This article is excerpted from my book Visualization Power: How Scientists, Inventors, Businessmen, Athletes, Artists,
Healers and Yogis Can Improve Their Powers of Visualization and Visual Thinking
In sports psychology literature you will find that internal imagery, mental rehearsal, imagination practice or visualization are all synonyms for “the cognitive rehearsal of a task in the absence of overt physical movement.” Basically, whenever we imagine ourselves performing an action in the absence of physical practice, we are using imagery, imagination or visualization.
Visualization, the ability to create pictures in your mind, is one of the most powerful tools that an athlete can use to help achieve their personal best. It is now so common that many sports psychology books offer entire instructional chapters on the effectiveness of various visualization techniques. Among other things, visualization efforts are commonly used by athletes to improve their performance at specific skills such as hitting a ball, skiing a hill, swimming a race, jumping an obstacle, or moving their body in a certain way.
For athletes, visualization practice is a type of active mental rehearsal of how they want things to be. Using visualization as a training technique invariably results in much better athletic performances so elite athletes everywhere are now using it to gain a competitive edge.
Legendary sports figures like Tiger Woods, Pele, Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Michael Phelps, and Muhammad Ali have all used visualization practice and mental imagery to improve their game because it indeed creates an advantage that adds an edge.
Visualization exercises in athletics started to become popular as a performance enhancer when the Soviets began using them back in the 1970s for world competitions. Nowadays countless athletes commonly employ this training technique. Seasoned athletes are commonly trained to form vivid, highly detailed mental images and run-throughs of their entire athletic performance while engaging all their senses in their mental rehearsal. They learn how to combine their knowledge of the sports venue, including their athletic skills and game strategies, with their mental rehearsals for excellence.
Does visualization practice really work at improving athletic performance or is this form of concentration practice just a bunch of fantasy imagination without measurable results? Has it actually been scientifically proven to help athletes with training and performance?
Research reveals that mentally rehearsing a sport using visualization imagery can often be as effective as actual physical practice, and that doing both is the most effective type of athletic practice of all. Many athletes do not yet use visualization practice as a training technique but studies show that doing so usually results in a much better performance outcome.
We already found this holds true in business and life in general such as for delivering a speech, asking for a raise, or any other situation that requires skill, preparedness and forethought. However, it is a big jump from sculpting a positive image of being a new self with new skills (and trying to live up to the image) to imagining that you win a sports tournament and actually do so.
Researchers say it works in sports because thought can stimulate the nervous system in the same way an actual event does. When you imagine yourself performing perfectly and doing exactly what you want with your motor skills, you physiologically create neural patterns in your brain just as if you had physically performed the same actions. Performing or rehearsing an event in the mind therefore trains it by creating neural patterns that can guide our muscles to do exactly what we want.
Mental training such as regular visualization rehearsals can definitely improve almost all our skills and fast-track us towards our goals, but let’s restrict ourselves to just the sports field to see if there are any irrefutable benefits because they have been measured.
ATHLETES WHO HAVE USED VISUALIZATION
Championship golfer Jack Nicklaus has said that he would use mental imagery for every shot he took, each time visualizing his ideal body posture and how he would execute the stroke.
In his book, Golf My Way, he described how he always visualized his performance at the tee, writing: “I never hit a shot even in practice without having a sharp in-focus picture of it in my head. It's like a colour movie. First, I ‘see’ the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes, and I ‘see’ the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behaviour on landing. Then there's a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality and only at the end of this short private Hollywood spectacular do I select a club and step up to the ball.”
