Visualization in Sport

Visualization in sport is a training technique that forms a part of the larger science of sports psychology. Visualization is also known as mental imagery and rehearsal. Visualization is used primarily as a training tool, one that improves the quality of athletic movement, increases the power of concentration, and serves to reduce the pressures of competition on the athlete while building athletic confidence.

Visualization occurs when athletes are able to create an image or a series of images relevant to their sport, without any external prompts or stimulation; the images are mentally generated by the athlete alone. Visual images are usually the most important to athletic training and may be employed as the sole mental training method. Athletes may also depend on auditory images (sounds), kinesthetic images (movements), tactile sensations (touch), and purely emotional stimulation, in combination with visualization or as freestanding training aids, as may be appropriate to the effort to elevate the performance of the athlete.

There is a powerful relationship between mental and physical performance in sport. The development of a wide range of mental powers, such as focus and concentration, elevates athletic performance; over-analyzing detracts from the athlete's ability to react instinctively, an attribute that is usually a more desirable quality than the ability to reason through every sporting circumstance.

Visualization is intended to take the athlete to an image that conveys what perfection represents in the particular aspect of the sport. During visualization, the brain is directing the target muscles to work in a desired way. This direction creates a neural pattern in the brain, a pattern identical to the network created by the actual physical performance of the movements. A neural pattern is similar to diagramming the specific wiring and circuits necessary to transmit an electrical current. Alexander Bain (1818–1903) of Great Britain was the first scientist to develop a theory as to how the brain built such patterns to direct and control repeated physical movement. Numerous researchers since that time have expanded on the concept. Visualization alone will not develop the most effective mechanisms in the brain to later perform the desired action, but physical training coupled with visualization will create better recognition of the required nervous system response than physical training alone.

During organized athletic training, sports psychologists will commonly direct the visualization techniques employed by an athlete to be utilized in a quiet, secluded area, so as to eliminate distractions. It is common for athletes who are employing visualization training to participate in three such sessions per week.

The first application of visualization tools is the mental rehearsal or practice of the specific techniques required in a sport. Every sport has such training opportunities; the mental rehearsal of the precise footwork that a high jumper will take in an approach to the bar prior to takeoff, or the steps and delivery of a soccer player attempting a corner kick can be replayed by the athlete indefinitely.

The mental replay of the image of a successfully executed maneuver is a tool used by athletes to reinforce athletic confidence. When this type of visualization is used in conjunction with other sports psychology tools, such as positive self-talk, the self-encouragement that athletes direct inward for motivation, they can connect to an actual past success as a means of enhancing their future prospects.

Visualization is also a useful tool to contemplate the appropriate tactics the athlete might employ in a given competitive situation. A middle distance runner can visualize where in a particular 1,500-m race the closing kick ought to be employed; for an ice hockey player or a lacrosse defenseman, game situations such as defending a two-on-one break by opposing forwards can be analyzed. In a similar fashion, the athlete can reenact circumstances where an error was made or a breakdown occurred, making the image an educational tool.

Visualization is also useful while the athlete is recovering or rehabilitating from an injury. Positive images of either competition or healthy athletic movement can be employed, particularly while the athlete is using a stationary trainer or otherwise exercising, to mentally remove the athlete from the mundane training room or gym to the exciting athletic life.

The beauty of visualization as a training tool is its portability; this form of mental training can be used during the athlete's off hours, during training, rehabilitation, or in the course of actual competition, particularly in those sports where there are intervals between event segments. The delivery of a tennis serve and the throwing of a javelin are acts that permit athletes to engage their powers of visualization and, when coupled with a positive mental outlook, assist in achieving their best form.

SEE ALSO Motor control; Sport performance; Sport psychology; Sports coaching.