All of us instinctively use visualization (aka imagery) to help us perform better. Have you ever mentally practiced your own performance before physically executing it? Perhaps you’ve mentally rehearsed the exhilaration you’ll feel once you’ve completed an event you’ve been training for?

Imagery is a form of simulation training that can be used to learn new skills, plan performance strategies, improve technique, recover from injury, and develop mental toughness for optimal success in sport and fitness. The technique is among the top tools used by Olympic athletes.

Get the lowdown on visualization from Haley Perlus, PhD, a mental conditioning coach with a doctorate in sport and exercise psychology, a professor at the University of Colorado and the author of Guidebook to Gold™.

How Does It Work?

How can simply thinking about running a race help us accomplish it? Our minds can’t distinguish between what’s real and what’s imagined. Just think about the last time you woke up from a nightmare terrified about something that, at the time, appeared as real as could be, but obviously was not. Although you never left your bed, someone assessing your heart rate, skin conductance and other physiological measurements might easily have believed you had just returned from a run.

For sport and fitness performance, imagery creates mental blueprints of a past or upcoming performance. When repeatedly rehearsed, these blueprints are more easily transferred to external actions, maximizing performance capabilities.

Three Uses for Visualization

Top performers harness the power of imagery to perform at their peak. Here are three reasons why you may want to follow their example.

Skill Mastery

When you mentally rehearse a performance, using all of your senses to make the event as vivid and controlled as possible, your mind can’t distinguish between really doing it and not. Imagery codes movement patterns, making specific actions more familiar and automatic. Even before you physically attempt a skill, and long after your body is done physically performing for the day, imagery works to accelerate reaction times, improve coordination and accuracy, and enhance overall performance (Weinberg & Gould 2011).

Pain Killer

One way to deal with pain is by controlling your interpretation of pain. The defeatist mindset interprets pain to mean, This sucks; I obviously didn’t train hard enough, and now I’ll never achieve my goal. The competitive mindset, on the other hand, interprets pain to mean, My body is talking to me to let me know I either need to adjust some aspect of my activity or dig deep for that extra motivation to power through.

To find that last bit of motivation, you can distract yourself away from the pain by mentally practicing skill mastery—for example, mastering the next mile run, etc. Once you know the pain is there to test your willpower, you can tune out the pain by imagining a specific, successful aspect of your performance.

Anxiety Control

Symbolic imagery works to control your anxiety. Instead of experiencing the nervous butterflies in your stomach flying around out of control, in your mind place them in an inverted V‐shape similar to a flock of geese traveling efficiently and fast. Using imagery to take control of your nerves, you can reduce the amount of anxiety you experience and better utilize your arousal levels for peak performance.