Many athletes swear by mental imagery as a tool to enhance sports performance. Sports psychology is an expanding field, with new studies coming out each year about the affect of visualization on results. But, what do these studies really show? How can you implement visualization into your workouts to maintain better results?


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The Power of the Mind

Consider this experiment. Clinical psychologist Alia Crum created an experiment in which she made one batch of milkshakes, but she packaged the shakes in two different ways. The first package was labeled as a low calorie, fat free option. The second package was labeled as an indulgent, calorie-rich option. Crum wanted to know if the mind's perception of food had an affect on the actual biology of how it was digested and processed in the body


28 Day Meditation Challenge

Crum used ghrelin - a hormone produced in the gut to control hunger - as the measuring tool. Ghrelin is produced to signify hunger, and its production slows to signify satiation.1 What she found shows just how powerful the mind is in controlling the internal chemistry of our bodies. "The ghrelin levels dropped about three times more when people were consuming the indulgent shake (or thought they were consuming the indulgent shake)," she said, compared to the people who drank the sensible shake (or thought that's what they were drinking).


This is just one example of how the mind is at work to determine the way your body interacts with the environment and itself. In terms of sports, experiments like this are plentiful and point to the same incredible fact: just visualizing yourself working out, eating well, and taking care of your body will have an impact on the results you see - even if you never step foot in the gym.


One study on the average gym-goer conducted at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation found a thirty-percent increase in strength over the course of the experiment - not bad. But, over the same course of time, people sitting at home simply visualizing themselves going to the gym saw an over thirteen percent increase.2


Is this good news or bad news for all of us who put in the hours of sweat at the gym? I like to think it is great news.


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Using Visualization for Your Goals

This is great news because combining two techniques - physical training and mental training - can lead to even greater benefits than just using one technique alone. Adding in effective visualization to your daily practice can help you achieve whatever goal you are seeking, be it strength, flexibility, reduced time, or a large feat like completing a marathon. Here are some tools to make your visualization effective.


  • Call on experience. When the mind goes through the process of remembering, it actually takes your body through many of the experiences of the memory. For example, remembering an embarrassing moment may actually cause you to blush or feel weak in the stomach. This physiological reaction can be used to your benefit in sports visualization. Call to mind a time when you had your absolute best performance. Remember every detail about how strong, clear and powerful you felt. Allow your body to go through those sensations again. 
  • Make it sensory. Create a true experience around the goal you are seeking. It doesn't matter whether you see yourself first person in the event or as a witness, just take hold of as many sensory images as you can. Vision tends to be the most powerful for humans, so work first on generating a clear picture of yourself achieving your goal. If you are going after a time on the clock, look up at the clock in your mind and see that time repeatedly. After you have a clear picture, pay attention to more subtle experiences like the feel of the shoes on your feet, the temperature of the air as you breathe, and the sounds you hear when you achieve your goal.
  • Repeat a physical posture. In your memory and in your visualization, find a posture, expression or movement that you can feel in your body. Maybe you see yourself falling to your knees at the finish line. Perhaps you feel the exhilaration of getting that bar up over your head. Whatever it is, repeat this gesture. Allow your body to associate this action with success, and use this action on the day of your race, competition, or even just the deadline you have set for yourself.
  • Do it often. All studies on meditation show that meditating five minutes every day is more powerful than meditating five hours once a week. Keep repeating your visualization until it becomes incredibly familiar to you. 
  • Release expectations. This part is not always included in sports psychology, but it is often included in any visualization we do in yoga. Part of yoga - perhaps the biggest part of yoga - is not becoming attached to any potential outcome. As I continue to work through health issues in my own life, this tool has been invaluable in helping me maintain happiness and peace of mind despite not achieving every result I was seeking. At the end of your visualization, always repeat the words, "This or something better." With these simple words, you acknowledge there may be bigger forces at work in your life, and the goals you have for yourself are just a small part of the big puzzle.


In case you missed it:

Weekly Work-In: Week 1 - Create a Simple Daily Ritual for Body and Mind

Weekly Work-In: Week 2 - Create a Personal Affirmation That Works

Weekly Work-In: Week 3 - Create Balance in Your Life With the 5 Body Approach

Weekly Work-In: Week 4 - How to Support the Energetic Body

Weekly Work-In: Week 5 - Use Meditation to Calm Mental Conflict

Weekly Work-In: Week 6 - Getting Past the Ego

Weekly Work-In: Week 7 - Following Your Bliss



1. Alix Spiegel, "Mind Over Milkshake: How Your Thoughts Fool Your Stomach," April 14, 2014, National Public Radio. 

2. Angie LeVan, "Seeing is Believing: The Power of Visualization," December 3, 2009, Psychology Today. 

3. Annie Plessinger, "The Effects of Mental Imagery on Athletic Performance," Vanderbilt University Psychology Department. 


Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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