Another great golfer, Jason Day, closes his eyes and also imagines the exact shot he wants during his pre-shot routine. Day once revealed that he practices Outcome visualization, for he continually visualized himself holding the trophy for the 2015 Farmers Insurance Open before winning it.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding contest four times and the Mr. Universe contest five times, used visualization practice for both Process and Outcome purposes. He addressed Process by visually sculpting his muscles while exercising so that they would become the ideal shape he wanted. Like Jason Day, he addressed Outcome by visualizing that he won his contests, saying, “I visualized myself being and having what it was I wanted. Before I won my first Mr. Universe title, I walked around the tournament like I owned it. I had won it so many times in my mind that there was no doubt I would win it. Then when I moved on to the movies, the same thing. I visualized myself being a famous actor and earning big money. … I just knew it would happen.”
Former NBA great Jerry West, who is known for hitting clutch shots at the buzzer, once explained that what accounted for his ability to make the big shots was that he had mentally rehearsed making those same shots countless times in his mind.
NBA player Steve Nash also engages in imaginary movements before every free throw. Specifically, he steps up to the line and mimes a few imaginary free throws before taking the actual free throws. Is this imaginary visualization effective? Nash has achieved a career free throw percentage of .904, making him the NBA’s all-time leader in free throw percentage.
Nolan Ryan, baseball’s all-time leader in strikeouts and no-hitters said, “The night before a game I lie down, close my eyes, relax my body, and prepare myself for the game. I go through the entire lineup of the other team, one batter at a time. I visualize exactly how I am going to pitch to each hitter and I see and feel myself throwing exactly the pitches that I want to throw. Before I ever begin to warm up at the ballpark, I’ve faced all of the opposition’s hitters four times and I’ve gotten my body ready for exactly what it is I want to do.”
Wade Boggs, one of baseball’s best hitters, revealed that he would go into a preparatory “quiet time cocoon” for 15-20 minutes before each game. During that time he would focus on the pitcher and mentally deduce how he might try to get Boggs out, but Boggs “would envision getting a hit off the pitcher.”
Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters in baseball history with a .344 batting average. In his book, The Science of Hitting, he explained that when batting he would mentally divide the strike zone into a quadrant composed of 77 discrete color-coded compartments, each of which was the size of a baseball. He would only swing at pitches when the ball entered a compartment where he could get a hit a high percentage of time. Knowing that a strike was better than swinging at a bad pitch, which could result in an out, he would patiently wait for the right pitch, waiting through strikes on the fringe of his best connecting zone. Williams’ power of visualization and his self-control enabled him to become the last player ever to hit .400 for an entire season (he batted .406 in 1941).
Atlanta Braves' pitcher John Smoltz experienced a great turnaround in his baseball career when he finally learned to visualize his past successes while on the mound and bring the emotions associated with those prior successes into his present reality. The turnaround is understandable since imagining the peak performance of past successes helps evoke positive emotions that can lead to superior performance. Visualizing previous successes is actually easier than imagining something new because you already have the perfect success scenery in your memory.
Brazilian soccer player Pele is another athlete who would practice visualizing success an hour before every game. During his visualization routine he would go through a mental movie of his entire soccer life starting with him playing soccer as a child and ending with him reliving the best moments of his career at the World Cup. He would remind himself of the fun he felt playing as a young boy and try to bring those evoked emotions into his present state so that he could use that entrainment for the upcoming game.
STIMULUS OR RESPONSE?
Pele’s case shows that positive emotions can propel athletic performance. They can act as a beneficial stimulus that will support the physical responses we want. If you keep a “mental game journal” of your best performances like Pele, through frequent visualization practice you can even learn how to evoke the corresponding positive emotions of those events at will so that you can use them during a competition.
Most visualization practice focuses on perfecting a particular motor skill that we can consider an Outcome or Response, and entails mental images of an optimal motor program for what you should do in a particular scenario. The visualized imagery is like a program on how to overtly respond to a situation. However, if used to train your emotions then mental imagery can also be used as a Stimulus vehicle rather than as just a mechanism to train motor responses. Using it in this way you can train yourself to recall (relive) arousing sensations as necessary. This ability to summon arousing emotions at will can provide you with an extra edge in crucial situations, such as in sports where tiny differences separate the champions from the losers.
