Visualisation for sports success

Visualisation for sports success

There is a wealth of scientific evidence to suggest that visualisation can bring about significant benefits to personal performance in sport. In fact, several famous athletes partly attribute their success to using these techniques. So what is it and how do you do it?


Visualisation is simply the act of creating an image in your mind and is one of the most powerful tools used in sports psychology. The practice is based on the belief that the brain doesn’t know the difference between a real and an imagined picture. Therefore, by mentally rehearsing something happening in our minds e.g. playing brilliant tennis, we are increasing the likelihood of it happening in reality.

As fanciful as this sounds, visualisation does have plenty of scientific backing. A famous experiment in sports visualisation was done by an Australian Psychologist named Alan Richardson. He divided basketball players into  three separate groups, one group practicing physically for a month, another  not practicing at all, and the third just having guided visualisations of their practice. Amazingly, the third group improved just as much as the first group.

How did this happen?  Visualisation works because neural pathways are formed with each new experience we have. By repeatedly visualising ourselves performing a particular skill we strengthen that skill pathway making it easier for our brain and body to unconsciously perform it in reality.


The success of visualisation as a sports performance tool is now firmly accepted by sports people and many top coaches insist that their players ‘practice’ their sport in their minds by visualising their performance. In fact, 99% of athletes reaching elite level rely on visualisation.

Michael Phelps claims since age 7 he has imagined a ‘videotape’ of his perfect swim each night before going to sleep. Basketball star Michael Jordan has also accredited his success to visualising his goals, whilst the mental approach of top golfers like Tiger Woods’ is commonly based on visualisation.

Wayne Rooney has also utilized visualisation to boost his football skills down to the tiniest details. According  to David Winner’s biography of the football player, Rooney states “ I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well. You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a ‘memory’ before the game. I’ve always done it, my whole life”.


Start relaxed. Your brain is most receptive to suggestion when your body is relaxed. Therefore, visualising immediately upon waking or just before you go to sleep can be a good time, and can also help you stick to a regular routine. You do not need to dedicate masses of time, just a couple of minutes can help. To really take advantage of your mental practice, go and do your physical sport within 20 minutes of your visualisation. This will really solidify what you have mentally rehearsed.

Start simple. Just like warming up your body for a physical workout, you can start with simple visualisations, perhaps just an image of you successfully shooting a basketball hoop. This will help develop your confidence and sharpen your skills. Remember, as with all sports skills, the more you practice the better you will become.

Add complexity. After you have mastered basic images, gradually  increase the complexity of your images by adding strong colours and sounds, and perhaps by lengthening the image to a few scenes. Some people find it effective to imagine themselves on a huge cinema screen, like watching a film. The important thing is to make the images feel increasingly bold and powerful so you feel confidence and success in your body, as if you’d already achieved your goal. Imagine the strong colour of your t-shirt, the lush green grass and the loud cheers of encouragement on the sidelines. Also include some kinesthetics (sensations of body) such as the feel of the racquet in your hands, the hefty weight of the dumbbells or the warmth of the sun on your back as you race through the finish line of the marathon with a huge grin on your face because you have beaten your personal best by 5 minutes!

Use guided visualisations. If you are really stuck, or just fancy more structure, use guided visualisations. These can be downloaded, purchased on CD or borrowed from the library. If you have access to voice recording you could even create your own personalised visualisation. Write a script first if it’s easier, describing your feelings as you achieve your goals.

Finally, it’s important to realise that we all visualise naturally many times every day as we daydream, it’s just that we aren’t controlling what’s in those images. So pay attention to your thoughts – and start to recognize any negative ones which may be hindering  your progress. Then , once you have mastered visualisation for improving sports performance, why not use it for other areas of your life such as boosting confidence, losing weight and improving your finances? Go on - let your imagination run wild! 


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