Visualising Successful Performance
The tool I’m going to discuss in this post is one I firmly believe every athlete should be using. As a competitor, I reaped the benefits from using it, as a coach I’ve helped my gymnasts develop and learn skills with it and in my role providing sports psychology support I’ve helped athletes build their confidence and control their anxiety by using it. The tool I’m talking about is imagery, or some of you may know it better as visualisation.
There are many examples of highly successful athletes using imagery to help them perform. Wayne Rooney uses it to see himself scoring goals or playing well. Jessica Ennis-Hill used it to perfect her technique. Jonny Wilkinson used it to help him deal with performing under pressure.
So how does it work? Why don’t we use it enough in sport?
Imagery is the mental picture you create in your head to rehearse your sport, using all of your senses to create a real and vivid picture. Research shows that when used alongside real practice, imagery can improve performance more than just real practice alone. It doesn’t only influence your performance either – it can also affect how you feel psychologically, your emotions and how you think tactically.
How does imagery have this impact? Think back to a time where you did something really well, whether that’s as a coach, a gymnast or even just generally in your life. Picture that thing. Re-live that moment. What you did. How it felt.
How has thinking about that made you feel? I can imagine it’s made you feel really good, given you a bit of a boost in mood. Now, think about the impact that could have if you used that regularly when preparing for a competition. And when I talk about preparing, this is not just in lead up to the competition. Visualisation can be used whilst you’re warming up, waiting to compete, walking over to the trampoline. Imagine those good feelings you just experienced and then taking them with you as you step onto the trampoline, prepared, confident and ready to go.
The use of visualisation can help you to learn critical skills and strategies, for example coping with and mastering challenging situations or seeing success and preparing for competitions. They can help you to regulate your anxiety levels, control your focus and to make you feel more confident and motivated.
Imagery is a universally used skill because of its versatility. All it takes is a little imagination and the different scenarios it could be used for are endless. I’ve worked with athletes who would get worried about getting to a venue late and not knowing where they are going, or where the toilets are, or if the audience would be close to the equipment. So we have worked together to research the venue and identify all the different scenarios they could possibly encounter. Using visualisation we then imagined these scenarios so that if any of them did arise, they would know what to do and how to respond.
So how can you help yourself or your performers?
Think about the times your own or your performers’ nerves may have got the better of their performance, or when you haven’t felt mentally prepared. How did that affect your focus and attention? How much control did you have over your emotions?
By using imagery you can learn to manage your nerves so when you compete you know what to expect and they don’t get the better of you. Take the time to spend a couple of minutes a day seeing yourself compete successfully and boost your confidence and feelings of control by removing some of the unknown that can accompany competing.
As my previous example showed, it’s not always actually competing the routines that can be a problem for athletes. Think of the things you have worried about when competing. Imagery can be used to learn how to respond to challenges that may arise within a competition environment, preparing an athlete for the whole competition experience and helping them to perform better. When you have used imagery to deal with the worries and to see the best version of yourself compete you are better focused on the task at hand. When you step up to compete, you could have already completed the routine 100 times in your head and feel confident that you will perform to the best of your ability.
Here are some tips to help develop your imagery:
1. Create and control your imagery. It may take some time to build this skill so start with simple images such as basic moves. This can sometimes be difficult so make sure you are able to do this. Once you can do this build up to routines and new moves. Make sure you always maintain control over what it is you want to see. You can use other tools like videos can help to create your image.
2. Plan your imagery to fit your needs. Think about what your current needs are at the time and use imagery to your benefit. If nerves get the better of you in competition, use imagery to see yourself controlling those nerves and competing exactly the way you want to despite them. If you’re competing a new routine for the first time, see yourself performing it well under competition conditions.
3. Use all of your senses. Imagery is most effective when you make it as vivid and close to real life as possible. Part of that involves using all of your senses. You need to feel what you would normally feel both physically and emotionally, see what you would normally see, hear what you would normally hear and so on.
4. Think about your perspective. When using imagery, you can see yourself in two different ways – internally as if you are performing or externally as if you are watching yourself. I would encourage the use of both. It is important to have the different perspectives of your routine; the feel of what you do and what you would see. Trampolining is a technical sport and you rely on your senses to be able to do it. However, trampolining is also an aesthetic sport so it needs to look good! You need to know what it is you want your routine to look like (external) to go with what it is actually like to perform it (internal). It is therefore important to emphasise both perspectives to gain the full picture of what you want to achieve.
5. Practice makes perfect. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, you get good at what you practice. Imagery is just like any other skill you learn in sport and needs practice in order to perfect it.
Providing support across a range of sports, Emily offers one-to-one sessions, group workshops and tailored strategies for both athletes and coaches at all levels designed to enhance mental performance in sporting environments. For more information or to contact Emily: direct email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet her @EMsportsci.