Building a Strong Mental Game: The Power of Visualization for Athletes

The most famous story on the effects of visualization tells of a soldier held captive during the Vietnam War. While he was in captivity, he maintained his sanity and passed the time by mentally playing 18 holes of golf every day.

He walked a familiar golf course every day, feeling the sun on his back and the wind moving across the course. Each day, he played a long, perfect game of golf.

When he was eventually released and returned home, he visited the same golf course he had used in his visualization sessions. He plays 18 holes and puts down the best score of his life, having not touched a club for years.

This anecdote has long been used to tout the benefits of visualization, and while it’s truthfulness is questionable, mentally imagery training has since become accepted as common practice among athletes.

What Is Visualization?

Visualization is the practice of mentally imagining yourself performing various tasks or actions the way you would like to perform them in real-life. It’s a mental rehearsal of skills, specific gameday scenarios, racing in new venues, or performing at the top of your ability while under pressure. The idea is that if you consistently mentally rehearse sports scenarios or specific actions, physical performance of those scenarios and actions will improve.

If it sounds too good to be true, it is. But only kind of. The effects of visualization are real, but the greatest impact comes when visualization is used in conjunction with a disciplined, sport-specific training schedule.

If you’re new to the idea of mental training, or want a few ideas on how to update your visualization-game, read on. We’re about to break it all down.

Reasons/Purported Benefits

Beginning in the 1980s, visualization started to gain traction among the public thanks to sports psychologists and coaches, as well as motivational speakers and life coaches for non-athletic applications. The benefits of visualization run the gamut from physical performance improvements to mental resilience and will change depending on which athlete or psychologist you ask.

Team athletes can practice new plays mentally or match themselves up against new and changing opponents. When an athlete has run through a game scenario in their head before meeting it on the court, their brain is already primed to respond optimally. They’ve started to build reactions even though it’s a new situation. This visualization focus is commonly employed by athletes who directly interact with a variety of competitors – think basketball or football players meeting a different team every week, or an MMA fighter engaging with ever-evolving opponents.

For “solo” athletes like runners and triathletes, visualization allows them to see (and even “run”) a course before they get there. That way, there are minimal surprises on race day. The same goes for athletes heading to new stadiums; if they can run their pre-play routine in the new environment in their head, they’re not dealing with as much new stimulus when they want to be focusing on performance.

Many athletes have also reported benefits to their mental state – they’re less nervous and anxious approaching events because they’ve already been there and seen themselves performing the way they want to. For athletes with performance anxiety, their focus and ability to “shut out” the crowd improves, along with their confidence in their ability to perform.

While it may seem like a “woo-woo” mental practice, visualization is widely accepted among high-caliber athletes. At this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find a famous, successful athlete who doesn’t employ visualization at some level.

Olympians across many disciplines tout the benefits of mental imagery in their training. When stakes are that high and you only get a shot once every four years, the pressure is on – and it can take its toll on an athlete’s mental state.

Michael Phelps is a huge proponent of visualization (and hard work, of course). LeBron James attributes much of his success to his mental game. Arnold Schwarzenegger envisioned his future and made it a reality. No matter the sport, visualization and mental imagery can have a massive impact on an athlete’s focus and overall performance.

The Link Between Visualization and Learning

All those benefits sound great, but let’s be honest: the proof is in the science. While visualization is somewhat hard to measure (thought and focus are not observable, measurable actions in the traditional sense), there have been several insightful research projects. Supporting the more direct studies, there’s plenty or research into the motor cortex of the brain and its function in movement and learning.

Mirror Neurons

Though the science is, to date, somewhat murky, the idea of visualization necessitates at least mentioning mirror neurons.

Macaque Monkeys

Mirror neurons were initially observed in macaque monkey populations. Scientists were investigating the role of individual neurons in the functions of hand and mouth actions – that is, what specific segments of the motor cortex are firing while the monkeys were grabbing or eating food.  While observing brain activity, the researchers identified neurons that fired when a monkey grabbed food as well as firing when they merely watched someone grab food. Essentially, the brain was able to “mirror” the physical act being observed.

Similar neurons have been mapped in the human brain through a series of fMRI studies. Research has been somewhat limited, but there is strong evidence to suggest that several areas of the brain work as part of a “mirror network.” The purpose of this neural network is subject to hypothesis at this point, though various theories include granting humans the ability to learn through imitation, mimic other people’s movements for social reasons, infer the meaning behind actions, and to empathize with other people.

