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Application of Visualization in Sports

We believe you’ve probably heard many times about the importance of visualization in sports, read about the potential improvement of focus, emotional control, and consequently, athletic performance. In this article, we will try to better explain what visualization is, how it works, and provide practical guidelines for using this technique.

Visualization in Practice

First and foremost, it’s necessary to clarify a misconception that often leads people to incorrect beliefs about this technique. Namely, visualization is not merely daydreaming or imagining practicing the sport you train for. It’s much more than that; it involves complete mental activation of the areas responsible for executing complex motor actions, as if the action is taking place in the physical world. In other words, if we visualize a certain action, movement, or activity while following specific rules, the same areas of the brain will be activated as when we actually perform that action, movement, or activity in the real world.

Functional brain imaging reveals this activity in the motor areas of the brain during visualization. Additionally, during visualization, a transition of brain activity from the left (logical thinking) to the right hemisphere (creative imagination) has been observed, further enhancing the vividness of visual imagery.

There are several theories that support this claim, such as the psychoneuromuscular theory, symbolic learning theory, and information theory. While they differ somewhat, fundamentally, by learning or refining a skill through visualization, the formation of myelin, which serves for faster transmission of information between neurons, is encouraged. The more we engage in visualization, the more myelin the brain creates, and the connections between neurons become stronger.

To simplify, imagine a steel chain made up of many links. Each of these links, in the beginning, was fragile (learning the skill). After a series of training sessions, the links become thicker, stronger, and more resistant to breaking. The skill becomes more perfected, more resistant to forgetting and mistakes. The links primarily strengthen through training but also through visualization.

In one study on visualization, a group of basketball players was divided into 4 teams. Group A practiced free throws for 20 minutes daily, group B visualized free throws for 20 minutes daily, group C did nothing, and group D practiced free throws but also visualized them. Naturally, group C showed no progress after 20 days; in fact, the percentage of successful free throws decreased. Group B (visualization) improved the percentage of successful free throws slightly less than group A (free throws), while group D (free throws + visualization) showed the best results. This supports the idea that visualization is by no means a substitute for training, but it is definitely a powerful tool for improving abilities.

Rules of Visualization

At the outset, we mentioned that in visualization, we need to adhere to certain rules or guidelines to ensure that visualization goes beyond mere daydreaming.

The first of these rules is clarity of the image or richness of detail. It’s essential to strive to evoke as many details as possible in visualization—everything we see, hear, everything we can smell and feel. This creates a prerequisite for “tricking” our brain into believing that what we visualize is actually happening. When working with our athletes, we aim to have them envision precisely the same image of the arena or field they are in, to hear the crowd, cheering, coach’s instructions, whistle sounds, to try to smell the scent of the arena, pool, track.

Other kinesthetic senses are also very important, such as feeling the surface, wearing the jersey, sneakers, touching the ball or equipment, physical contact with another person. All of this gives a strong impression that we are really in a real situation. It’s not uncommon for the muscles of athletes who visualize to twitch, or for athletes to feel tired after visualization. All of this is evidence that the athlete has truly immersed themselves in their own visualization.

Control is a prerequisite for our visualization. Everything we visualize is under our control—our movements, actions, and reactions. If we make a mistake in visualization, we can rewind a few scenes and repeat that movement, correct it, or perform it very slowly, paying attention to every detail. What is definitely under our control are the emotions we want to feel and associate with a specific moment in visualization. This increases the likelihood that we will experience the same emotions in reality, on our sports field.

Perfection of performance is another prerequisite for proper visualization. This rule is often debated. Namely, visualization should always be realistic, in line with our abilities, and oriented towards visualizing exactly what we want to achieve, not what we want to avoid. Namely, if we visualize what we want to avoid, we would be reinforcing mistakes rather than correct execution. However, this does not mean that in our visualization, we will be perfect executors of our intentions and movements, “flying” around the field with superhuman abilities. It’s also necessary in visualization to control our reactions to possible mistakes. A good performance in our visualization boosts our confidence and feeling of efficiency in that action, along with the aforementioned reinforcement of mental motor behavior patterns.

Perspective is another characteristic of visualization, and it’s possible to apply both internal (from our own eyes) and external perspective (as if viewing from a bird’s eye, from the stands, or TV). The internal perspective is more useful for movements and actions where precision of execution, timing of execution, and planning relative to spatial arrangement are important, while the external perspective is more useful in the early stages of acquiring extremely complex movements and correcting technique. Sometimes athletes, depending on the phase of movement execution or action, will benefit the most if they use both perspectives in mental training. We try to teach our athletes to primarily use the internal perspective from the beginning for a simple reason—it’s the only perspective they have during the game itself.

