mental imagery and visualization in sport

The magical power of mental imagery and visualization in sport

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — Albert Einstein. If you have a real vision, it’s possible to realize your dreams. You already have the power since your brain is geared to help you succeed. Most athletes will use every possible training approach at their disposal in a world where sports performance and success are measured in seconds—and even hundredths of a second. Whatever your goals, dreams or plans, the power of mental imagery and visualization in sport techniques can help you get there.

If done correctly, the relevance and complexity of visualization can be extremely strong and beneficial to swimmers. Visualization can be done in a variety of ways to help overcome fear, create self-confidence, and develop new skills more quickly by programming the inner guidance system and overriding limiting beliefs.

Adam Peaty uses visualization in the lead-up to competition in order to unlock the full potential of his training.

“It’s weird because I didn’t really get that nervous during the Olympics. I’d swam that race a thousand times in my head. I’m a big fan of visualization so I’ll always visualize my race beforehand,” 

“From arriving to the arena, to get out on the starting blocks to what I will feel like half way; for me everything is covered.” Adam Peaty

mental imagery and visualization in sport
Image by Wikimedia Commons

This echoes the same advice from Olympic gold medalist Garrett Weber-Gale

I do visualize that moment–the moment when my arms feel like sandbags when my legs are burning and my back feels like it’s tightening up like a rubber band. I get myself to the point where I am completely prepared for the pain.

After imagining this point for a long time, I know I am able to endure the emotional stress and physical pain. I look forward to this point because I know I will conquer it.

What Is Mental Imagery and Visualization?

Visualization is also known as mental imagery and rehearsal training technique. Visualization serves to reduce the pressures of competition on the athlete while building athletic confidence.

Through visualization, the athlete can ‘see’ themselves performing well during training or competition. This helps them think about how they will react to certain situations. Visualization is a powerful tool used by athletes and world-class performers. 

The goal of visualization is to create an experience that is so realistic that your body believes it is real. According to studies, the brain is unable to distinguish between real and imagined (visualized) memories.

When the mind is filled with extremely vivid images, the brain has a difficult time differentiating between what is imagined and what is real. Visualization should include all of your senses.

How does imagery and visualization help sports performance?

Anyone, regardless of age, gender, or physical ability, can utilize visualization to improve cognitive, behavioral, and emotional performance.

The athlete can fully embody a sensation by picturing the entire situation, including visions of a prior best performance, a future desired outcome, and the sense of doing each move.

The athlete should strive to visualize every detail and how it feels to execute in the ideal manner while imagining these scenarios.

An athlete can call up these images repeatedly in his or her mind, improving the skill through repetition or rehearsal, similar to physical practice, and can improve both physical and psychological reactions in particular situations.

Repeated imaging can help an athlete gain experience and confidence in their ability to accomplish certain skills under duress or in a variety of situations.

From a first-person perspective, use all of your senses — Visualize your sporting performance in great detail. What would you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste if you were in this situation?

As you go through the movements of your performance, imagine how your body will feel. Try incorporating some physical actions that correspond to the images perceived. Feel the rush of accomplishment as you achieve your performance target.

Go beyond merely seeing what you see and get the entire experience of what it’s like to swim at your best. Imagine yourself swimming using as many of your senses as possible.

Imagineing anything that could go wrong and being prepared for it was a important factor of Phelps' visualization.

Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman explain how visualization should be done in their opinion. They begin Phelps’ visualization process by putting his body into a deep state of relaxation. Bowman emphasizes the need of a vivid visualization that has been practiced many times.

Phelps would practice his races hundreds of times before the race so that when he stepped up on the blocks, his body would go into autopilot mode.

Because he has practiced so much, his body knows what to do, and his races have become second nature to the point where his brain already knows how to swim the race.

Scale your imagery to your skill level and ability. Visualizations and imagery must be realistic. When your imagery is in sync with your preparation, talents, and abilities, it is most effective. 

Make a shift in your mindset, cancel ordinary thoughts and change them with extraordinary ones. Create a flow state of mindBeing in the zone is the mental state when you are fully immersed and energized in performing something you are absolutely passionate about.

Use visualization to achieve the outcome you want and eliminate some of the unknowns that create competitive anxiety. Practice your visualization or imagery daily and stay on top of your game mentally.