Vision and Imagery in Sports – How Athletes Create a Winning Mindset

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how to visualize success After reading this lesson, you will be able to:

  •  define imagery;
  •  discuss the effectiveness of imagery in enhancing sport performance;
  •  discuss the where, when, why, and what of imagery use by athletes;
  •  discuss the factors influencing imagery effectiveness;
  •  describe how imagery works;
  •  discuss the uses of imagery;
  •  explain how to develop a program of imagery training; and
  •  explain when to use imagery.

For many years athletes have been mentally practicing their motor skills. In fact, mental practice—so named to distinguish it from physical practice—has a long tradition in sport and exercise psychology, and the large body of literature on the topic has been thoroughly reviewed on numerous occasions. In the past three decades, this general focus on mental practice has given way to systematically studying the potential uses and effectiveness of imagery in sport and exercise settings. The following quote by all-time golf great Jack Nicklaus demonstrates his use of imagery:

“Before every shot I go to the movies inside my head. Here is what I see. First, I see the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then, I see the ball going there, its path and trajectory and even its behavior on landing. The next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous image into reality. These home movies are a key to my concentration and to my positive approach to every shot.”

Nicklaus obviously believes that rehearsing shots in his mind before swinging is critical to his success. He has said that hitting a good golf shot is 10% swing, 40% stance and setup, and 50% mental picture of how the swing should occur.

As scientific evidence accumulates supporting the effectiveness of imagery in sport and exercise settings, many more athletes and exercisers have begun using imagery to help their performances and make their experiences more enjoyable. In this chapter we discuss the many uses of imagery in sport and exercise settings as well as the factors that make it more effective. Many people misunderstand the term, so let’s start by defining imagery.

NOTE: You can learn much more about this topic in the Spencer Institute Sports Psychology Coach Certification program.

The Definition of Imagery in Sports Psychology

You probably have heard several terms that refer to an athlete’s mental preparation for competition, including visualization, mental rehearsal, symbolic rehearsal, covert practice, imagery, and mental practice. These terms all refer to creating or re-creating an experience in the mind. The process involves recalling from memory pieces of information stored from experience and shaping these pieces into meaningful images. These pieces are essentially a product of your memory, experienced internally through the recall and reconstruction of previous events. Imagery is a form of simulation. It is like a real sensory experience (e.g., seeing, feeling, or hearing), but the entire experience occurs in the mind. All of us use imagery to re-create experiences. Have you ever watched the swing of a great golfer and tried to copy the swing? Have you ever mentally reviewed the steps and music of an aerobic fitness workout before going to the class? We can accomplish these things because we can remember events and re-create the pictures and feelings of them. We can also imagine (or “image”) events that have not yet occurred. For example, an athlete rehabilitating from a shoulder separation could see herself lifting her arm over her head even though she has not yet been able to do this.

Uses of Imagery by Athletes

Athletes can use imagery in many ways to improve both physical and psychological skills. Uses include improving concentration, enhancing motivation, building confidence, controlling emotional responses, acquiring, and practicing sport skills and strategies, preparing for competition, coping with pain or injury, and solving problems.

Improve Concentration

By visualizing what you want to do and how you want to react in certain situations, you can prevent your mind from wandering. You can imagine yourself in situations in which you often lose your concentration (e.g., after missing an easy shot in basketball, forgetting a step in an aerobic dance class, or forgetting how to complete a test to assess an injury) and then imagine yourself remaining composed and focused on the next play or step or test. Imagery can increase awareness of competitive cues that can contribute to faster decision making and improved execution of individual or team tactics.

Enhance Motivation

Imagery can help build motivation to participate, especially in exercise classes. For example, regular participants in an aerobic dance class frequently used imagery to see themselves becoming healthier and improving physical appearance. In addition, imagery has been shown to enhance motivation by adding purpose to repetitive and monotonous exercises. For example, elderly women performed more repetitions of a reaching-up exercise when they imagined themselves reaching up to pick apples compared with a condition in which no imagery was used. From a sport perspective, seeing oneself being successful, such as winning a gold medal and thus using motivational general–mastery imagery, has been shown to increase motivation to perform.

Build Confidence

If you have had trouble with serving in recent volleyball matches, for example, you might imagine hitting hard, accurate serves to build up your self-confidence. An official whose confidence is shaken when the crowd starts booing her calls against the home team could visualize herself taking control and maintaining confidence and impartiality on subsequent calls. One study showed that athletes who were high in confidence used more mastery imagery (e.g., “I imagine myself to be focused during a challenging situation”) and arousal imagery (e.g., “I imagine the excitement associated with competing”) and had better ability with kinesthetic and visual imagery than did athletes with low confidence.

