Visualization and imagery in sports

Visualization is a well-established tool in sports psychology. It's been around for a long time but began going mainstream in the 1970s when stories about Russian and East German programs of 'mental training' were making the news. Suddenly something that until then seemed more like voodoo than sport science was being practiced by athletes everywhere.

We didn't know how this was supposed to work, few did back then, but the idea that athletes could program their minds in order to achieve a physical goal was intoxicating. We knew little or nothing about the actual science behind it but it seemed easy enough.

Fast forward a few years and the excitement had cooled. The 'practitioners' back then were mainly coaches and had neither the training to administer a mental skills program nor the tools to monitor one. But sports psychology, somewhat of a dark art in the 60s and 70s, was moving into the mainstream of sport training.

Sport psychologists started appearing on team staffs and universities started offering degrees in sports psychology. Visualization became one of a basket of skills that athletes could employ to enhance their physical training.

Successful visualization requires that athletes be able to control their thinking process. Those who try it quickly learn that it's not as easy as it may appear. During the early 2000s one of my athletes came into practice and told me that he was practicing his visualization the night before. "...but I keep finishing in second place," he moaned. Of course that remark got a lot of laughs but if the other athletes were honest he probably wasn't the only one with that problem.

Learning to guide one's thoughts to the conclusion we want is not easy, partly because most people tend to visualize what they fear may happen rather than what they want to happen especially in high pressure, high value situations. We seem to fear failure more than we desire success. It doesn't seem like a big obstacle but it is. Getting to the point where visualization is controllable and thus effective is a long process.

Athletes need coaches, managers, administrators, and parents who understand how to help athletes in this process. Coaches are usually pretty good at this. They know that the best thing that can do is to help the athlete keep his eye on the prize by reinforcing what the prize actually is. They know that warning athletes about all the bad things that can happen is not effective and can even be detrimental to good performance.

Controlling the process means the athlete sees himself achieving the goal; winning the race rather than coming in second, for example.

It also means focusing on positive images, thoughts, and affirmations. Which is why recent comments made to the Malaysian Under-22 football squad regarding their upcoming SEA Games participation are unbelievable. Warning players "not to disappoint their fans" is the exact opposite of motivational. I can imagine that coaches who heard this comment cringed.

Learning to visualize good performances in accordance with personal and team goals will help athletes of an appropriate age perform better. Helping those who work with athletes can reinforce this training and produce teams that are mentally strong and athletically effective.