In other words, if you richly combine visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic images with emotions when creating your mental pictures, this “composite image” can more effectively evoke the emotions associated with desired behaviors. The closer your mental imagery mirrors realism – including the corresponding emotions - the easier it will be to interact with those images as if they were the real world. Such composite images can be used to evoke the proper responses you desire including psychophysiological changes in your body.
Putting it another way, visualization can be used to artificially (mentally) generate emotional states on call such as the emotional arousal that leads to peak performance. Therefore in addition to the Process-Outcome or Internal-External dimensions of visualization practice, we also have its possible usage for Stimulus or Response. This Stimulus-Response axis is another type of visualization training target we might employ.
In visualization practice you should always vividly picture the mental imagery with as much emotional color as possible, which will increase your ability to call on stimulating emotions as needed during any performance. The emotions you might choose to master could include motivation, arousal, endurance, courage and confidence. If you practice rehearsing sensory imagery with emotional intensity, you can learn how to bring such emotions to the table as a beneficial stimulus whenever they are needed.
As an example, golfer Jordan Spieth’s coach once credited a portion of his tournament win at Augusta to the image reel they had created showing Jordan’s best shots, which he was taught how to recall as a peak performance stimulus during play.
Gold medal Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps learned how to use visualization techniques from his coach, Bob Bowman. After each session of swimming practice, Michael would go home and before falling sleep and upon waking would follow his coach’s instructions to “watch the videotape” of a perfect race imagined in his head. Phelps had to mentally visualize the perfect race in exact detail, with each swimming movement being executed flawlessly with perfection. In conjunction with his intense physical practice, his visualization exercises helped him achieve Gold medals and world records during the 2008 and 2012 Olympic games.
Michael Phelps trained by not only seeing the perfect race in his mind, but would also imagine going through disaster scenarios of things not going well such as his goggles breaking or his suit ripping. He would regularly visualize a variety of adversity scenarios so that he already had a plan for any contingency that might happen to him during a race.
This is important because the most successful athletes work out good adaptation and coping skills for staying in control in the face of problems, such as when they might rip their uniform, become injured or receive an umpire’s adverse call. They mentally rehearse how to handle problematic outcomes that have occurred in the past or are possible in the future, and have been coached to visualize positive outcomes during an event whenever adversity arises. In this case, Phelps mentally rehearsed all the possible calamities that might happen to him in a race and through visualization worked to create new neural pathways that would handle them should they occur.
Coach Bowman once explained that Phelps has all of these possible outcomes in his mental database so that when he swims a race he has already programmed his nervous system to react in one of those ways, and he’ll just pick the one that happens to be necessary. Bowman explained that if everything is perfect then Phelps will just go with the perfect routine, but if he has to make any sort of change then he’s already got the “programming” in there. Because of his extensive visualization practice Phelps never has to worry about adapting on the day of a competition but can focus solely on winning.
Sprint canoeist Thomas Hall is another Olympic athlete who attributed his success to his visualization practices. He was an underdog during the Beijing 2008 Olympics who was not expected to win any metals, but he ended up finishing in third place with a Bronze medal. He attributed this accomplishment to his diligent pursuit of visualization and mental rehearsal practices.
Olympic diver Greg Louganis achieved double gold medals in back-to-back Olympics due to his work at goal setting and visualization practice too.
Actually, 90% of Olympic athletes report that they now engage in visualization training efforts. It seems that athletes in all sports and at all levels of competition have commonly incorporated visualization and mental imagery into their training routines.
Marathon champion Mark Plaatjes also used them to help him win the IAAF World Championships marathon gold medal in 1993. While preparing for that race, Plaatjes practiced visualization techniques so much that he knew every undulation on the course and had “run” every possible scenario of the race in his mind before ever arriving in Stuttgart, Germany where the race was to be held. During the real race, Plaatjes’s mental preparation helped him to snatch victory from the likely winner just three minutes from the finishing line. As a result, he became the first American to win a gold medal in a long-distance running event at the World Championships.