Generally, positive imagery has been shown to enhance confidence. Kinesthetic imagery (imagery emphasizing the feel of the movement, force, effort, and spatial sensations) improved sport confidence. Furthermore, different types of imagery are most effective for developing, maintaining, or regaining confidence, although MG-M imagery was generally used the most in all three conditions.

Control Emotional Responses

Imagery can be used both to create higher levels of arousal (e.g., get “pumped up”) if an athlete feels lethargic and to reduce anxiety if an athlete gets too “uptight.” Along these lines, the late Pat Summitt, who was a highly successful women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, used imagery for relaxation before important games when players tended to get too pumped and played out of control. However, research has also shown that competitive state anxiety can be both facilitative and debilitative. Therefore, an athlete who is having trouble getting up for a competition might want to use arousal imagery (anxiety seen as facilitative), whereas an athlete who finds anxiety a problem (anxiety seen as debilitative) may use imagery to control arousal and reduce anxiety.

In addition, imagery can be used simply to increase positive affect and enjoyment of the competitive experience. Another study investigated the effect of imagery on stress appraisal in threat and challenging conditions. Two groups were given the same imagery scripts (using stimulus and response propositions) except that the challenge group viewed the task as a challenge, whereas the threat group perceived the task as threatening. Results revealed that those who imaged they didn’t have the resources for the task perceived the task as more threatening, exhibited more cognitive anxiety, interpreted their anxiety to be more debilitating, felt less in control, and believed they would perform poorer than the challenge group. Thus, the implication is that imagery can be used before performance to alter stress appraisal of the situation, which in turn can result in psychological responses that are associated with more successful performance outcomes.

Acquire, Practice, and Correct Sport Skills

Probably the best-known use of imagery is for practicing a particular sport skill. Athletes practice putting a golf ball, executing a takedown in wrestling, throwing the javelin, doing a routine on the balance beam, or swimming the backstroke— all in their minds. You can practice skills to fine- tune them, or you can pinpoint weaknesses and visualize correcting them. A physical education teacher might have students imagine the proper execution of a backward roll as they wait in line for their turn. An aerobics instructor might have students imagine a sequence of movements as they listen to the music before physically attempting the steps. This practice can take the form of a preview or a review. A participant can look forward to and visualize what to do in an upcoming competition or a player can review a past performance, focusing on specific aspects of the movement that were done particularly well. Finally, athletes can use imagery to detect and correct errors in their routine, motion, or movement pattern.

Acquire and Practice Strategy

Imagery can be used to practice and learn new strategies or review alternative strategies for either team or individual sports. A quarterback, for example, might visualize different defenses and the plays that he would call to counteract them. A hockey goalie might imagine what she would do on a breakaway as three players converge on the goal.

Prepare for Competition

Imagery is used most often right before competition to get athletes ready to perform their best. This preparation could take the form of imagining the arena where the athlete will perform. Or an athlete could image her preperformance routine (e.g., getting ready to go on the balance beam) to enhance focus and concentration. Similarly, a quarterback might review the different defenses he could face and the different decisions that he could make given a specific defensive alignment.

Cope With Pain and Injury

Imagery is also useful for coping with pain and injury. It can help speed recovery of the injured area and keep skills from deteriorating. It is difficult for athletes to go through an extended layoff. But instead of feeling sorry for themselves, they can imagine doing practice drills and thereby facilitate recovery. Imagery can help improve flexibility, which in turn would allow a player to recover faster.

Solve Problems

People can use imagery to discover or solve problems in performance. A player who is not performing up to past or expected levels can use imagery to critically examine all aspects of the performance to find the potentially confounding factor. If a gymnast is experiencing trouble on a particular aspect of her floor routine, for example, she can visualize what she is doing now and compare this with what she did in the past when she was performing the moves successfully.

How Imagery Works

How can just thinking about clearing the crossbar in high jump, hitting a perfect tennis serve, healing an injured arm, or sinking a golf putt help accomplish these things? We can generate information from memory that is essentially the same as an actual experience; consequently, imaging events can influence our nervous system similar to that of the real, or actual, experience. Imagined stimuli and perceptual or ‘real’ stimuli have a qualitatively similar status in our conscious mental life. Sport psychologists have proposed five explanations of this phenomenon. No one theory can really explain all the different findings surrounding imagery research and practice, each theory can shed light on the mechanisms driving imagery and why it can enhance performance.

graph showing visualization imagery for sports performance enhancement

Psychoneuromuscular Theory

The psychoneuromuscular theory proposes the ideomotor principle of imagery. According to this principle, imagery facilitates the learning of motor skills because of the nature of the neuromuscular activity patterns activated during imaging. That is, vividly imagined events innervate the muscles in somewhat the same way that physically practicing the movement does. These slight neuromuscular impulses are hypothesized to be identical to those produced during actual performance but reduced in magnitude (indeed, the impulses may be so minor that they do not actually produce movement).

