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The relationship of visualisation to improved performance, especially in sport


Visualisation and past learning is a key determinant to performance in sport and in business.  Visualisation ensures the athlete or the business person is in the appropriate mental state to perform on the day and as a masterful training aid.


The understanding of the power of visualisation is not new.  In 1932 Jacobson informed us that “the rationale for augmenting physical performance with mental techniques arises from studies of electrophysiology which indicates that muscles have detectable amounts of electrical activity when one imagines a specific motor activity”.


Visualisation in Action

The classic example of the application of this knowledge relates to the three groups of high school basketball players aiming to improve their free throw performance over a period of 20 days.

Group 1 – practiced for 20 minutes each day

Group 2 – did no practice

Group 3 – visualised free throws for 20 minutes per day


At the conclusion of the 20 days, Group 2 showed no improvement, Group 1 improved by 23% and Group 3 improved 22% (see Korn & Johnson, p122)


Visualisation and Sporting Success

Korn & Johnson also quote significant anecdotal evidence of the relationship between visualisation and sporting success including:

·    Jack Nicklaus who attributed mental image to be 50% of his golf fame.  His longevity in the sport certainly supports this claim.

·    John Brodie, former quarterback of San Francisco 49er’s has used ASC (altered state of consciousness) to dramatically improve perception and coordination

·    East German shot putter, Udo Beyer, who improved his performance by 6% in 18 months by watching an image of how he should throw

·    The centuries old and tested teachings of martial arts


The work of Garfield related to studies of peak performers brings insight from a different perspective.  Garfield contends that performance is inhibited by stress and to release supreme talent we need to release stress such that we have “the ability to perform with both passion and emotion while in a relaxed state”.


Can we all visualise


It is believed that visualisation is universal because it is evidenced in early man.  Samuels and Samuels suggest that “Primitive man’s basic consciousness was visual”.  This statement is to some extent supported by the existence of cave paintings up to 60,000 years old.


La Barre suggests the visualisation appears in all known cultures and evidence abounds of the strength of visualisation almost wherever we choose to look.


Visualisation is used for enhanced health in many cultures for instance:

  • Eastern cultures such as verdic and tantric and especially for us in meditation

  • Shamanistic – especially noted for use of visualisation to travel through essence of an ill person

  • Hermetic – disease cured by visualisation of perfect health.  Teachings that physical world could be affected by visualisation

  • Western World – gaining increasing use.  Back to the time of Aristotle who suggested they should never think without a mental picture.



Even though some people feel they cannot create images it is believed we all can, it is just the amount of vividness and control that varies.  Some people also do their primary imaging in a mode other than visual (auditory, kinaesthetic, gustatory, olfactory)


Our ability to create images can be subject to blockages related to trauma, overload of sensory stimuli and atrophy.


Ahsen’s Window Washer example displays how people who think they cannot visualise, in fact can.  It’s just that they are not aware of it at the conscious level.


The Window Washer example relates to asking those that feel they can’t visualise a question similar to the following:


In order to give you a quote to wash your windows, I need you to tell me how many windows you have – can you do that?


People asked this question consistently enter a state of count the windows.


We can all visualise, but some of us may need help to unlock and develop the talent


Types of Visualisation

Korn & Johnson refer to 12 ways of categorising types of visualisation.  These are grouped into two groups:  basic and specific basic imagery.


Spontaneous vs Induced

Spontaneous imagery arises without conscious effort, whereas induced imagery is created with some element of conscious activity.  While guided relaxation process is a good example of induced imagery, we are probably all aware of times when a thought just jumps into our head for no apparent reason.


Abstract vs Concrete

Concrete images are more likely to occur when it appears in consciousness or has been consciously induced.  Whereas, the closer an image is to the source of thought, the more abstract it will be.  It is also likely to be more symbolic and when occurring spontaneously, is likely to be more useful, when we can take the time to understand its meaning.


An abstract image may be a metaphor which provides the solution to a problem we are working on.


End Result vs Process

End result imagery deals with the desired outcome.  For example, a person wishing to lose a certain amount of weight may see themselves getting on the scales and seeing the weight or seeing what they look like at the desired weight.


Process imagery, on the other hand, describes the process needed to achieve the goal.  In the previously cited example, the person may see themselves going for a walk every morning.


General Images vs Specific Images

General images are more state directed than goal directed.  For instance, they may be aimed at developing relaxation or a positive attitude.  Korn & Johnson see general images as being more important than specific images and believe that they should be taught first.  They liken general images to developing a strong foundation for a house.


