See It Happen to Make It Happen: How Visualization Makes Athletes More Successful

What’s the best way to psych up before a lift, sprint, or other athletic attempt? A new study found visualization blows other methods out of the water.

Do you ever try to psych up before a lift or exercise? Does it actually improve your performance? Several studies have shown that mental techniques can improve performance under the right circumstances. But what are the best techniques to use? Are some better than others? An upcoming study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examines these questions.

Researchers in Tunisia decided to find the most effective means of psyching up. They tested two well-established methods. The first, imagery, involves visualizing yourself performing the task to the best of your ability. The next, arousal, involves simply getting as excited as possible before starting the task. The researchers tested both of these methods against two control scenarios.

To perform the test, researchers recruited sixteen experienced male sprinters. Each sprinter performed a maximal thirty-meter sprint followed by a rest interval. The researchers chose short sprints because in sports acceleration is generally more valuable than speed. During the rest interval, the sprinter was coached to use one of the above mental techniques, or a control method where he was required to count backwards from 1,000 in increments of seven. No, I’m not joking. I think I’d rather just run another sprint. Another interesting fact: the sprinters were all required to eat the same breakfast. Breakfast was one cake, a glass of orange juice, and water. I hope they enjoyed their cake.

When the data was analyzed, the researchers found that visualization was the clearly superior technique. When athletes used imagery during their rest intervals they consistently reduced their sprint times. Out of the sixteen sprinters, fourteen reduced their sprint times using imagery. Arousal worked as well, but not much better than the control conditions, so imagery was the clear winner.

Imagery is easy to use. Before attempting a task, just visualize yourself performing the task and being successful. This could mean visualizing a lift being made, a fast sprint, or anything else you attempt. Before my athletes attempt record lifts, I often coach them to, “See it happening. Visualize success.” I think many of my athletes have used imagery in this way to achieve new personal records.

So next time you’re attempting a difficult task, try using imagery to improve your performance. Even if you’re accustomed to using arousal, or otherwise getting excited before a lift, try imagery for a change. Sixteen Tunisian sprinters can’t be wrong.


1. Sarra Hammoudi-Nassib, et al. “Effects of psyching-up on sprint performance.Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: POST ACCEPTANCE, 28 January 2014. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000373

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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