In groundbreaking research with downhill skiers, monitored the electrical activity in the skiers’ leg muscles as they imagined skiing the course; results showed that the muscular activity changed during the skiers’ imaging. Muscle activity was highest when the skiers were imagining themselves skiing rough sections in the course, which would require greater muscle activity. Electromyographic activation in nine upper-arm muscles of participants who imaged lifting a dumbbell correlated with actual physical movement of lifting a dumbbell. Furthermore, more electromyographic activity occurred when participants imagined lifting a heavier weight than occurred when participants imagined lifting a lighter weight.

When you vividly imagine performing a movement, you use neural pathways like those you use when actually performing the movement. Let’s take the example of trying to perfect your golf swing. The goal is to make your swing as fluid and natural as possible. To accomplish this, you imagine taking a bucket of balls to the driving range and practicing your swing, trying to automate it (i.e., groove your swing). In effect, you are strengthening the neural pathways that control the muscles related to your golf swing. Although some research supports this explanation of how imagery works, other research indicates that the electrical activity produced by the muscles does not mirror the pattern of activity that occurs when performing the movement. More definitive research is necessary to empirically substantiate the idea that imagery works as predicted by the psychoneuromuscular theory.

Symbolic Learning Theory

Some sports psychology coaching experts have put forth the belief that imagery can help individuals understand their movements. His symbolic learning theory suggests that imagery may function as a coding system to help people understand and acquire movement patterns. That is, one way individuals learn skills is by becoming familiar with what needs to be done to successfully perform them. When an individual creates a motor program in the central nervous system, a mental blueprint is formed for successfully completing the movement. For example, in a doubles match in tennis, a player will be able to better plan her own course if she knows how her partner will move on a certain shot.

Bioinformational Theory

Probably the best-developed theoretical explanation for the effects of imagery is the bioinformational theory. Based on the assumption that an image is a functionally organized set of propositions stored by the brain, the model holds that a description of an image consists of two main types of statements: response propositions and stimulus propositions. Stimulus propositions are statements that describe specific stimulus features of the scenario to be imagined. For example, a weightlifter at a major competition might imagine the crowd, the bar she is going to lift, and the people sitting or standing on the sidelines. Response propositions, on the other hand, are statements that describe the imager’s response to the scenario. They are designed to produce physiological activity. For example, having a weightlifter feel the weight in her hands as she gets ready for her lift as well as feel a pounding heart and a little tension in her muscles is a response proposition.

The crucial point is that response propositions are a fundamental part of the image structure in Lang’s theory. In essence, the image is not only a stimulus in the person’s head to which the person responds. Imagery instructions that contain response propositions elicit greater physiological responses (e.g., increases in heart rate) than do imagery instructions that contain only stimulus propositions. Imagery scripts should contain both stimulus and response propositions, which are more likely to create a vivid image than stimulus propositions alone.

Triple Code Model

The final model goes a step further in stating that the meaning the image has to the individual must also be incorporated into imagery models. The triple code model of imagery highlights understanding three effects that are essential parts of imagery; the effects are referred to as ISM. The first part is the image (I) itself. The image represents the outside world and its objects with a degree of sensory realism which enables us to interact with the image as if we were interacting with the real world. The second part is the somatic response; the act of imagination results in psychophysiological changes in the body (this contention is like Lang’s bioinformational theory). The third aspect of imagery is the meaning of the image. Every image imparts a definite significance, or meaning, to the individual imager. The same set of imagery instructions will never produce the same imagery experience for any two people.

When to Use Imagery

Imagery can be used virtually any time—before and after practice, before and after competition, during the off-season, during breaks in the action in both practice and competition, during personal time, and during recovery from injury. In the following sections we describe how imagery can be used during each of these times. A study by Wakefield and Smith (2012) found that the more athletes practice imagery, the stronger the positive effects on performance. They found that imaging three times a week was better than twice a week, which was better than once a week.

