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How To Use Visualisation To Improve Athlete Performance

For a lot of athletes, a consistent visualisation practice is the missing link to an athlete and their best performance. That’s even though they know, it’s what the best do on a regular basis. Learn the simple step-by-step process that will help you start, and benefit from, a visualisation practice.

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

“No matter what little thing goes wrong, I have already prepared for it thousands of times in my mind. I am ready for anything.”

Michael Phelps, the world’s most decorated swimmer.

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Imagine for a moment that you could continue training long after your body was out of energy. Imagine that you could continue to work on your technique, long after you got home from practice. Imagine for a moment, that you could race multiple times a day, every day, and never get fatigued.

It sounds ridiculous, right?

Almost like you’re about to get marketed some proprietary energy supplement that promises to keep you going, and going, and going.

But this is not that… and I’m not about to sell you anything.

This ‘thing’ is something that most elite athletes have been using for generations, and, it’s completely free. It’s also incredibly simple, that even an 11-year old kid can do it… but it will change your performance in a way you wouldn’t think is possible. It might even help you become the best in the world (more on that later)…

It’s mental repetition training. It is the art of visualisation for successful athlete performance and is best thought of as practice for the mind.

There is an old adage that ‘seeing is believing’.

Once you can witness something first hand, a switch goes off in your brain to approve it as not just plausible, not just possible, but, more specifically, achievable.

Whenever we see something achieved for the first time in sport, it goes from being something that’s ‘impossible’ to something that’s ‘possible’; it triggers a radical shift in thinking.

For the world’s greatest athletes, they already believe in themselves and their ability; they have first-hand experiences achieving incredible things. Not only did they live that moment, but then they watched it back on the News, on YouTube and were tagged a few thousand times on social media.

These moments of brilliance when brought together, create a highlight reel of achievement. 

While commonplace for elite athletes, creating a highlight reel is less common in the amateur ranks. While some athletes will put together a ‘highlights package’ for purposes of applications to teams through an agent, even these athletes may only watch it a couple of times.

But a highlights package can serve a much greater purpose than marketing yourself to agents and coaches — it can be used to help reinforce good behaviours and repeat your best performances. This works because we have ‘mirror’ neurons, which are triggered when we observe behaviour; indeed, we can learn, and reinforce learning, by seeing.

This is a powerful learning tool that has been harnessed by great coaches around the world and recommended almost unanimously by sports psychologists — creating a highlight reel for yourself helps you visualise your success.

But in reality, most athletes don’t have access to ‘footage’ to create a highlight and for the purposes of improving your mental game, it’s not as good as visualising your best performance, anyway.

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

How Michael Phelps Used Visualisation To Become The Greatest Swimmer To Have Ever Lived

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Michael Phelps Used Visualisation To Improve His Athletic Performance. If It's good enough for him, is it good enough for you?

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

When a young Michael Phelps began swimming pre his teenage years, he had a lot of trouble managing his focus.

He would fidget a lot, struggling to stay engaged at school. No matter how much swimming he did at the North Baltimore Aquatics Club, it didn’t really seem to slow the young boy down.

At one point, his Mum was told by a teacher who had reached her wits end: “Debbie, your son will never be able to focus on anything.”

At 11-years old, Michael’s coach Bob Bowman identified an opportunity. He realised that Michael could benefit from focus and relaxation techniques, which included completing ‘mental reps’ and visualising his best swimming performance in his mind.

Bowman called this his ‘mental videotape’. It was a mental recording, a highlight reel of sorts, of Phelps’ races. You can see Bowman & Phelps discuss his mental videotape here.

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Every night before bed, Phelps would visualize every aspect of his race, starting from walking out of the locker room, standing on the blocks, racing with speed and tenacity, and finishing with a triumphant celebration when he won.

Bowman would later go on to quote:

“We figured it [imagery] was best to concentrate on these tiny moments of success and build them into mental triggers… It’s more like his habits had taken over. The actual race was just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and was nothing but victories. Winning became a natural extension.”

