How much impact does positive visualisation have on performance? Roy Skillen examines the effect of this powerful process using examples of some of sports best performers.

Sydney Australia, 21st of November 2003. Jonny Wilkinson stands 40 yards out lining up a penalty in the dying seconds of the Rugby World Cup Final. England trail by one point and this is surely their last chance of claiming their first world crown. But rather than showing any sign of nerves there is a confidence about his stance, an unerring look of determination in his eyes that clearly states: missing is not an option. Wilkinson saunters up and strikes the ball as sweet as he ever has. So sure is he of success he turns away to celebrate with his teammates before the ball has completed his journey, which ends when it knocks the a drink out of a fans hand high in the stands after dissecting the middle of the posts. Wilkinson takes in the look of delight on the faces of his teammates. Soaking up the happiness of the fans, he savors the smells, sounds and feelings of euphoria before grabbing another ball, placing it down and going through the whole process again.

 Wilkinson probably did this 100 times that week as part of his preparation for the real event. The following day, the 22nd of November, at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney his drop goal sealed a 20–17 win for England and Wilkinson wrote his name into the gilded pages of rugby’s history books.

This repetitive practice was all part of his pre-match ritual. In his autobiography, Wilkinson describes his ritual as involving a shave and shower, before sitting and listening to a mental rehearsal CD. He speaks of it as “a sort of clarified daydream with snippets of the atmosphere from past matches included to enhance the sense of reality. It lasts about twenty minutes and by the end of it I feel I know what is coming. The game will throw up many different scenarios but I am as prepared in my own head for them as I can be.”

This is positive visualisation. In Wilkinson’s words, “If you have realistically imagined situations, you feel better prepared and less fearful of the unexpected.” 

The History

Jonny Wilkinson isn’t the first person to use this type of positive mental imagery as part of his preparation. NASA had been using what they called Visual Motor Rehearsal for years before psychologist Dr Denis Waitley implemented it in America’s Olympic program during the 1980s. It was seen as a novelty, but as the science behind the process gained momentum so did the respectability as more and more sportspeople took it on as an essential part of training.

Formula 1 World Champion, Niki Lauda would regularly walk the track days before a race imagining how he would take perfect racing line, while undisputed heavy weight champion of the world Mike Tyson imagined himself as fierce and quick footed. In his book “The Undisputed Truth” Tyson tells how trainer Cus D’Amato would tell him to visualise full fights against the likes of Muhammad Ali. They would talk about how the fight would pan out and how Tyson would systematically dismantle the greatest fighters of all time round by round. For Tyson and Lauda this was nothing more than a confidence building exercise. It made the young athletes concentrate fully on their selected sport and to think tactically about what they had to do, but little did either man know what was happening inside their brain during these seemingly mundane tasks.

The Science

Speaking about his work with the US Olympic programme, Dr Waitley explained: “Using this [technique], Olympic athletes ran their event – but only in their mind. They visualised how they looked and felt when they were actually participating in their event. The athletes were then hooked up to a sophisticated biofeedback machine, and its results told the real story about the value of visualisation. The same muscles fired in the same sequence as when they were actually running on the track! This proved that the mind can’t tell the difference between whether you’re really doing something or whether it’s just a practice. If you’ve been there in the mind you’ll go there in the body.”

But what is going on in the body when all this is happening? As the muscles fire, they wire with the circuitry in the brain creating defined muscle memory patterns. These patterns become second nature when we actually go to act out that which we have been imagining. Basically, neuroscientists say there is no difference between performing an action over and over again or simply imagining yourself performing it over an over again. To many this sounds a little fanciful, but when we think about the role confidence plays in performance it actually makes perfect sense. If a player is down on himself his form dips. If a player is on top of the world and believes anything is possible, their form inevitably improves.

Australian psychologist Alan Richardson decided to put this theory to a more practical test. Richardson took three groups of students and put them in to a 20-day basketball experiment. Group one were asked to practice free throws every day for 20 days. The second group did free throws on day one and day 20. In between they were asked to do 20 minutes of positive visualisation. Group three did free throws on day one and day 20 with no visualisation. On the 20th day Richardson measured for any improvement. Group one who practiced everyday improved their free throw completion rate by 24%. Group three who did no practice and no visualisation showed no improvement. Amazingly, group two who did no official practice other than visualising successful free throws improved by 23%, almost the same as the group that practiced every day.