STUDIES OF VISUALIZATION’S IMPACT ON THE BRAIN
While all of these famous athletes have used visualization, mental imagery and mental rehearsal, each focused on different techniques because there are many types of visualization practice for sports training.
One visualization method is to create a perfect picture of just one particular aspect of a performance in your mind. You can also mentally rehearse an entire perfect performance too.
As before, the image might be created from an Internal perspective (by imagining what it looks like from the athlete’s own eyes as the performance unfolds) or from an External perspective (by imagining the crowd’s perspective of the athletic performance). If you were to imagine running a race then for the Internal view you would imagine seeing what you would experience on the course through your own eyes and for the External view you should practice seeing yourself running the race as if you were watching a video of yourself performing the activity.
You might also visualize something completely different than the actual performance such as the environment of the event (so you gain familiarity and confidence in what’s upcoming) or the moment of victory with you as the winner.
The remarkable feature of visualization work is that when you regularly practice mental rehearsals according to certain principles, this can produce definite physiological changes in your body. Your mind can indeed transform your physical body, and specifically mental imagining can change your brain structure. When you mentally rehearse an activity through visualization practice you end up building a set of neural patterns in your nervous system along with a network of mental programs that can trigger physiological responses.
Shakyamuni Buddha taught this thousands of years ago in the Surangama Sutra when he said that you could provoke a physiological response in your body simply by thinking of the sour taste of a lemon or thinking about something fearful like walking on the edge of a cliff. He said that your aggregate of mental conceptions could affect the aggregate of sensations/feelings for your body-mind complex, which could in turn affect your physical body because of an inter-linkage between these systems. In the Surangama Sutra he provided the world with one of the first in-depth discussions of the mind-body connection.
A 1998 article in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (“Autonomic nervous system responses correlate with mental rehearsal in volleyball training”) confirmed the mind-body connection affected by visualization practice, which also has implications for how we can change our thoughts to transform the body. The study identified six unique autonomic nervous system responses that correlated with visualized mental rehearsal: heart rate, respiratory rate, skin temperature, skin heat clearance, skin potential and resistance.
The researchers (R. Roure, C. Collet, C. Deschaumes-Molinaro, A. Dittmar, H. Rada, G. Delhomme, E. Vernet-Maury) studied the athletic task of a volleyball player passing an opponent’s serve to a teammate. Participants performed the task both physically and through visualization. Both provoked similar responses in the nervous system! The investigators concluded that your mental imagery – fashioned through visualization practice – could help construct schema that could be reproduced, without thinking, in actual real world practice. In other words, visualization practice could help to build mental blueprint patterns that could become automatic behavioral responses.
Other research, using an EEG (electroencephalogram) machine that measures brain waves, has also shown that the electrical activity produced by the brain is identical whether we are thinking about doing something or actually doing it.
One study involving weight lifters showed that the brain patterns activated during lifting were similarly activated when the lifters just visualized themselves lifting the weights. The surprising finding was not the mind-body connection, but that the visualized mental rehearsal was nearly as effective as physical practice for strength building!
EEG patterns in the brain that would normally be activated when lifting several hundred pounds were also activated just by imagining that you were lifting that weight. Thoughts alone, created through visualized imagery (visualization practice), were enough by themselves to produce the neural instructions that executed the act.
What was an even more important finding from this study was that doing both – actual physical practice and visualization practice - constituted more effective lifting practice than performing either solo. This is why coaches advise athletes to perform both physical and mental practice together. An August 2005 study in France, published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, also confirmed that practicing mental imagery combined with physical practice greatly improves performance, with improvement occurring even with beginning athletes.
In another study done by sports psychologist Richard Suinn, a group of skiers were wired to special EMG (electromyography) equipment to test their neuromuscular responses while they were carrying out mental rehearsals of skiing. As the skiers mentally rehearsed downhill runs in their minds, visualizing everything they must do to run a successful course, the electrical impulses heading to their muscles while visualizing were found to be the same as those they used in real life while actually skiing the run.