While the many explanations of mirror neurons are fascinating, it could easily become its own article. For the purpose of visualization, it is merely relevant to understand that humans have a neural system that allows neurons to fire and the brain to build connections both when observing actions and while performing them.

Motor Cortex Activation

Imagining yourself performing an action and actually moving both activate the motor cortex. While that may seem preposterous, it’s actually quite simple.

In order to send the signal needed to contract a muscle from the brain all the way down to the muscle, a certain threshold of activation needs to be achieved. Prior to reaching that activation level, you’re still calling on the same neurons in the motor cortex – just at a lower intensity. The same area of the brain is lit up, but no muscles contract as a result.

So, even when you’re pretending to perform an action (or watching someone else do it as with mirror neurons), your brain is working in the background, quietly stimulating the same areas of the motor cortex and building connections.

Research Studies on Visualization

It’s all well-and-good in theory, but what does the research say? (Brace yourself, it’s about to get a little wordy.)

The original study heralding visualization was performed by Dr. Blaslatto at the University of Chicago. He measured the level of improvement in free throw shooting in 3 groups of players. For 30 days, one group did not practice, one group spent 30 minutes daily practicing free throws, and the last spent 30 minutes each day visualizing successful free throws. The group with no practice showed no improvement, the physical practice group improved 24%, and the group who visualized improved by 23%. While this particular study has not been re-created, there are a number of others that show the effectiveness in visualization in basketball.

Visualization for Basketball

A small study performed at the Cleveland Clinic studied the strength gains made through physical or mental training over a course of 12 weeks. Participants either physically performed finger abduction (spreading the fingers) and elbow flexion (bicep curls) or mentally envisioned themselves going through the actions.

While the group training physically saw larger gains in strength, the group performing visualization exercises saw a 35 percent increase in finger abduction strength and a 13.5 percent increase in elbow flexion strength. Researchers hypothesize that mental training increased the motor cortex signal output, creating higher levels of muscle activation and, consequently, creating more powerful muscle contractions.

How to Practice Visualization

Now that the value of visualization has been thoroughly espoused, it would probably be helpful to actually tell you how to do it. As with most things, there are several ways to approach this, and there’s an efficient way and an effective way. If you have questions after this explanation, sports psychologists and coaches are typically great resources on how to apply visualization to your sport specifically.

Outline Your Focus

As with physical practice, you need a purpose. Exercises are much more effective (and easier to plan) when you know what the end goal is. This allows you to work backwards and outline the best plan of attack.

Among competitive athletes, it’s common to envision their next big event, whether that’s a race day, a big game, or a performance. Working on a specific event means that you have a venue and an environment that can be worked in to the picture, and you can envision a particular outcome – success is fairly black and white when you’re looking at obtaining a PR, getting on the podium, or hitting a certain score.

Outside of prepping for a big event, athletes may choose to focus on a particularly challenge aspect of training or a difficult new skill. For runners, this may be a challenging hill on a local trail. For dancers, this may be a new turn combination. For basketball players, it might be a new technique for shooting three pointers. It’s different for everyone.

The easiest way to decide what to work on is to look at your current training and event schedule, and look at what makes you most nervous or gives you the most trouble, as well as any large goals you’re working towards. Once you’ve narrowed down what you want to focus on, you’re ready to dive in.

Get in the Mindset

To start, find a quiet space free from distractions. This can be anything from laying on your couch in the dark to taking a moment in your car at lunch time. Some athletes choose to wear earplugs or put headphones in (without music playing) to block out sound.

Take a moment to connect with your body. Check in with all your limbs and feel how you’re doing. Take a few deep breaths and close your eyes. Aim to be in a relaxed state and aware of your body.

Engage Your Senses

Despite the name, visualization actually requires lot more than just picturing something in your mind’s eye. To properly engage in visualization, you need to pull more of your senses in to the equation. It’s like your imagination, on steroids – you’re aiming for a fully immersive experience.

Start by building your environment; this part is primarily visual. What color are the walls? What does the floor look like? Picture the lighting, the decorations, the colors, and any details you can muster. If you’ve never been to a venue before, you can usually get a decent idea from Youtube or pictures.

From there, work into your other senses.

What does it sound like? Does it echo, or are sounds muted? If you’re outdoors, can you hear birds? Cars? Water? Is there a crowd? Do they yell? Is there polite applause?