This experiment has been carried out again in other fields, with Cleveland physiologist, Guang Yue, finding that positive visualisation offers more than simply improving mental aspects of performance such as confidence. Using similar methods to Richardson’s basketball experiment, Yue found that simply imagining lifting weights increased strength in his test group by around 35%.

How to use Visualisation in Youth Football

In the book ‘The Rise Of Superman’, high performance expert Dr Leslie Sherlin talks about the beauty of working with child athletes.

“When you’re talking about the next generation of athletes,” she states, “their lack of age helps a great deal. They’re too young to know what impossible means. ‘Can you do something?’ ‘I don’t know? Let me go try.’ And they’re too young to know what to be afraid of.”

Essentially kids are a blank canvas with infinite possibilities and working with them should be fun, exciting, free and creative. We should never put limits on what they can achieve.

Imagine your hero

One way of using positive visualisation is to get the kids to watch their heroes. YouTube is full of compilation videos of greats, from Garrincha to Jamie Vardy. We all did this type of thing when we were younger of course. Pretending to be Maradona in the garden or part of your favourite team playing alongside the greats was common between my friends and I. Unfortunately I was always told to leave this type of fantasy in the garden and to get real when I played for my local Sunday League team.

What you should do is ask the kids to watch these videos, imagine themselves doing what their heroes do and then bring what they see to training or a match. I have tried this once before with remarkable success. One player was keeping his head up looking for killer passes, while another entertained with 360 turns and scoop passes over defenders’ heads. Who had they been watching that morning? Iniesta and Ronaldinho respectively.

Work on one specific skill at a time

Gilbert Enoka is the mental skills coach for arguably the most successful sporting outfit in history, the All Blacks rugby team. It is his job to have the Rugby World Champions mentally prepared to take on a code that would love to see them knocked off their perch. Every match is a battle. Every team steps it up for the challenge. With this in mind it’s amazing to consider that the All Blacks boast an 80% win ratio. You simply can’t achieve this without having your head in the right place.

When it comes to working with kids and positive visualisation in a development phase, Enoka has one piece of advice: Pick one skill and work with that.

This is where you can use in the car or in bed training. After a session you can tell the young players to spend the car journey home imagining the perfect first touch or whatever skill it is you have been working on. Tell them to picture what it would look like if they did it during a match. Imagine how they would feel pulling off a Cruyff turn on the edge of the box and hitting the perfect shot. They can continue this while lying in bed, on the walk to school and in class (once they have finished all their work, of course). The goal is to fire those muscle memory patterns and build a certain amount of confidence surrounding the skill, which will in turn make them feel that it’s possible to do and see them physically practice and use it more during training and matches.

It is a technique championed by Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney. In an interview with the UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph, he said: “I lie in bed the night before the game and visualise myself scoring goals or doing well.” Continuing: “You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a ‘memory’ before the game.” Even knowing exactly which kit he will be wearing helps him conjure up a richer, more detailed and authentic vision. “I don’t know if you’d call it visualising or dreaming, but I’ve always done it, my whole life.”

I’m often asked what separates the best players from the rest despite seemingly having the same football education. For me it’s confidence and a lack of fear. All too often these things are almost beaten out of kids at an early age after one or two drillings from a coach or one or two, “you are not Lionel Messi’” comments. It’s funny; in Australia it’s the same coaches and parents that instil this type of mentality in their kids that are the first to ask, “Why can’t Australia produce world class players?” It’s time to change. It’s time to let the kids play with freedom.

About the Author

Roy Skillen is the sub-junior technical director at the Eastern Lions Soccer Club, in Melbourne Australia where works with the the 4-11 age group. The holder of the AFC C License, he has a passion for researching the psychological side of youth development and is trying to find the secret behind intrinsic motivation and creativity. He is also the author Kindle E-Book, Where the Hell is Sonny Pike? The Story of Football’s Lost Prodigies.

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