Examples of Specific Imagery

After Image – an example of this may be when you wake up in the middle of the night and open your eyes to see the time on a digital clock.  When you close your eyes you may still be able to see the image of the time.


Daydreams and fantasy

These can be concrete or abstract and occur when you just drift away from what you are doing and let your mind take you some place else.  Long distance runners will often just rip out and start imagining something and become totally engrossed in it and lose awareness that they are running.


Sleeping Images

One major advantage that sleeping imagery has, is a persuasive demonstration of skill for those that doubt their ability to visualise.  Korn & Johnson refer to three types of imagery that are associated with sleep.


Hypnagogic – occur just prior to falling asleep.


Dreams – are primarily spontaneous and contain significant information about a person.  As well, they can have significant therapeutic significance.


Hypnopompic – occurs just after waking.



Differ from daydreams and fantasy as they appear to have an external focus and are likely to contain all five senses.  They usually require something out of the ordinary to initiate them – eg drugs, sensory deprivation, hypnosis or psychoses.


Guided Imagery

Occurs when an image is being guided.  This may be, for example, a guided relaxation exercise or a hypnosis session.


Memory Imagery

Deals with bringing back to awareness a past event.  It may be as simple as saying to someone “do you remember the restaurant we went to ….”.  This can bring the event back to awareness and may be induced or spontaneous.  It is a valuable tool for discovering things about a person.


Imagination Imagery

These can be spontaneous or induced and may build on a remembered image and modify that image or it may be created totally from scratch.


Eidetic Imagery

Is related to a photographic memory and is more prevalent in children or in cultures where the right hemisphere is more valued.  It can sometimes also be associated with a significant emotional event (SEE).  A person will lock in to their memory the details of the occurrence of a SEE.


Factors to be considered when you employ visualisation.


Table 1


The above table summarises the hierarchy of imagery methods.  The first step is to build a strong foundation in altered states of consciousness.  When that foundation is established, you can use end result imagery.  Only as a last resort should you use process imagery.


When employing imagery there are a number of important factions listed by Korn & Johnson (p72).  These are:


  • Trust in Oneself – because initial changes can be subtle we may at first not notice them

  • Commitment – daily practice is needed to obtain results

  • Appreciate Roles of Conscious and Unconscious – in words of Meltz (Korn & Johnson, p 72), “All that it is necessary is for us to provide the subconscious with a target and the subconscious will then direct all of our behaviour toward achievement of the goal”

  • Trust First Image that Appears – when experiencing a spontaneous image

  • Control of Image is more important than clarity of image

  • Use all five senses for maximum effectiveness


Basically, these factors come down to trust and practice.  This is partially captured in the statement by Samuels and Samuels “It is most important to accept what appears without criticism and without preconceived notions as to what one should see” and the idea proposed by Ahsen that an image can be strengthened by visualising it repeatedly”.


Visualisation and the creative process


Visualisation and associated techniques are the corner stone of our creative process.  Henri Poincaré identified the stages of his own creativity and this was later slightly modified by Wallis.


The key stages of this process are:


1        Preparation:  collection of data, filing if images

2        Incubation:   releasing of the conscious hold on the problem

3        Illumination:  spontaneous solution

4        Verification:  turning solution into workable form


Both incubation and illumination are unconscious processes.  Entering an altered state of consciousness for the incubation stages can both accelerate and intensify the illumination stage.


Korn & Johnson then provide adaptations to Poincaré creative stages.  One key element that comes from these is how they are supported by regular practice.


Imagery & Learning


Because learning is a “holistic or intuitive phenomenon” (Korn & Johnson, p135) altered states on consciousness enable one more comprehensive absorption on material to be learned.


Losanov suggests that from the day we are born we are constantly bombarded with negativity.  The first step (in accelerating the learning process) is to overcome these limitations.


An altered state of consciousness (often called the learning state) is a magic tool to breakdown these limitations.


The learning state may be entered with a variety of aids – for example, classical music, focussing on an image and then expanding awareness into peripheral vision, general relaxation techniques.


While both the altered state and the learning process is enhanced as we use all our five senses – the visual system still appears to be significantly relied upon for learning.



Korn, Errol R & Johnson Karen “ Visualisation – The uses of imagery in the health professions”

M Samuels and N Samuels “Seeing with the minds eye”

C A Garfield “how to achieve peak performance”

E Jacobson “Electrophysiology of Mental Activities” Am J of Psychol, 44 (1932), pp677-694

A Ashen  “Eidetics: Neural Experiential Growth Potentials for treatment of Accidental Traumas, Debilitating Stress Conditions, and Chronic Emotional Blocking” – Journal of Mental Imagery (1976)


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