Visualization Techniques for Athletes

Golfing legend Jack Nicklaus often used mental imagery to visualize his swing and even the trajectory of the ball before getting ready to play. Mental imagery is a helpful tool that can help athletes focus on their strengths, build confidence and improve performance. Although it’s not a substitute for practice and hard work, it can help you achieve your goals and improve your game.


Visualization, or mental imagery, is a technique in which you imagine yourself in a specific environment performing a specific activity. It can help you familiarize yourself with a mental run-through of a race course or complicated play before an event. You might use visualization to view yourself performing at a higher level. It’s also an effective motivation tool, reminding you of your objectives and helping to inspire confidence.

When to Use It

Mental imagery is most successful when it becomes a habit that you practice every day, but you should also use it before, during and after training. Spend time during each imagery session mentally practicing and focusing on proper techniques and skills. Before an event starts during a competition, mentally run through your plan, focusing on any significant plays, skills, movements and reactions or any feelings you want to use during your performance. A study in France, published in August 2005 in “Perceptual and Motor Skills,” showed that mental imagery combined with physical practice greatly improves performance even with beginning athletes 3.

Pattern Breaking

Bad habits make you focus on the past instead of looking ahead to the future. To force yourself out of this negative cycle, use pattern-breaking techniques. A pattern breaker can be a word or phrase you shout in your mind or a physical action such as snapping an elastic wrist band whenever you feel a bad habit or negative feeling creeping in again. If you have a role model athlete you want to emulate, you can also use his name as your pattern breaker, imagining how your role model would approach a situation.

Confidence Building

Learn to summon confidence by taking deep breaths, then picturing any fears you have about your performance. Imagine filling your body with confidence through your breathing and thoughts as you trap fear inside a mental bubble that fades or shrinks. If any fear remains, imagine a chat between your confidence and fears, asking the fears what they want confidence to do whenever you experience doubts.

Using the Senses

Close your eyes and describe frame by frame, like in a movie, each part of an activity you want to accomplish, such as a skating move or throwing a basketball through a hoop. Draw attention to every small detail in that activity. Imagine what the ice sounds like as you twirl, what the leather on a basketball feels like, what smells you sense inside the arena. Imagine every part of the activity in this way, slowing down the movie and observing each movement in sequence, using all your senses. As the movie ends, the last frame will be a successful end to your activity, whether it’s a skating jump or a ball going into the goal.

Quick Set

Sports psychologist Dr. Jeff Simons of California State University, East Bay, developed a “Quick Set” routine to help you create an effective mental image in the last 30 seconds before a competition or as a way to refocus after a distraction. It involves physical, emotional and focus cues. For the physical cue, close your eyes, clear your mind and breathe deeply and rhythmically, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Then comes the emotional cue, in which you imagine a previous win and recreate those feelings of success. Focus on the exact start moment of the competition, such as blasting off on the “B” of the bang during a sprint.

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