The History, Science, and How-To of Visualization

You can improve your performance by improving your visualization skills. And if you’ve never done visualization, I’m going to walk you through how to do it, step by step.

There is what for some may be a surprising study found in the book Peak Performance by Charles Garfield. The study shows just how powerful mental training can be for athletes:

There is what for some may be a surprising study found in the book Peak Performance by Charles Garfield. The study shows just how powerful mental training can be for athletes:

“In my meetings with the Soviet researchers in Milan, they discussed government funded athletic programs that integrate sophisticated mental training and rigorous physical training. One study evaluating these intensive programs suggests their potential. Four matched groups of world-class Soviet athletes diligently trained for many hours each week. The training regimens were as follows:

Group I – 100% physical training

Group II – 75% physical training, 25% mental training

Group III – 50% physical training, 50% mental training

Group IV – 25% physical training, 75% mental training

When the four groups were compared shortly before the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, Group IV had shown significantly greater improvement than Group III, with Groups II and I following, in that order.”

Wow! Basically this says that the more mental training you do the better. However, there are some things that are unclear here.

How big were these groups? Were these percentages durations of time or something else? Were the first three groups just overtraining and was that what led to Group IV being the best performers? Lastly, what mental training did these athletes do?

There are many different kinds. One of the most well known is visualization, which will be the focus of this article, but that is not the only area of mental training.

Unfortunately I’ve never found more details to this research than has been presented here. And I think it’s too bad there was no Group V that did 100% mental training. It would have been interesting to see where they ended up.

Most people have heard of the study done with basketball free throws, where those athletes who only did visualization for practice had almost the same amount of improvement as those who physically practiced. But much more has been done in the study of visualization then just that well-popularized one.

In 1992, Anne Isaac led an experiment with 78 subjects of trampolinists, some of whom were experts and others novices.

They were divided into experimental and control groups, and this was a blind study, so the experimenter was unaware of who was in which group. Isaac had the participants tested on visualization skills through assessment and classed them as high or low imagers. Both groups were trained in three skills over a six-week period.

The practice was laid out as follows:

  • 2.5 minutes of physical practice on the skills
  • 5 minutes of mental imagery for the experimental group
  • 5 minutes of abstract mental problems like math or puzzles for the control group
  • 2.5 minutes of physical practice once again

In the end, there was a significant difference in performance between both the high imager and low imager groups, with the high imagers getting superior results.

There was also a significant difference between the mental imagery group and the control group, again the former group leading. Both the novice and expert groups saw improvement, which showed that visualization works in beginners and advanced people.

This was one of few studies showing that not only was visualization successful, but better visualization was more successful.

I think the term visualization is actually a bit of a misnomer. A better term is multi-sensory imagination or mental rehearsal. Although the visual component is important, so are the other senses:

  • Visual– Using your sense of sight to see pictures, images, and movies.
  • Auditory– Using your sense of hearing for listening to sounds.
  • Kinesthetic– Using your sense of touch to feel tactile sensations and proprioceptives of the movement. This area also covers the emotions, which we will talk more about later.
  • Olfactory– Using your sense of smell.
  • Gustatory– Using your sense of taste.

visualization, meditation, visualization for athletes, sports psychology

In fact, for most sports I would advise that the most important component is the third one, kinesthetic.

There are actually several sub-components brought under this heading, like balance, pressures, as well as emotions and internal sensations. If you’re properly visualizing your muscles will be firing to some degree. Watch anyone experienced in doing proper visualization of exercises and you’ll see little micro-movements as the muscles contract and relax.

So how do you become good at visualizing? Practice.

You need to practice in order to build up your abilities to imagine the different senses with vividness, to hold them all within your mind, without having all your focus going to one specific thing.

It takes that practice to get to that point so you can actually get solid results from doing the visualization.

A Simple Visualization Drill

Here is a simple drill you can do. For the sake of the example lets say we’re going to visualize a barbell snatch.

  1. Pick an exercise to perform in your mind and close your eyes.
  2. See the barbell in front of you. Notice the gym setting around you. Do you see other people in the gym? How bright is the image? How big is it? Is it a series of still images or do you have a movie playing? Are you seeing yourself in the picture or are you there now as it if were really happening?
  3. What sounds do you hear? Is music playing? Is there the clanking of weights around you? People talking or grunting? Are you talking to yourself?
  4. What is your emotional state as you look at the barbell? How does chalk feel in your hands? Go ahead and grasp the bar and get into a ready position. Then pull and notice how it feels as you get the bar overhead and stand up with it.
  5. Did you notice any smells or tastes as you went through this process? (These aren’t necessary but can be powerful if you include them.)

I will also add that using a technique like progressive relaxation or self-hypnosis will enhance the results of this process, as you’re able to turn your focus more inward.

The more you practice visualization the easier it will become and the more you can hold in your mind at one time.

In the beginning, just like when working out, it may be hard, but if you persist with it your mind will get stronger.


1. Garfield, Charles A., Peak Performance: Mental Training Techniques of the World’s Greatest Athletes (California: Warner Books, 1984), 16

2. Isaac, A. R. (1992). Mental Practice- Does it Work in the Field? The Sport Psychologist, 6, 192-198.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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