Mental Imagery/Visualisation
Mental imagery, or visualisation, involves the athlete imagining themselves in an environment performing a specific activity using all of their senses (sight, hear, feel and smell). The images should have the athlete performing successfully and feeling satisfied with their performance.
Visualisation is proving to be an understandably popular mechanism with elite athletes eager for marginal gains. The use of imagery primes their muscles to perform correct technique and to execute appropriate actions in competition, but it also conditions their mind to think clearly about how they will react to certain pressures, situations and problems. Consider it a ‘mental warm-up.’
When combined with relaxation it is useful in:
  • the promotion of rest, recovery and recuperation
  • the removal of stress related reactions e.g. muscular tension
  • establishing a physical and mental state which has an increased receptivity to positive mental imagery
  • establishing an appropriate level of physical and mental arousal prior to competition
Mental Imagery can be used to:
  • Familiarise the athlete with a competition site, a race course, a complex play pattern or routine etc.
  • Motivate the athlete by recalling images of their goals for that session, or of success in a past competition or beating a competitor in competition
  • Perfect skills or skill sequences the athlete is learning or refining
  • Reduce negative thoughts by focusing on positive outcomes
  • Refocus the athlete when the need arises e.g. if performance is feeling sluggish, imagery of a previous best performance or previous best event focus can help get things back on track
  • See success where the athlete sees themselves performing skills correctly and the desired outcomes
  • Set the stage for performance with a complete mental run through of the key elements of their performance to set the athlete's desired pre-competition feelings and focus.
How to apply mental imagery?
  • This method is used regularly by many of the world’s best tennis players. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray both use imagery to prepare for games. Djokovic was taught to visualise his shots to the accompaniment of classical music by his first coach.
  • Murray has even been known to make several visits to a deserted Centre Court in advance of Wimbledon in order to mentally acclimatise to the environment. “I have sat on Centre Court with no one there and thought a bit about the court, the matches I have played there,” Murray said. “I want to make sure I feel as good as possible so I have a good tournament.”
When should mental imagery be used?
To become proficient in the use of imagery you have to use it ever day: on your way to training, during training and after training. In every training session, before you execute any skill or combination of skills, first do it in imagery. See, feel, and experience yourself moving through the actions in your mind, as you would like them actually to unfold. In the competition situation use imagery before the start of the event and see yourself performing successfully/winning.
Golfer Jack Nicklaus used mental imagery for every shot. In describing how he imagines his performance, he wrote:

  • "I never hit a shot even in practice without having a sharp in-focus picture of it in my head. It's like a colour movie. First, I "see" the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes, and I "see" the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behaviour on landing. Then there's a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality and only at the end of this short private Hollywood spectacular do I select a club and step up to the ball."
Suggested Techniques to Use.
1 The "Quick Set" routine
Psychologist Jeff Simons developed a routine that would allow an athlete to achieve an appropriate mental arousal in the last 30 seconds before a competition. The "Quick Set" routine, which involves physical, emotional and focus cues, can also be used as a means of refocusing quickly following a distraction.
An example of this "Quick set" routine for a sprinter could be:
  • Close your eyes, clear your mind and maintain deep rhythmical breathing, in through your nose and out through your mouth (physical cue)
  • Imagine a previous race win, see yourself crossing the line in first place and recreate those emotional feelings of success (emotional cue)
  • Return your focus to the sprint start, think of blasting off on the 'B' of the bang with the appropriate limb action (focus cue) but from the vantage point of someone standing on the finishing line, and commentate on the race as it develops. Watch as you get closer.... stand there as the image gets bigger.... comment on the sweat and how that runner is breathing... keep looking as the image gets so big you can look right into her eye.

2 Visualisation Script
Remove Pre Competition Nerves
Close your eyes and take a deep breath
Picture a day when you were going to a competition

Prepare for the Action

Achieve a Successful Outcome

Use this website for ideas to complete the script above
The benefits of mental imagery have been outlined and I have found that when an athlete is in a fully relaxed state, they are particularly receptive to mental imagery. The next stage is the creation of scripts to help in developing and apply mental imagery skills.

Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation itself can be useful in a number of circumstances including:
  • the promotion of rest, recovery and recuperation
  • the removal of stress related reactions, e.g. increased muscular tension, etc.
  • the establishing of a physical and mental state which has an increased receptivity to positive mental imagery
  • the establishing of a set level of physical and mental arousal prior to warming up for competition
There are a number of relaxation techniques that have the following characteristics:
  • procedures for first recognising and then releasing tension in muscles
  • concentration on breathing control and regulation
  • concentration on sensations such as heaviness, warmth
  • mental imagery
Regardless of which technique is used, the following two conditions need to exist if the technique is to be learned:
  • the athlete must believe that relaxation will help
  • a quiet, dimly lit and warm room which is free from interruption


The Centering technique was developed by the Tibetan Monks over 2000 years ago. Centering requires you to focus your attention on the centre of your body, the area just behind your naval button. The technique has a calming and controlling effect, providing an effective way to manage anxiety.
  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, arms hanging loosely by your side
  • Close your eyes and breath evenly - try to keep the tension in the upper body to a minimum as you breath
  • Inhale deeply from your abdomen (your stomach will extend) and be aware of the tension in your face, neck, shoulders and chest. As you exhale let the tension fall away and focus on the feeling of heaviness in your stomach
  • Continue to breath evenly and deeply and focus your attention on the centre of your body, the area just behind your naval button
  • Maintain your attention on that spot and continue to breath evenly and deeply, feeling controlled, heavy and calm
  • As you breath out think of a word that encapsulates the physical feeling and mental focus you want e.g. "relax", "calm"

Meditation for Relaxation

A number of people involved in sports psychology believe that meditation can be useful in getting maximum performance from an athlete (Syer & Connolly, 1984)[2]. Engaging in meditation helps reduce stress before an event and with experience the athlete can learn to relax different muscle groups and appreciate subtle differences in muscle tension. The technique includes the following steps:
  • Lie down on your back in a comfortable position and close your eyes
  • Relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing to your face
  • Breathe through your nose and become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word "won" silently to yourself. For example, breathe in . . . out, "won"; in . . . out, "won"; and so on. Continue for 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, lie quietly for several minutes at first with closed eyes and later with opened eyes.
Maintain a passive attitude, permit relaxation to occur at its own pace and expect other thoughts. When distracting thoughts occur, return your concentration to your breathing. Try to practice a relaxation technique once a day.

5 Breath Technique
This exercise can be performed while you are standing up, lying down or sitting upright. You should inhale slowly, deeply and evenly through your nose, and exhale gently through your mouth.

  • Take a deep breath and allow your face and neck to relax as you breathe out
  • Take a second deep breath and allow your shoulders and arms to relax as you breathe out
  • Take a third deep breath and allow your chest, stomach and back to relax as you breathe out
  • Take a fourth deep breath and allow your legs and feet to relax as you breathe out
  • Take a fifth deep breath and allow your whole body to relax as you breathe out
  • Continue to breathe deeply for as long as you need to, and each time you breathe out say the word 'relax' in your mind's ear

Benson’s Relaxation Response
Benson's technique is a form of meditation that can be used to attain quite a deep sense of relaxation and can be ideal for staying calm in between rounds of a competition. It can be mastered with just a few weeks' practice and comprises of seven easy steps:
  1. Sit in a comfortable position and adopt a relaxed posture
  2. Pick a short focus word that has significant meaning for you and that you associate with relaxation (e.g. relax, smooth, calm, easy, float, etc.)
  3. Slowly close your eyes
  4. Relax all the muscles in your body
  5. Breathe smoothly and naturally, repeating the focus word
  6. Be passive so that if other thoughts enter your mind, dismiss them with, 'Oh well' and calmly return to the focus word - do not concern yourself with how the process is going
  7. Continue this for 10 to 15 minutes as required.

Cognitive and Somatic Techniques

There are two different types of Anxiety management techniques. These are Cognitive and Somatic Anxiety management. Cognitive is the thought process of preventing anxiety, and is the mental element of the anxiety management. Somatic is the physical element of anxiety management and an element that allows athletes to show their anxiety through actions within their sport.

