all skills, visualisation can be developed through considered practice and use. Your mind is a powerful tool. So make sure you commit time to visualisation and use it to maximum potential.