In sport achieving peak performance is a constant pursuit. The same can be said for a career a person’s work life (think of that big interview). While physical training and skill development are essential components, the power of the mind cannot be underestimated. Visualisation, mental imagery or rehearsal techniques have emerged as valuable tools to enhance performance, improve focus and achieve success.
Visualisation, Mental Imagery and Rehearsal
Visualisation: Visualisation refers to the process of creating vivid mental images or scenarios in one's mind. It involves using the imagination to simulate desired outcomes, actions, or experiences. This technique engages the senses and involves mentally rehearsing specific tasks or goals.
Mental Imagery: Mental imagery encompasses the creation or recreation of sensory experiences in the mind. It involves visual, auditory, kinaesthetic (relating to a person's awareness of the position and movement of the parts of the body), and olfactory (sense of smell) sensations to simulate real-life experiences, often in the absence of actual physical practice.
Rehearsal: Rehearsal involves mentally practicing a task or event repeatedly, either in real-time or in a slowed-down manner. It enables individuals to mentally review and refine their actions, strategies, and performance.
Psychological Basis of Visualisation, Mental Imagery, and Rehearsal
Cognitive Functioning: Visualisation, mental imagery, and rehearsal tap into the cognitive processes of perception, attention, memory, and executive functions. They help individuals focus their attention, enhance concentration, and improve memory recall, leading to increased self-confidence and reduced anxiety.
Goal Orientation and Motivation: Engaging in mental rehearsal allows individuals to clarify their goals, boost motivation, and strengthen their commitment to achieving desired outcomes. Visualisation and mental imagery can help individuals vividly imagine the rewards and benefits of success, reinforcing their drive to perform at their best.
Self-Efficacy and Positive Thinking: Visualisation and mental imagery are powerful tools for building self-efficacy, or the belief in one's ability to succeed. By visualizing successful outcomes, individuals develop positive thought patterns, overcome self-doubt, and cultivate resilience in the face of challenges.
Physiological Basis of Visualisation, Mental Imagery, and Rehearsal
Neuroplasticity: Research has demonstrated that the brain can adapt and change through neuroplasticity . Mental rehearsal, visualisation, and mental imagery stimulate the brain's neural networks, strengthening connections between brain regions responsible for motor control, perception, and decision-making. This process can lead to improved motor skills and performance.
Mirror Neurons: Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire both when an individual performs an action and when they observe someone else performing the same action [2,3]. Mental imagery and visualisation activate mirror neurons, enabling individuals to "mentally rehearse" actions and enhance their ability to replicate those actions during actual performance.
Scientific Basis of Visualisation, Mental Imagery, and Rehearsal
Sports Psychology: Visualisation and mental imagery have long been employed in sports psychology. Sport can be stressful, and expectation to perform increases proportionally with the level of sport . Applying mental techniques like visualisation, imagery and rehearsal have been highlighted for their effectiveness enhancing athletic performance across a range of sports .
Work Performance and Skill Acquisition: Visualisation and mental imagery techniques have found applications beyond sports. Studies have shown their benefits in enhancing work performance, skill acquisition, and task execution in various fields, including surgery, music, and public speaking. For example, a study by Arora et al.  found that surgeons who engaged in mental imagery demonstrated significantly reduced stress, and physiological markers of stress, and improved surgical performance.
Tips for Practice
Find a quiet space you can practice without distractions.
Focus on your breathing, maintain deep rhythmical breathing – in through your nose out through your mouth.
Close your eyes.
Imagine the event you want to be successful in/at. Imagine all that you can about it.
Repeat. Practice makes promise.
Daniel Glassbrook, PhD
Daniel is a sports scientist and researcher, currently working as the first team sports scientist for the Newcastle Falcons Rugby Club, and a postdoctoral researcher in sports related concussion at Durham University.
1. Kays, J. L., Hurley, R. A., & Taber, K. H. (2012). The dynamic brain: neuroplasticity and mental health. The Journal of neuropsychiatry and clinical neurosciences, 24(2), 118-124.
2. Acharya, S., & Shukla, S. (2012). Mirror neurons: Enigma of the metaphysical modular brain. Journal of Natural Science, Biology, and Medicine, 3(2), 118.
3. Kilner, J. M., & Lemon, R. N. (2013). What we know currently about mirror neurons. Current Biology, 23(23), R1057-R1062.
4. Bali, A. (2015). Psychological factors affecting sports performance. International Journal of Physical Education, Sports and Health, 1(6), 92-95.
5. Simonsmeier, B. A., Andronie, M., Buecker, S., & Frank, C. (2021). The effects of imagery interventions in sports: A meta-analysis. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 14(1), 186-207.
6. Arora, S., Aggarwal, R., Moran, A., Sirimanna, P., Crochet, P., Darzi, A., ... & Sevdalis, N. (2011). Mental practice: effective stress management training for novice surgeons. Journal of the American College of Surgeons, 212(2), 225-233.