How Imagery and Visualization Can Improve Athletic Performance

A baskeball player practicing visualization.
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Many elite athletes routinely use visualization techniques as part of training and competition. There are many stories of athletes who have used these techniques to cultivate a competitive edge. As a multi-sensory experience, however, the technique involves much more than just visualization.

The preferred term in competitive sports is "imagery," which defines the process of imaging or picturing athletic performance from start to finish, employing all the senses rather than just focusing on visualizing a certain goal or outcome.

Athletes use these techniques to cultivate a heightened state of mental awareness, which has been shown to boost confidence and overall well-being, and, in turn, enhance performance. Athletes can use this technique to "intend" an outcome of a race or training session, or simply to rest in a relaxed feeling of calm and well-being.

What Is Mental Imagery?

Mental imagery is a multi-sensory process that draws on the senses to create a vivid mental image of a particular process. Imagery is essentially the process of creating and recreating an experience in the mind's eye, which means it can be practiced at just about any time, anywhere.

As one study on the topic notes, mental imagery "plays a central role in the execution of movements and in human functioning." In the context of sports, mental imagery is defined as the experience of an athlete imagining themselves while performing certain skills.

According to researchers, the two most common techniques used to generate images are visual (what an athlete sees) and kinesthetic (the experience of the body while performing a movement). Numerous studies have also shown that mental imagery improves an athlete's motor skills during competition as well as their ability to learn new skills during training.

In competitive sports settings, elite athletes use imagery to enhance training, performance, and rehabilitation—even at the Olympic level.

How Imagery Enhances Sports Performance

Imagery, or visualization, has also been referred to as mental rehearsal or guided meditation. No matter the term, the basic techniques and concepts are the same. Generally speaking, visualization is the process of creating a mental image or intention of what you want to happen or feel in reality.

Sports psychology researchers have been studying the impact of imagery on sports performance for decades. A paper published in 2017 explains that all people, regardless of their age, sex, or athletic ability, can use imagery to enhance performance at the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional levels.

The authors also note that sport psychology research rarely focuses exclusively on goal-based images, but instead, the process of achieving a goal. "This is likely because goal- or outcome-based images (e.g., qualifying for a competition, winning a medal) are least often used by athletes," the study authors explain.

"Rather, coaches and sport practitioners often encourage their athletes to focus on process goals (e.g., completing stretching exercises prior to competition) rather than outcome goals," study authors say.

Visualizing Success

By imagining the full picture of a scene, complete with images of a previous best performance, a future desired outcome, and the experience of performing each move, the athlete is able to fully embody that feeling. While imagining these scenarios, the athlete should try to imagine the detail and the way it feels to perform in the desired way.

As one study notes, using internal imagery during training and competition improves performance more than relying on external imagery or "psyching" yourself up before you compete.

Repetition

Using the mind, an athlete can call up these images repeatedly, enhancing the skill through repetition or rehearsal, similar to physical practice. With mental rehearsal, minds and bodies become trained actually to perform the skills and performances imagined.

Research has shown that athletes can improve both physical and psychological reactions in certain situations with visualization. Such repeated imagery can build both experience and confidence in an athlete's ability to perform certain skills under pressure or in various possible scenarios.

Using the Senses

The most effective visualization techniques result in a very vivid sports experience in which the athlete has complete control over a successful performance and a belief in this new self.

These scenarios should include as many of the senses as possible. They can be visual (images and pictures), kinesthetic (how the body feels), or auditory (the roar of the crowd). These sensory details help make the visualization more detailed and powerful.

A Word from Verywell

Guided imagery, visualization, mental rehearsal, or other such techniques can maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of your training. In a world where sports performance and success are measured in seconds—and even in hundredths of a second, most athletes will use every possible training technique at hand. Imagery, according to research, might be one way to gain a competitive edge against a very slim margin.

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