Bob Bowman, Phelps’ Swimming Coach

This winning strategy of a mental highlight reel would see thousands of uses in his 16-year athletic career and would be a turn-key strategy that underpinned his incredible success. On the topic of visualisation, Phelps had this to say:

“Any small thing that could go wrong, I am ready and prepared for.”

Phelps’ highlight reel was so real, that his brain had already raced that high-pressure race a few thousand times in his head. His brain had already seen him win a thousand times. His chimp brain, the brain that responds to threats, was calm and unphased by the immense pressure of competition because it had been there and done that, many times before.

Phelps is not an outlier. His commitment to mental repetitions done daily is not unique to him. This habit of success is done by almost every world-class athlete.

So if this is so powerful, why is it rarely a habit of those wanting to perform at their best?

Most of the time, it feels a bit taboo. Strange, even. So here is a breakdown of how to apply mental repetition training step-by-step so you can harness its effectiveness without feeling like you’re out of place.

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

An Overview of Mental Repetition Training (MRT)

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Having a solution to visualise your successful performance as an athlete is critical if you want to be as prepared as you can be for your sports performance

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Mental Repetition Training is essentially the practice of ‘walking through in your mind your best performance’ over, and over again.

Whether it’s sinking the winning 3 on the buzzer to win, putting for birdie on the 18th to win, or surging in the final lap of a race, creating a clip of the best performance in your mind allows your mirror neurons to get to work, forming pathways with your motor units and more importantly replicating the physiological state that simulates the real performance. With enough MRT, you can win a race, make the shot, or score the try a few thousand times, before that moment ever eventuates in reality

Combining this proven strategy of visualisation, we can package the feel-good dopamine kick that comes from watching a good highlight reel on TV with the proven effectiveness of visualisation as a training tool and create a personal highlight reel for your mind. With a highlight reel in your arsenal, you can call upon this every day, from anywhere to complete mental reps. Whether you close your eyes in the shower or as you go to bed, you can always be executing your best performance.

Over time, that highlight reel of your best performances becomes so concrete, it’s as if it really happened.

Dr Jason Selk, Sports Psychologist for the St Louis Cardinals, uses a step-by-step process for establishing a visualisation practice, which we’ve adapted and simplified here.

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Step 1: Choose Your Camera Angle

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Choosing the camera angle for your visualisation practice is the first step in the process to improve your athletic performance as an athlete


There are three ways to ‘record’ your highlight reel. For those who are severely lacking in confidence, and have no reason to believe they could ever achieve the task, you may find it beneficial to take a third-person angle — where you’re in the stands or above someone else who is completing the performance flawlessly. This may be a real person, perhaps an athlete you look up to and admire.

The second option would be to watch yourself, from the same angle, complete the action flawlessly as if you were watching yourself from a video recording.

Finally, the third angle — and perhaps the most effective — would be where the camera lens is your eyes, and you see, and embody yourself, as you perform the skill. This is the most effective for a couple of reasons — in this angle, you’re most likely to tap into your ability to create road maps of neurons that can help execute the skill; what most people call muscle memory. When the highlight reel is you in the first person, the neural signal fires off in the same sequence as it would if you were actually performing the action, even though you’re not physically doing it.

If you have the mental focus to visualise from the first-person angle, then go for it, but trust your instincts and go with what feels right for you.

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Step 2: ATD — Attention To Detail

Attention to details (ATD) has been an important part of some of the best athletes visualisation processes.

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

When visualisation is done right, it doesn’t only include sight; it accounts for what you’d hear, like cheers in the crows, what you’d feel, like the texture of a baseball in your hand, what you’d feel internally and emotionally, as you calmly and confidently execute on the action. The more you can be immersive, the less the real thing is going to feel foreign to you.

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Step 3: Keep it Short and Sweet

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Unlike physical training, mental repetition doesn’t fatigue you, but, it still benefits from a dedicated yet discrete, practice. There are a few strategies you can try to see what works best.

The first is to do a mental rep every time before you actually execute the action in reality. In a start-stop sport like a 100m sprint, you’d visualise your approach to the blocks, your set up, the internal dialogue in your head, the announcer cues, the gun going off, the acceleration, the transition, the force through the ground as you approach max velocity, the commitment to the final twenty and then crossing the finish line.