Even though the skiers weren’t moving, the exact same muscles they would have used during a downhill ski were being activated because of using their mind.
Just as with the weight lifters and volleyball players, the brain sent the same instructions to the body when the skiers were simply thinking of making jumps and turns as when they were actually carrying them out. Visualized behavior, namely thoughts (conceptions), produced the similar mental instructions and physiological responses as actions did.
WHY VISUALIZATION WORKS
Basically, the science shows that whenever an athlete imagines performing a particular sports activity, his muscles fire in the same sequence they would if he were actually physically performing the same movements.
From this finding you might conclude, as others have, that because of our mental processes and physiological responses our brain processes the input from imagined and real experiences in a similar fashion.
This sort of psycho-neuromuscular theory explains how visualization practice strengthens the neural pathways for movements that you imagine making, and why visualization can therefore be used in various types of performance training. Mental rehearsal basically creates the neural patterns necessary for the real behavior you desire.
The idea behind using mental imagery for performance training is that forming metal images in your mind will help construct schema (mental and physiologically) which can be reproduced, almost automatically, in actual life. Repeated mental rehearsal of visualized movement imagery (together with other sensory feelings) will therefore help you create the neural pathways necessary for manifesting the real thing. Visualization practice can help you create and then strengthen a “mental blueprint” in your brain, so using it is like carving a groove into your nervous system, enabling your actions/movements to become more automatic.
Let’s compare the results of visualization practice with purely physical exercise and the physical biochemistry of motor movements. When an athlete performs a muscular function the signaling neurotransmitters in the muscles are stimulated along a particular pathway, and the chemicals that have been produced remain there for a short period. If there is any future stimulation along the same pathways, the difficulty of treading that particular pathway is reduced due to the residual effects of the earlier connections.
Putting it simply, the more you physically exercise in a certain way, the easier it becomes to repeat the same movements again. Not only have your muscle fibers been stretched in a certain fashion and your biochemistry altered but your neural pathways have been strengthened for those movements. The more we do something the more our neural connections, physical pathways and signaling mechanisms become hard-wired. We naturally become more skilled at physical tasks after these neural pathways and electrical signaling circuits are developed. If we therefore practice athletics with the view that the brain is just another muscle, mentally rehearsing athletic skills through visualization practice is a must activity since it will train our brain to facilitate the movements needed for actual performance.
If your body or mind has to select neural pathways to perform an action, it will usually select the familiar ones that have seen the most usage. This is why people normally default in behavior to their old habits, which is because the neural pathways associated with habits have been the ones most preferred over time. To create a new habit you cannot destroy an old set of pathways, but must forge new pathways for improved behavior. Then you must start using those pathways as your new preferred mode of acting instead of old pathways, in effect letting the previously used neural networks decline.
The neural traffic circuits for impulses which are automatically selected by your body-mind are usually the ones that have been used more often than other pathways. The greater usage has made them rather conspicuous like the grooves that form in a road due to a volume of excessive traffic. If you just follow habit energy, those are the circuits your behavior will usually conform to.
Scientists believe that the neural pathways commonly used develop thicker myelin sheaths that speed cellular communication, and this is why they become the preferred or dominant connection routes for nerve signals. The thicker myelin develops skills development which therefore forges thicker neural circuits. If you want to forge really excellent neural circuits, you are advised to adopt the training routine of deep, deliberate practice espoused in the works of K. Anders Ericcson, Geoff Colvin (Talent is Overrated) and Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code). These works are highly recommended.
Building a new skill to perfection (which means forging neural pathways that represent excellence) is like building a road in the wilderness to an entirely new location. That new skill will improve only by following the new road you build. The amazing thing is that because the brain doesn’t distinguish between doing something and just thinking about doing it, mentally rehearsing the skill will lay down the road just as well as physical practice does. Imaginary rehearsals can therefore be just as effective for a novice learning a skill as actually performing the physical skill itself because imagining that you are doing the activity can also lay down proper neural pathways. In other words, visualization practice can help you build the right brain circuits just as does physical practice. Therefore you can use it to train yourself to a state of performance excellence.