Before and After Practice

One way to schedule imagery systematically is to include it before and after each practice session. Limit these sessions to about 10 minutes; most athletes have trouble concentrating on imagery any longer than this (Murphy, 1990). To focus concentration and get ready before practice, athletes should visualize the skills, routines, and plays they expect to perform. After each practice, they should review the skills and strategies they worked on. Tony DiCicco, former coach of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, used imagery with the following scenario after practice to help build confidence:

“Imagine in your mind when you do well. If you’re a great header, visualize yourself winning headers. If you’re a great defender, visualize yourself stripping the ball from an attacking player. If you’re a great passer of the ball, visualize yourself playing balls in. If you’ve got great speed, visualize yourself running by players and receiving the ball. Visualize the special skills that separate you from the rest—the skills that make your team better because you possess them.”

Before and After Competition

Imagery can help athletes focus on the upcoming competition if they review exactly what they want to do, including different strategies for different situations. Optimal timing of this precompetition imagery differs from one person to another: Some athletes like to visualize right before the start of a competition, whereas others prefer doing so an hour or two before. What’s important is that the imaging fits comfortably into the pre-event routine. It should not be forced or rushed. After competition, athletes can replay the things they did successfully and get a vivid, controllable image.

Similarly, students in physical education classes can imagine themselves correcting an error in the execution of a skill they just learned and practiced. They can also replay unsuccessful events, imagining performing successfully or choosing a different strategy. Imagery can also be used to strengthen the blueprint and muscle memory of those skills already performed well. Good performance of a particular skill does not preclude the use of imaging; the usefulness of imagery continues if one is performing one’s skill.

During the Off-Season

The lines between season and off-season are often blurred. In many cases, there is no true off- season because athletes do cardiovascular conditioning, lift weights, and train sport-specific skills during time away from their sport. Using imagery during the off-season is a good opportunity to stay in practice with imaging, although recent research has revealed that athletes use imagery significantly less during this time than during the season.

During Breaks in the Action

Most sporting events have extended breaks in the action during which an athlete can use imagery to prepare for what’s ahead. In many sports there is a certain amount of dead time after an athlete performs—this is an ideal opportunity to use imagery. During Personal Time Athletes can use imagery at home or in any other appropriate quiet place. It may be difficult to find a quiet spot before practicing, and there may be days when an athlete does not practice at all. In such cases, athletes should try to set aside 10 minutes at home so that they do not break their imagery routine. Some people like to image before they go to sleep; others prefer doing it when they wake up in the morning.

When Recovering from Injury

Athletes have been trained to use imagery with relaxation exercises to reduce anxiety about an injury.

They have used imagery to rehearse performance as well as the emotions they anticipate experiencing on return to competition, thereby staying sharp and ready for return. Positive images of healing or full recovery have been shown to enhance recovery. Ievleva and Orlick (1991) found that positive healing and performance imagery were related to faster recovery times. Imagery can also help athletes, such as long-distance runners, fight through a pain threshold and focus on the race and technique instead of on their pain. Furthermore, different types of imagery have been shown to be effective at different parts of the rehabilitation process.


Define imagery. Imaging refers to creating or re-creating an experience in the mind. A form of simulation, it involves recalling from memory pieces of information that are stored there regarding all types of experiences and shaping them into meaningful images. The image should optimally involve all the senses and not rely totally on the visual.

Discuss the effectiveness of imagery in enhancing sport performance. Using anecdotal, case study, and experimental methods, researchers have found that imagery can improve performance in a variety of sports and in different situations. Of course, the principles of the effective use of imagery need to be incorporated into imagery studies to maximize imagery effectiveness.

Discuss the where, when, why, and what of imagery used by athletes. Imagery is used at many different times but most typically before competition. Categories of imagery that athletes use include cognitive general (e.g., using strategy), cognitive specific (e.g., using skills), motivational specific (e.g., receiving a medal), motivational general–arousal (arousal or relaxation), and motivational general–mastery (building confidence). Athletes image internally and externally; image positive and negative events or their surroundings; and use the visual, kinesthetic, olfactory, tactile, and auditory senses.

Discuss the factors influencing imagery effectiveness. Consistent with the interactional theme that is prominent throughout this text, the effectiveness of imagery is influenced by both situational and personal factors. These include the nature of the task, the skill level of the performer, and the imaging ability of the person.

Review and Discuss

What is imagery? Discuss re-creating experiences that involve all the senses. What are three uses of imagery? Provide practical examples for each.

Compare and contrast the psychoneuromuscular and symbolic learning theories as they pertain to imagery.

Describe some anecdotal and some experimental evidence supporting the effectiveness of imagery in improving performance, including evidence relating to the nature of the task and ability level.

Compare and contrast internal imagery and external imagery and their effectiveness.
Discuss three of the basic elements of a successful imagery program, including why they are important.


If this topic interests you, click over to discovery how to enjoy a thriving career as a Spencer Institute Certified Sports Psychology Coach.

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