What does it smell like? Are you in a city, with exhaust and concrete? Are you in an arena with concessions? How about a trail, with dust and dirt? Does your competition gear have a specific smell?

Taste is somewhat looped into smell – most of us don’t eat while competing. However, if you can incorporate the smell of the atmosphere, or you fuel during breaks (or while running), take time to taste the food and identify the textures.

Finally, what does it feel like? Both in a physical and a metaphorical sense. Address your physical traits first. What feedback do you get from the ground? Is it springy, or unyielding? Is there a breeze on your arms or sun on your back, or is it cold? Do you feel a helmet on your head, a ball in your hand, or a running belt around your waist?

Then, address your touchy-feely feelings. Are you excited? Nervous? Calm and collected? Amped up? You decide how you feel based on the attitude you want on game day. Visualizing the event in the mindset you want to be in can help create that reality – you’re teaching your brain how you’d like to feel when you’re in that environment.

Work Through Your Routine

Now, you start the real work. Using the focus or event you’ve already picked out as a guide, run through the entire event.

If you’re shooting free throws, enter the gym. Find your basketball (pay attention to how it feels in your hand). Walk to the line. Do you pass other players? Do you greet them? Set up for your first shot. Set your feet. Dribble if you prefer. Get the ball positioned correctly in your hand. Line your shot up. Flex into the legs. Push up and release the ball. Watch it travel through the air, and watch the swish. Now retrieve the ball, go back to the line, and repeat. At the end of practice, put the ball away as close to how you would in real life, and leave the gym.

If you’re practicing for an upcoming race, go through all of the race day events. Maybe you start when you’re parking at the event. Go through your entire pre-race routine, including standing in line for the porta-potty (though maybe mentally fast forward that a little). Find your pace group. Get lined up. Listen to the announcement, hear the gun, and run the whole race. Focus in on seeing and feeling the course, and acknowledge the hard parts – if it’s a marathon, see yourself pushing through the wall.

No matter what you’re visualizing, find a natural start and end point that helps you set the stage. It creates context and makes the experience more “real.”

Practice Consistently

It’s worth mentioning that, like any valuable skill, visualization takes practice. It’s difficult at first. Similar to when people learn to meditate, you’ll find your mind wandering or notice that you’re thinking about your grocery list without understanding how you got from the basketball court to the frozen food aisle.

The important thing is to not get discouraged. If you find your mind wandering, bring it back. Reset your visualization at a good “save point;” you don’t have to start over every time. As you become more disciplined and continue practicing, you’ll find that you need to reset less frequently.

To help with this process, set a schedule for your visualization. Just like outlining your focus, you must be diligent and deliberate with your visualization practice to reap the rewards. Many athletes spend at least 10 minutes a day visualizing, though you can set any schedule that works for you.

Review and Modify as Needed

Remember, you won’t see the results immediately. Similar to physical practice, it’s going to take time to feel the impact of visualization. Don’t immediately change things if you aren’t seeing results. However, over time, there are some considerations and tweaks you can make:

  1. Mix up the perspective. While the inclination for most athletes is to perform visualization from the first-person perspective (in your own body), there is a definite benefit to visualizing in the third-person. Especially for those in aesthetic sports (dance, gymnastics, cheer, etc.), seeing yourself perform the motions perfectly from outside your body may help eliminate imposter syndrome, or an internal belief that you’re not as good as other athletes. Even for those in more traditional sports, seeing yourself hit the perfect three or cross the finish line can make that moment feel more real.
  2. Change the speed. As mentioned in outlining your focus, not everyone has the luxury of running their visualizations in real-time. Most of the time, we perform visualization in “fast-forward.” Occasionally, it’s worth picking a particular section of a race or a specific play that’s challenging, and running it in real-time. This allows you to slow down and engage with the environment in intimate detail, creating a more realistic model to draw on when it’s game time.
  3. Consider guided visualization. Being able to put yourself through your paces is invaluable and doesn’t make you reliant on a coach or friend to perform visualization. However, you can also get in ruts or mentally gloss over certain parts of the activity. Having a coach run you through your events, races, or game day scenarios can benefit you in multiple ways. They’ll likely focus on slightly different aspects of the narrative, which helps you create a more thorough mental picture. It also gives your brain a break from guiding itself, allowing you to pay more attention to the feeling and focus of each movement.
Strong Mental Game


  1. Great article, Alyssa. I just attended a talk on visualization. Your free throw and race prep examples helped clarify the process of using visualizing to enhance performance. Thanks!

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