You’d then approach the blocks, and do that in practice. This will work for all non-cyclical sports that we’d consider ‘endurance’ exercise; it wouldn’t be feasible to visualise an Ironman before you actually race it!

The other approach is to complete mental reps before bed as Michael Phelps did. You might rehearse an upcoming event, repeat a practice you’d just completed, or visualise you performing at the highest level you could imagine. Whichever way you go, consistency will be key.

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Step 4: Identify Your Optimal Arousal For Visualisation

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Regulating Your Arousal Will Help Make Your Visualisation Practice More Realistic

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Some athletes respond well to pre-competition jitters. For others, it’s more like crippling anxiety. Visualisation can help you regulate your arousal by artificially exposing yo’ to high-pressure situations well in advance of them actually happening.

For those that may not have heard that term before, your arousal state describes your energy level in the lead up to training and competition. Just like an amplifier can be dialled up and back to adjust the volume of the sound waves, so can your energetic state. Being able to identify your optimal state of arousal will help you know whether you need to ‘amp-up’ or ‘amp-down’ in the lead up to an important performance. To help you figure that out, ask yourself the following questions:



Out of 10 where one is falling asleep and 10 is about to crash through a brick wall, what energy level usually allows me to perform at my best?

What do I feel when I’m performing at my best? What emotions are prominent?

In my experience, what makes me feel ‘off’ my game?


Use these question to help your arousal line up with your visualisations, but if you’re doing this before bed as part of an evening routine, it may be best to skip this step if you need to ‘amp up’.

Step 5: Use Fast-Forward, Rewind and Replay, But Always Play The Key Moments At Game Speed

Playing your key moments at game speed is an important part of visualisation for athletic performance

When you get started with visualisation, you may not be able to get it right in your mind early on. That’s totally OK — at the end of the day, this is a practice like everything else. It might help to think about rewinding and replaying the tape — if you didn’t execute on a skill or got distracted during your visualisation practice, simply rewind and replay the tape back at game speed and try again.

You can also use the controls to speed up the inconsequential parts of a longer event, like a 100km bicycle race, for example. In that example, you can fast forward the dead km’s in the middle, pressing play for the key moments like a bridging away from the peloton to join a break or the lead up to the sprint at the finish.

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

Do You Want More Tips Like This To Improve Your Athletic Performance And Master Your Mindset?

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

We’ve put together a complete mini-course for mastering your mental game. It’s free to download and has been trusted by thousands of athletes and coaches worldwide. Click here to get immediate access — it’s completely free (no catches) and will help you overcome some of the greatest mental obstacles holding you back from your best performance.

Visualization Techniques for Athletes: How To Visualise Success In Sports

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Let's start with your contact details...

We’ll use your email address to send you our information before the call. We also respect your privacy like it’s our own. We will never sell, distribute or divulge your information to anyone, ever.

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We’ll use your email address to send you our information before the call. We also respect your privacy like it’s our own. We will never sell, distribute or divulge your information to anyone, ever.

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Monique Le Mottee

Athletic Physiotherapist & Rehab Coach

Qualifications:

  • Bachelors of Physiotherapy
  • Masters of Strength & Conditioning 

This may not be a PC thing to say, but when Lachlan and I met Mon, we were immediately in love. She got the role as an intern before she left the interview (which we never do).

We knew Mon would be an amazing fit from the get go — her passion for sports is infectious and she’s a dynamic young physiotherapist keen to combine her skills as a strength and conditioning coach. It’s the 1-2-3 combination we look for in our staff and any athletic facility can only dream of in a hire.

Since starting with us, we’ve had to put a pause on the amount of positive feedback we receive about her — it’s clogging my desk space.

You’ll see Mon on the gym floor, keeping our athletes tuned in the physio clinic and out on the pitch with the Mac Uni AFL team as their Head of Performance.

Justin Richardson

Athletic Physiotherapist & Rehab Coach

Qualifications:

  • Bachelors of Physiotherapy
  • Masters of Strength & Conditioning (undertaking) 

Justin has developed a passion for sports performance, finding his greatest interest in bridging the gap between traditional hands-on physiotherapy and the guidance and care required to get an athlete back to sport and performing at their best.

