Visualisation is a technique used to create a mental image of a desired outcome or intention of what you want to happen or feel in reality. It is the process used to access the imagination to recreate a mental picture, memory, experience and emotion. For some sportsman and businessman, this use of mental imagery and the act of creating/rehearsing a positive mental experience in order to enhance their ability to achieve a successful outcome in real life is a method used frequently. The objective for some being: to enhance the accuracy of psychological preparation. To visualise performing something well and placing oneself in the moment is all part of the mental preparation. It’s almost like having a memory in advance of the event -and the more detailed and authentic the vision, the better the outcome.
The most important thing with visualisation is using multiple senses, like sound, sight, feeling, smell and taste. Many great athletes from Wayne Rooney and Michael Phelps to Jessica Ennis-Hill, Michael Jordan and Jonny Wilkinson have used visualisation to perfect their technique and improve their physical performance. The sights, smells, sounds, atmosphere, sensations and nerves are created through visualisation sessions, as it helps the body get use to performing under pressure. Vivid imagery helps to prepare mentally by improving concentration, confidence, clarity and speed of thought. It helps to prepare for a variety of scenarios including performance in interviews, presenting/pitching, public speaking, sport performance, competitions/tournaments, training, rehearsals/routines and technique enhancement.
Visualisation is powerful because it can physiologically imitate a real sensory experience without any external stimuli. People use it to either practice or acquire complex motor skills, rehearse routines and techniques to create muscle memory and develop a greater sense of self-awareness.
Visualisation fires impulses to the relevant muscles / parts of the body, priming them for action. The more vivid the mental image, the more effectively the brain primes the muscles. Research suggests that visual rehearsal actually triggers neural firings in the muscles and creates a mental blueprint that can facilitate future performance.
In other words, by visualising an action, electrical impulses are fired producing muscle patterns almost identical to those produced when physically performing the action.
Arnold Schwarzenegger frequently applied visualisation and said:
“When I was very young, I visualised myself being and having what it was I wanted. Mentally I never had any doubts about it. The mind is really so incredible. Before I won my first Mr. Universe, I walked around the tournament like I owned it. The title was already mine. I had won it so many times in my mind that there was no doubt I would win it. Then, when I moved on to the movies, the same thing. I visualised myself being a successful actor and earning big money. I could feel and taste success. I just knew it would all happen.”
Visualisation may not necessarily be something to use instead of physical practice, but can be used to compliment it. It can indeed help improve optimal performance and is proving to be a useful mechanism with those eager for marginal gains i.e. anyone who competes in matches or tournaments for example. Visualisation can either be used prior to or during an event. For example, before a singer is about to go on stage, they visualise their performance along with the sensation of the audience and how their voice will sound. Research suggests that mental rehearsal can activate the vocal chords as if physically singing.
The use of imagery primes the muscles to perform the correct technique and execute the appropriate actions. It also conditions the mind to think clearly about how to react to certain pressures, situations and problems. It can be considered a ‘mental warm-up’. Visualisation can be used by amateur athletes to help them prepare in advance by encouraging them to focus on the execution of good technique. It can also help to prepare for different strategies for different scenarios, such as waking up with nerves in the morning of a major event and being able to manage these nerves or managing start-line nerves seconds before a race is about to start.
Visualisation isn’t limited to sport. It can help prepare for an important meeting with a boss or a dinner date. If one were to visualise a big business presentation or interview in detail, one would need to prepare for everything right the way from posture and body language to handling feelings of anxiety and nerves, to awkward questions that might be asked and how to respond to them. Evidence suggests that the brain is unable to distinguish the difference between what is real and what has been vividly imagined. Research also suggests that when something is visualised in sufficient enough detail, certain areas of the brain are triggered and muscle movement in the body actually take place. Similar to that if the task or action had physically being performed.
Visualisation can be enhanced through the use of hypnosis. Performance is often a result of what is going on inside one's head. There are stories of people who have used visualisation to gain that competitive edge over somebody else and subsequently improve their chance of success. Visualisation can be used to ‘intend’ an outcome of a training session, a tournament, a business meeting , or it can be used to access a relaxed / calm state i.e. before an important presentation, assessment or audition. One might use visualisation to reflect on a previous best performance or they can use it to imagine a desired outcome in a future event. By using the imagination, one can play out all different types of scenarios in the mind, incorporating any of the senses. These can be visual (images and pictures), auditory (the sound of a crowd cheering), kinaesthetic (emotional feelings or physical sensation i.e. holding a golf club), gustatory (taste) and olfactory (smell). Images in the mind can be recalled over and over again, enhancing the skill every time through repetition or rehearsal (mental practice). Mental rehearsal enables the mind and body to become trained to perform the skill as it has been imagined. In other words, if a technique is imagined repeatedly with precision and accuracy, then the body and mind will learn the technique in this way i.e. with precision and accuracy.
Visualising one-self practicing a technique or performance can be much more effective than physically practicing it. The reason being is that in reality there is room for inaccuracy and error which the mind and body remembers. Whereas when something is imagined i.e. a technique or performance, it can be visualised with perfection, which means the body and mind learn the best technique possible with no errors. Repeated visualisation can build both experience and confidence in the ability to perform under pressure in a range of different situations. Self-belief can be enhanced, physical and psychological reactions in some situations improved and the efficiency/effectiveness of training and practice maximised. Using visualisation is like being a movie director. It allows the individual to create their own story, be in control over a successful performance and choose their desired outcome. The more vivid the imagination the better the results will be.
How does Visualisation work?
Visualisation can be applied to many things related to personal development. Whether one wants to develop new behaviours, shift beliefs, establish different habits, reduce fears, improve performance, develop a technique, build confidence or learn new skills, visualisation can help achieve all of these things and much more. Two theories that explain how visualisation works are: Psycho-neuromuscular Theory and Symbolic Learning Theory. Psycho-neuromuscular Theory suggests that vividly imagined events can create the same neuromuscular responses as if one were having the actual experience. The more vivid and realistic the visualisation, the more effective it can be. For example, engage all the senses including any emotions one might feel if they were physically in the moment itself i.e. any background activity, the lights, sounds, smells – the more details the better. The mental images created in the brain can actually stimulate muscular contractions so small, that no noticeable movement takes place but the same neuro – pathway is used, establishing a memory of that action. Symbolic Learning Theory implies that imagery can create a blueprint of movement patterns in the central nervous system. Evidently this theory is more widely accepted. As with many things, no amount of training or preparation (mental or physical) can ever guarantee the perfect result; however, over time and with dedication/perseverance, noticeable improvements can be achieved in the areas worked on.