When athletes are in the early learning phase of some skill, they are still figuring out what to do and how to do it. They are like a hiker lost in the wilderness without any tracks to follow. As they begin to understand how a skill should be properly executed, however, rehearsing it through visualization can help build the correct neural networks and signaling systems. That rehearsing can assist learners to perform a skill correctly.
Whether we physically perform an activity or only picture it in our minds, we are activating many of the very same neural networks in both instances; mentally imagining an activity activates the same neural pathways as those used in doing the physical activity itself. You can use this to your advantage in different ways, especially in training for sports excellence. For instance, just imagining yourself perfectly performing the particular movements required of your sport will help you get better at them.
Remember what Jack Nicklaus said, “I never hit a golf shot without having a sharp picture of it in my head. First I ‘see’ where I want the ball to finish. Then I ‘see’ it going there; its trajectory and landing. The next ‘scene’ shows me making the swing that will turn the previous images into reality.” In other words, Nicklaus practiced each shot in his mind before taking it including exactly how he wanted his muscles to move.
When you imagine practicing a skill by visualizing it in your mind you strengthen the neural pathways in the brain required for that skill because you activate the same brain areas used in reality. The mental imaging strengthens the neural circuits you will need when it is time to perform and every time you mentally reinforce those (through mental imagery or real movement) you make those pathways a little bit stronger and faster.
Therefore it is important during mental training to imagine that any skill or talent you want to develop is executed with perfection because those are the pathways you will build. You make it more likely you will reproduce “perfection” in the future if it is “perfection” that you practiced visualizing.
Done consistently with regularity, visualizing a perfect performance in vivid detail helps you reliably “hard-wire” a great performance in your brain. When you practice these types of visualizations, the more details the better because the more real your mental image (the more vivid and complete your imagination) the more convinced your brain will be that this is real life, and then the neural patterns you create will be better at teaching your muscles to do exactly what you want.
Visualizing an effort hundreds or thousands of times will create just as many correct neural linkups as pure physical practice, and envisioned perfect movements will start to guide your physical movements after a while. Once a perfect mental pattern has developed due to mental rehearsals, you can start to automatically rely on it during real performances.
When you repeatedly visualize performing some athletic skill, you can condition yourself so that an improvement feels familiar when you actually perform it. This can help make your actions more automatic as well as build confidence.
Did you ever notice how elite athletes remain calm under pressure? That’s not just due to all their physical training, but because they have already ran through every possible scenario in their minds before stepping onto the field. Because of prior visualization work, they normally have greater confidence than others since they have less need to think in pressure situations but can just react.
Despite all the benefits from visualization practice, visualizing the perfect performance doesn’t replace the necessity for doing hard work in actual practice. However, when done in tandem with consistent, intelligent practice effort (especially “deep” practice and “deliberate” practice) you maximize the chances for an excellent performance.
STUDIES OF VISUALIZATION PRACTICE ON PERFORMANCE
There is no doubt that visualization skills can be an amazing performance enhancer that allows you to acquire and perfect physical skills much more quickly. You’ve already encountered the stories of quite a few athletic greats who used visualization routines and credited their success to it, but could that attribution just be their imagination? Where is the proof or evidence?
A number of scientific studies are also available that demonstrate objectively the positive impact that visualization has on performance, confirming its effectiveness for physical training.
* For the rest of the chapter, please pick up a copy of Visualization Power (Bill Bodri), which is the only book explaining how to use and PROPERLY PRACTICE visualization techniques for peak performance in sports and how to use those same techniques for healing skills, spiritual practice, and even visual innovation. Breathing methods that migth help with sports practice, and inner energy work methods, are also revealed inside.