Cognitive anxiety management techniques:

The first cognitive anxiety management technique is imagery. Imagery is where an athlete will imagine themselves in a calm situation where they are in control away from the anxious situation. This can also take the form of mental rehearsal, kin-aesthetic imagery and creative imagery are also effective. Imagery can be used to help relaxation and focus.
It can take two forms: External imagery and Internal imagery.

External imagery is when the athlete can picture themselves performing the task successfully. For example a tennis player could picture an ace serve and where the ball will land before serving to focus them. However, the athletes must be a skilled and experienced performer if the picture is to be of value.

Internal imagery is the mental rehearsal of skills and techniques and instead focuses on specific elements of the skill without picturing the whole scene. For example, a full-swing in golf can be rehearsed continuously without envisaging other players around due to fact that golf is also mainly a solitary sport. Mental rehearsal is productive because it is thought to stimulate the nervous system and the muscles in a way that replicates the real situation. A sporting example of this cognitive anxiety management technique would be British Long distance runner, Mohammed Farah who practices his technique continuously before, during and after any event for example, he will even practice his breathing techniques routinely to enable him take in as much air as possible when running.

Thought Stopping
Though stopping requires an athlete to refuse to think negatively. Any negative inclination should and must be stopped and substituted with a positive thought. Thought stopping may be more effective if a person is inclined to be both confident and extroverted. Individuals with introverted tendencies and those prone to learn helplessness may find trying to channel these negative thoughts difficult. An athlete will use this though stopping process before a match or an event of high importance, an example is professional rugby league club Leeds Rhino’s players will have to try to channel out any negative thoughts when they go up against any other high profile and talented team such as rivals Bradford Bulls. Leeds Rhino’s coach Brian McDermott ensure that this thought process is broken down to ensure the best possible outcome for his team.

Positive Self-talk
Positive self-talk involves the athlete endorsing their own ability or progress by literally talking to him or herself. This is often common in tennis because if they play a bad shot or loose the point they will positive self talk to help them win the next point. This is often common in British tennis player, Andy Murray as you can see him muttering to himself after a lost point or a ineffective shot, of course many players across the sporting world do this as well and for some players you can see the negativity of the self-chatter. This involves the athlete being able to take into account where they are up to with their ability, and being able to progress by talking to themselves to help figure out where to go next. Speaking aloud will commit you (the athlete) to the task and is effective in raising confidence. However, positive self-talk is only of value if performers are of a high standard and are experienced.

Rational Thinking
Rational thinking is thought that anxiety grows from an imbalance of perception between ability and situational demands. Rational thinking involves focusing inwardly on the internal and narrow style of attention and evaluating the situation and it possible logical consequences. (Martens, 1975). Rational thinking works effectively if the athlete has the experience and skill to evaluate a situation realistically. The Inexperienced athlete would be unable to make a rational evaluation. An example of rational thinking is when Manchester City were losing 3-0 at home to Sunderland in March 2011/2012 season, but went on to rescue a point an earn a 3-3 draw. This is a prime example of rational thinking because Manchester City were 3-0 and through rational thinking it helped them to focus on the game and attempt to rescue a result which they very well did as they ended up drawing level at full-time.

Somatic anxiety management techniques:

This technique involves the measurement of physical changes that happen to the body when arousal and anxiety increase. Accurate measurements of changes in heart rate, blood pressure and skin temperature can be taken once it is known that a performer is becoming anxious. Once these changes are being monitored, It is thought that the performer can control the physiological effects of excessive anxiety, such as muscular tension and adopt a calmer state. A psychologist named Petruzello discovered that there is strong evidence that biofeedback is effective in improving performance.

Progressive Muscular Relaxation
Progressive muscular relaxation which is also known as (PMR) is a technique that was devised by Jacobson in 1929. requires the athlete to increase the tension of the muscles throughout the body and gradually relax each group in turn. Many studies have proved that PMR helps relaxation, however (Cox, 1998) believes that PMR is only successful when used alongside other relaxation techniques. A major disadvantage to this technique is that it is very time consuming and can take between 30 and 45 minutes to complete.