Finally, in visualization, it’s necessary to incorporate several focus points, i.e., 2-3 elements (technical/tactical) on which we will focus our attention on correct execution. Throughout visualization, it’s important to control our thoughts and direct them to the right things so that it can later be transferred to the field.

In our work with several hundred athletes from over 20 different sports, both individual and team, we have gone through the technique of visualization with everyone. Of course, every sport has its own rules, but visualization is always a useful technique for mental preparation.

Types of Visualization

It’s possible to work on the visualization of technical elements, such as free throws, corner kicks, uppercuts, serves, or swimming strokes.

Additionally, work is done on tactical elements, such as moving to the net, series of shots, counterattacks, or playing out entire points or actions.

Regarding the types of visualization themselves, they can be distinguished by the speed of execution and duration.

Some of them include “real-time” visualization – occurring in roughly real-time duration of the action. An example of this visualization is preparing for a tennis serve, which is time-limited to a maximum of 20 to 25 seconds, depending on the level of competition and the age of the athlete. The purpose of this visualization is to rehearse certain movements, rituals, and behaviors that the athlete needs to perform within the given time as part of their preparation.

Sometimes accelerated visualization is used – the athlete tries to speed up the visualization and visualize exactly as prescribed, so that they can perfectly execute it at normal speed during the competition. Also, in accelerated visualization, the cognitive process of thinking is not so pronounced, and the focus is on acquiring automatism.

Slow-motion visualization is used when we want to correct a certain wrong movement or adopt a completely new one. The athlete tries to visualize in “slow motion,” frame by frame, to properly execute the desired action.

Extended visualization is used as “overlapping” is used in the training of certain sports. The duration of an unusually long point/action is practiced so that the athlete becomes accustomed to such situations that are rare but happen. It also develops exceptional concentration and reaction abilities, with the obvious benefit being that in reality, due to physical fatigue, we cannot often practice such situations. An example of this visualization would be an exceptionally long point in tennis, lasting 2-3 minutes.

You’re ready for visualization

We hope that by now, reading this article, you’ve dispelled the misconception that visualization is merely daydreaming and imagining. Visualization has its own laws and rules, and discipline is necessary. It’s not enough to just close your eyes and visualize; it’s essential to adhere to a certain schedule.

Often, athletes are instructed to keep a visualization diary, in which they make notes of what they did, how long they did it, how satisfied they were with the visualization, and what potential difficulties they encountered.

In some sports, the use of a stopwatch is possible, where over time, our visualization becomes equal in duration to the actual performance.

In some sports, we recommend using a “gym boss” or popular Tabata timer, to have auditory signals mark game periods and breaks.

The described technique is also used when practicing the pre-competition routine itself, where the athlete mentally goes through the path from the locker room, meets their opponents, sees the referees, arrives at the arena, prepares for the performance, and so on.

All of the above serves to improve focus, acclimatization to pressure, control of our emotions and thoughts, and consequently, better performance.

When an athlete starts working on visualization, it’s expected that the duration of quality visualization will be shorter, so the athlete starts with about 10 minutes, 3-4 days a week. The athlete chooses the time to work on their mental preparation and relaxes or puts themselves in the emotional state necessary for good visualization before starting.

Let’s not forget that this is primarily a technique that is learned and progresses over time. Some may excel from the start, while others may take longer to progress, but every athlete can become very good at this technique. With progress, the volume and scope of visualization increase.

Visualization sessions are planned and programmed, and they are adjusted to the training or competition periodization, which is done in agreement with the athlete and/or coach. Thus, visualization sessions can last about 10 minutes a day, but sometimes more than 1 hour a day. Athletes perform their visualizations in the peace of their homes but gradually also on their field of play, so that the context is as similar to the real one as possible.

Also, athletes try to adopt and adhere to a certain visualization pattern within their competitive and pre-competitive routine, which they will use every time and before every competition. This way, the athlete gains confidence and routine in performing their mental preparation.

“If I’m gonna play against this defender, I’m gonna think how good he is, which side is he better, how fast is he, which is his better leg… I’m gonna try to visualize how I will play against him, how I’m gonna dribble… and that is something I do for every match and every player.”

Pele

We hope that with this article, we have brought you closer to all the possibilities and importance of visualization. If you haven’t used this technique in your preparation so far, we challenge you to try it in the coming weeks, find your best way, test yourself, be creative, keep a diary, and stick to a schedule. We are confident that with systematic work and commitment, you will improve your results and become better than before.

Luka Škrinjarić, MSc in Psychology
Mental Training, Director

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