The Science of Visualization: Mental Imagery Do’s and Don’ts for Peak Performance
In Golf My Way, Jack Nicklaus wrote: “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie.” He’s not the only one—visualization techniques are commonly used by elite athletes to facilitate peak performance. Research confirms that visualization can boost athletic performance, particularly when alternated with deep relaxation.
One of the first controlled research studies on the topic demonstrated that regular visualization improved free throw shooting in basketball by seven percent. That may not seem like a dramatic improvement, but it was not only statistically significant, it led to eight more winning games that season for the team in question. After all, at elite levels, marginal improvements in performance, like a few more points or a few less hundredths of a second, can mean the difference between winning and losing. Since then, many more studies have replicated these findings. Visualization can even help with more “mental” aspects of the sport—athletes with anger management problems can visualize staying calm when opponents try to tempt them into outbursts.
Visualization, which is also called “imagery rehearsal” and “mental practice,” offers many benefits. Thinking about an event can make success seem more possible as you begin to construct mental scenarios of how it might occur and how you might make it happen. Moreover, by focusing your attention on your future, it boosts the likelihood that you’ll set inspirational goals based on your unique personality and values. But perhaps most importantly, visualization provides many of the benefits of practice; indeed, visualized behaviors can generally be practiced more quickly, easily, and frequently than actual behaviors.
Visualization can also reduce stress by helping individuals practice behaviors that would be frightening or intimidating to perform in reality. This is particularly true in sports such as diving, skating and gymnastics, in which athletes mentally rehearse maneuvers at the next level of difficulty before trying them in actuality. Visualization is often used in business and therapy for this kind of “fear inoculation” effect; salespeople who fear rejection perform better by visualizing themselves facing—and bouncing back from—rejection, and therapists ask phobic patients to visualize facing their fears as a way of easing them into actually confronting those fears.
Visualization must be done properly to be effective. Improperly done, it can be a waste of time, or even worse, actually hamper performance.
There are four keys to successful visualization:
1. Correct. Visualization improves performance if you visualize yourself engaging in the appropriate behavior using proper form and technique. In other words, visualizations must be correct. In contrast, visualizing incorrect behavior can hurt performance. This is why visualization enhances the performance of elite athletes, but often hampers the performance of less-skilled athletes who mentally practice the wrong skills (e.g., novice basketball players who mentally rehearse poor form in free throw shooting). So until you have become relatively skilled, you are better off forgoing visualization and focusing on real practice, learning from skilled performers, taking lessons, getting training, et cetera.
2. Precise. Visualization must be precise and detailed to be effective. Popular self-improvement books often advocate envisioning broad ends like “being richer” or “having less fear,” and this may in fact temporarily boost motivation, but greater benefits—reduced anxiety, heightened planning, and enhanced performance—result from envisioning the specific means to those ends. You should focus less on visualizing yourself as “feeling strong” or “being thin,” and more on performing the activities and exercises that will make you strong and thin. When visualization was used with the 1976 U.S. Olympic ski team, for example, precision and detail were crucial to the process: Skiers visualized themselves careening through the entire course, experiencing each bump and turn in their minds. That team performed unexpectedly well, and precise visualization has since become a standard tool in training Olympic athletes.
3. Vivid. Experience your visualization using all of your senses as if you are really living it, not just observing or remembering it. Successful visualization requires not just thinking the right thoughts, but also feeling the emotions and vividly imagining the behaviors. For example, the research literature includes a well-documented case study of a college football wide receiver who dropped a pass and soon fell into a negative cycle of emotion (worry, anxiety about dropping more), behavior (tentative, overly cautious) and thought (questioned his skills, developed a new identity as a “dropper”). By mentally rehearsing catching passes and scoring touchdowns, he was able to restore his confidence, but it was necessary for him to feel the emotions and vividly experience the behaviors—thinking the thoughts was not enough.
4. Distributed. Visualization sessions are most effective when distributed over time, rather than “bunched” into fewer, longer sessions. This “spacing effect” holds true for any kind of practice or preparation. For example, in preparing for a test, short bursts of studying distributed over time (e.g., one hour per night for four nights) lead to better results than cramming (e.g., four hours in one night).
As with any kind of practice, mental practice works best when you start slowly and build up gradually. Effective visualization is a learned skill that will improve and feel more natural over time. Elite athletes can be expected to devote considerable time to mental practice, but you might try to set aside just three five-minute blocks each day. During those blocks, you should begin with a few minutes of progressive relaxation, slowly relaxing the major muscle groups of the body. Then spend a few minutes precisely visualizing proper form and outstanding performance in your area of interest. Over time, you can devote longer blocks of time to visualization, and alternate periods of visualization and relaxation.
"Converting" the Skeptical
Some of you might doubt that visualization is really “for me”; some will consider it too “touchy-feely” while others will question its benefits regardless of the research findings. Try “converting” with a simple demonstration. Stand with your right arm comfortably resting at your side and your left arm held straight out in front of you. Then twist your torso clockwise as far as you can. Note how far you can turn. Next, rest for a moment, and then perform a brief visualization session. Close your eyes and visualize again twisting in the same manner, but going much, much further. Encourage a vivid visualization: While standing still, “mentally feel” yourself stretching and twisting much more than before. Now open your eyes and twist again. More often than not, you will twist much further than you did on the first attempt, and have a newfound respect for the notion of visualization.