Having worked with the Cronulla Sharks and South Sydney Rabbitohs, he has a deep understanding of the requirements to succeed at a high level of sport and is committed to providing you with the expertise to help you get back to doing what you love.

Alan Robinson

Lead Sports Physiotherapist

Qualifications:

  • Bachelors of Applied Science (Physiotherapy)
  • Masters of Sports Physiotherapy

Alan is a titled APA Sports & Exercise Physiotherapist who has spent his whole career living and breathing sports rehabilitation.

His career as a physiotherapist has seen him work with the NSW Waratahs and the Sydney Blue Sox, managing injuries that range from the acute-stage to end-stage rehabilitation. His philosophy aims to address long term athletic development and bring high-performance rehabilitation to athletes.

His work has been in close proximity to rehabilitation coaches, strength & power coaches, head coaches and high-performance managers, making him an asset on your journey to rehabilitation and back to full health.

Tom Longworth

Sports Doctor

Qualifications:

  • Bachelors of Medicine
  • Post Graduate Diploma of Sport & Exercise Medicine

Dr Tom Longworth became a registrar of the Australasian College of Sports and Exercise Physicians in 2016 and is currently in his 3rd year of specialist training. He completed his medical degree with the University of Newcastle in 2010 and has had 5 years of experience in Emergency and intensive care medicine across Australia since graduating.

He has a wide variety of experience working with elite sports people, currently assistant medical officer at The Sydney Roosters Rugby League Club, team doctor for the Sydney FC Youth League and Head Doctor of the World Champion Jillaroos (Australian Women’s Rugby League Team). Other sports coverage includes the Sydney 7s rugby union, Australian school boy rugby union, Bledisloe Cup and National Rowing regattas as well as voluntary work abroad with the Surfing Doctors’ Association.

Dr Longworth has recently completed his postgraduate diploma in Sports and Exercise Medicine through the University of Bath (UK). He has published research relating to stem cell treatment for knee osteoarthritis and is currently investigating concussion incidence in the NRL, as well as conducting a trial on shin splint management.

Tom currently sees our athletes out of his home base at Eastern Suburbs Sports Medicine Centre.

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Lachlan Wilmot

DIRECTOR OF COACHING & PERFORMANCE

Qualifications:

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  • Honors in Rate of Force Development in Team Sport Athletes

Lachlan began his professional sports coaching career as the second ever employee at the GWS Giants in 2010-11 season prior to entering the AFL in 2012. Over 7 seasons, Lachlan grew a team of talented young men into back-to-back preliminary finals contenders. As the head of strength and power, his role was to turn teenagers into physically dominant men, developing their strength, power, speed and most importantly, their resistance to injury.

In 2018, Lachlan’s success afforded him the opportunity to shift codes, having been offered the role of High Performance Manager for the NRL’s Parramatta Eels.

In as little as one rebuild season, he had taken the wooden spooners of 2018 to the finals in 2019, where they inflicted the greatest defeat of the Brisbane Broncos in NRL history. By 2019, it was time for Lachlan to go ‘all-in’ on his other baby, Athletes Authority.

Now, Lachlan leads the performance program, designing the programs for all the athletes here. He works closely with the sports medicine team, just like he did in pro sport, to help athletes achieve more and reach new heights with their athletic careers.

Karl Goodman

FOUNDER & DIRECTOR OF BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT

Karl began his career in coaching as a Personal Trainer back in 2007. After competing for NSW as a Baseballer, and then competing at an elite standard as a cyclist throughout university,  Karl received the opportunity to work with Gordon Rugby in the Shute Shield competition. From there, he found a way to marry his passion in sports and competition with coaching; selling his investment property to start Athletes Authority in early 2016.

Starting from humble beginnings, the facility vision was taken to another level when Lachlan and Karl partnered up in 2017 and Athletes Authority was incorporated. It was no longer just a gym training athletes; Athletes Authority was committed to becoming a brand athletes worldwide could rely on for quality coaching, advice and service.