Each and every day athletes are trying to gain an edge over their competitors. Regardless of how an athlete trains (e.g., diets, exercise, or studying film), the idea remains the same: be at the top of his/her game. Athletics is highly competitive and athletes will do what is necessary to succeed. As the intensity of training increases and competition becomes more aggressive, the potential risk for personal injury becomes greater. Because of this risk, it becomes imperative that coaches have the knowledge and proper training to help identify and facilitate the safest and most effective ways of competitive training. Overall, athletics should be a vehicle that fosters personal growth and development.

Obviously physical development remains one of the primary focuses of athletes. It is not uncommon for individuals to fall short in other aspects of training such as proper diet and academic goals. As a result, it becomes increasingly important for coaches to guide their athletes to be well rounded and promote excellence in all areas of personal development. While this may be many coaches’ intent, it is up to the athletes to fully grasp and apply the concepts which the coach encourages. The relationship between an athlete and a coach should be one of professionalism and respect. Additionally, it should be a relationship that provides a foundation of values and core ethics of which an athlete can draw upon retrospectively.

In order to assist in the development of an effective and balanced coaching strategy, this article will focus on the concept of visualization or the practice of harnessing the body’s senses to create imagery (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991). In examining visualization, this article will be broken up into three main components: 1) visualization in research, 2) practicing visualization as a soft-impact practice alternative, and 3) practicing visualization as a non-impact practice alternative.

Visualization in Research: A Brief Case Study

Recently, there has been a large push in visualization related research. Universities, government organizations and sport institutes have been at the forefront of some of the most significant gains regarding how visualization is interpreted and how it relates to other cognitive components [e.g., mental toughness, cognition, relaxation, and concentration] (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991).

Athletes spend a large amount of time training and the risk of injury has the potential to increase as the demands of competition become greater.  As a result, it would be to the athletes’ benefit to find additional training methods to supplement his/her practice regiments. It would also be to the coaches’ benefit to familiarize him/herself to alternative means of training and the research supporting and/or negating that method. This style of planning can assist in the development of a well-balanced practice plan that incorporates both the physical and mental components of training to keep athletes healthy. Familiarizing oneself with empirical based research can eliminate any predisposed notions coaches or athletes may have about training methods they are not familiar with.

For example, a coach unfamiliar with visualization training may believe positive visualization techniques will yield positive motivation and sport performance. While this may be a good argument, empirical research has found limited support between the positive thoughts resulting in positive motivation (MacIntyre & Moran, 2007).

Some of the most significant visualization research relates the association between cognitive training exposure and mental toughness. Results from a case study conducted by Sheard & Golding (2011) revealed positive associations among 49 elite athletes’ positive cognitive, visualization, total mental toughness, and feeling of a challenge related to performance outcomes in international competition. While there are other factors to consider (e.g., weather, game tactics, injuries) this study provides valuable insight of how cognitive training could positively influence performance.

With this in mind, these results may not represent each and every athlete. Personal coaching experience and observational coaching are valuable skills and powerful tools for success. However, for those lacking experience, sport research can be a great place to start developing training plans. The evidence supporting positive psychological development in athletes is encouraging (Sheard & Golding, 2011). Furthermore, the continuing education of athletes related to supplemental training styles is also encouraging (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991).

Currently, there are large amounts of information surrounding the use of visualization in sport. Results have shown that visualization has the potential to be a valuable tool for success in athletics (Sheard & Golding, 2011). However, there is minimal evidence that definitively states how visualization should be applied. Furthermore, the use of visualization with elite athletes is lacking. Visualization should therefore be used as a supplement for coaches looking to create more diverse practice plans.

Visualization as a ‘soft-impact’ Practice Alternative

Competitive athletes undergo a gauntlet of training methods throughout their ‘peak’ seasons. During this period of time, the risk for injury and over-working an athlete increases. As a result, coaches need to be aware of the emotional and physical feedback their athletes exhibit. If an athlete begins to show signs of increased stress or fatigue, it may be a good time to rest the athlete.

Rest periods should be considered time the athlete takes away from the constant physical demands of competition and training. However, this does not mean all activity the athlete undergoes has to cease. Typical rest days may be filled with stretching or mild aerobics in order to induce relaxation and promote recovery. While these are great physical alternatives to methods such as running or weightlifting, they have the potential to fall short in preparing athletes for competitions mentally. This is where visualization techniques have the potential to be an effective alternative.

Visualization can be a valuable asset to any training regimen in the sense that it can be utilized both on and off the field. As previously stated, visualization is ‘the practice of harnessing the body’s senses to create imagery‘ (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991). The body’s senses comprise of five major components: 1) sight, 2) sound, 3) smell, 4) taste, and 5) touch. In order to get the maximum effect out of visualization, it important to engage, during practice, as many of the senses the athlete may experience in competition. Let’s look at a soft-impact example:

A track and field athlete is tasked with running a 4×100 meter relay with three other athletes. The weather has been a consistent 70 degrees, but it is expected to rain the following day during the competition.

In this example, touch and sight appear as the primary senses a coach may want to look at. The athletes hands are going to be wet and their eyesight diminished due to the rain. A coach in this situation cannot control the weather, but they can prepare their athletes for the elements through the senses. To engage a sense of touch, a coach may pour water over the athletes’ hands during hand-offs or in their shoes to simulate poor weather conditions.

A second sense, sight, could be manipulated through the use of darkened sunglasses in an indoor training facility. This, in turn, can foster a greater understanding of how to adapt to alternative conditions.

The other three senses (sound, smell and taste) are slightly more difficult to engage. Perhaps the competition area has a specific smell or plays music. These other senses, while more difficult to simulate, are not impossible to create. Overall, this should be a preparatory stage just like a common impact practice.

Visualization as a non-impact Practice Alternative

Similar to soft-impact practices, non-impact practices are meant to foster recovery and provide a break from high intensity training. The main difference between ‘soft-impact’ training and ‘non-impact’ training is how the technique is applied. Looking back at the previous example, soft-impact training usually involves a pre-competition practice component (e.g., jogging, stretching). Non-impact training is meant to engage an athlete’s mental understanding of the sport. In other words, non-impact training involves placing an athlete in various positions he/she is expected to be during competition and having them visualize his/her reactions to specific stimuli. This visualization, coupled with verbal feedback, can be a powerful tool in assessing the overall competency of an athlete and their understanding of their body in space.


To recap, visualization is a promising supplement for athletes during training sessions and during rest periods. Research surrounding this type of training, while still being developed, has revealed a variety of additional factors to consider when developing training plans. With this in mind, it would be to both the coach’s and athlete’s benefit to explore these supplemental training methods to enhance overall performance.

ReferencesShow all

MacIntyre, T., & Moran, A. (2007). A qualitative investigation of imagery use and meta-imagery processes among elite canoe-slalom competitors. Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, 2(1). doi: 10.2202/1932-0191.1009

Sheard, M., & Golby, J. (2006) Effect of a psychological skills training
program on swimming performance and positive psychological development. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 4(2), 149-169. doi: 10.1080/1612197X.2006.9671790

Sheard, M. (2009). A cross-national analysis of mental toughness and hardiness in elite university rugby league teams. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 109, 213-223. doi: 10.2466/PMS.109.1.213-223

Ungerleider, S., & Golding, J. (1991). Mental practice among Olympic athletes. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 72, 1007-1017.