Visualization or imagery involves using all of the senses to create or recreate an experience in the mind. There is considerable evidence about how visualization can improve performance and three relevant theories of why type of mental rehearsal is so effective will be briefly mentioned here. Psychoneuromuscular and inflow theories suggest that thinking about a skill leads to production of a muscular pattern of the skill that flows into the central nervous system, thus producing or strengthening a central motor program. Symbolic learning theories state that imagery aids in performance by helping athletes develop a "blueprint" for relevant muscular activity which helps the movement become more familiar and automatic. The outflow hypothesis states that central nervous system programs are instigated or strengthened by thinking about the skill, a strengthening which produces better performance as the program "flows" outward from the central nervous system.

Imagery involves recalling from memory pieces of information stored there from all types of experiences and reshaping them into a meaningful image via a thought process. Most athletes favor one of the three perspectives mentioned below - finding the type that is most useful for you is usually a matter of personal preference.

  • External perspective--this approach is like watching a movie of yourself in action. It can be especially effective for situations in which athletes' performance is evaluated at least, in part, on style.
  • Internal perspective--this perspective involves rehearsing what you see with your own eyes when you execute certain skills.
  • Kinesthetic approach--this strategy employs experiencing or feeling the movements involved in executing certain athletic skills.

Benefits of incorporating visualization into your package of mental skills include:

  • cognitively you can excite and generate impulses that are specific to the pattern of response necessary to produce the movement.
  • imagining makes the body work- mental images direct and activate the neurological patterning of nerves to make the body respond exactly the way the image directs it. Your body becomes better prepared to perform.
  • being able to generate optimal level of arousal and energy.
  • imagining situations and practicing different options.
  • improving coordination and precision of your execution by increasing awareness of body position, amount of force, intensity of effort, or other dimensions of performance.
  • "psyching up" prior to competition and maintaining motivation throughout event.
  • decreasing worry and anxiety about performance and increasing enjoyment.
  • changing beliefs, attitudes, etc. and learning to produce the positive imagery necessary to execute without disruption.

Tips for Learning and Practicing Skills

  • To the extent possible, use all of your senses when you mentally rehearse your performance.
  • Skills, routines, or sequences should be rehearsed just as you would like to execute them including the same rhythm and tempo. The neurological patterns established through imagery should be exactly the same pace as needed for the actual performance.
  • Use all the dimensions of the performance and as many cues as you can in preparing with mental rehearsal.
  • Mental rehearsals should be successful, not necessarily perfect.
  • Use mental rehearsal in preparation for practice sessions as well as competition.
  • Reexperiencing a successful performance as soon after it has occurred is an excellent way to establish the bodily association of how a peak performance feels and makes it easier to prepare mentally for future performances.
  • Imagery for and during competition

    • Practice mentally under the competitive conditions you'll likely face. If it's a new environment, try to get there early so you can become familiar with it or use pictures, videos, etc.
    • Use imagery as part of your preperformance routine.
    • Practice strategies, set plays, and specific responses mentally.
    • Use cue words and self-thoughts to help you focus imagery during performances.
    • Use imagery to prepare for whatever could happen in the performance.

    Imagery for recovery from injury

    • Use imagery to speed up recovery; visualize increasing blood supply to injured area.
    • Use imagery to help cope with pain, imagine you're somewhere else when experiencing pain.
    • Visualize playing with confidence once your body has healed.
    • Visualize to stay mentally sharp so when the time comes to begin playing again, you will be ready.

    Remember, the mind doesn't distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. For example, if you've ever woken up after having a nightmare, notice how your body physiologically has responded (e.g. rapid heartbeat, sweating) to something that has happened only in your mind. Over time, the more efficient you become at using your mind to practice, the better your body will be able to respond when it needs to. Like all physical and mental skills, visualization will be most effective if you practice it regularly. If you would like more tips on using visualization, contact us at 231-2556 or at

    Bull, S.J., Albinson, J.G., & Shambrook, C.J. (1996). The mental game plan. Cheltenham, UK: Sports Dynamics.

    Harris, D.V., & Harris, B.L. (1984). Sports psychology: Mental skills for physical people. Champaign, IL: Leisure Press.

    Vealey R.S., & Walter, S.M. (1993). Imagery training for performance enhancement Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.