Beyond the realms of physical ability, talent, and discipline – what separates a potentially world-class athlete from a champion?
The answer is psychology. The practice of visualization – that is, to vividly imagine the occurrence of the perfect outcome, such as scoring the winning goal or winning the race – is a facet of personal psychology that spans many disciplines, not just sports.
Although simple in theory, individuals are required to train the mind to be able to imagine their positive desired outcome vividly and regularly, truly feeling the sensations that the reality of this outcome would provide. It’s not hard to see how these methods from the elite world of sport can be appropriated or adapted for the rest of us.
Visualization can be used to help an amateur athlete prepare for a big game, a marathon, or a bike race by encouraging them to focus on the execution of correct skills and good technique. The mental prowess of world-class athletes and champions is cultivated through years of focusing the mind, training thoughts as they would train their bodies, in order to build the optimum stamina and mental strength they need to achieve success.
The idea that sports are 90% mental and 10% physical is a viable concept. As the Olympic gold-medal winner Bruce Jenner once stated, “You have to train your mind like you train your body.” The amateur athlete can learn from this approach, and indeed many individuals already use the practice to some extent. Preparing for a match, race, or an effort to beat your personal best, can all be optimised by vividly visualizing the desired outcome of the event.
Here is some insight from world-class athletes who practice the power of visualization technique to gain the mental edge and propel their performance towards victory.
Jonny Wilkinson (Rugby)
Former England rugby player Wilkinson performed visualization techniques to prepare for big games. Explaining his approach, he stated: “You are creating the sights and sounds and smells, the atmosphere, the sensation, and the nerves, right down to the early morning wake-up call and that feeling in your stomach. It helps your body to get used to performing under pressure. I visualize the ball traveling along that path and imagine the sensation of how the ball is going to feel when it hits my foot for the perfect strike.”
Wayne Rooney (UK Football)
Footballer Wayne Rooney is a firm advocate of mental preparation and the visualization technique. “I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well. You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a ‘memory’ before the game.” Rooney sees his approach as fundamental to his sporting success. “I don’t know if you’d call it visualizing or dreaming, but I’ve always done it, my whole life.”
Jessica Ennis-Hill (Olympic Heptathlon Champion)
Ennis-Hill revealed her mental training tactic prior to the 2012 London Olympic Games: “I use visualization to think about the perfect technique. If I can get that perfect image in my head, then hopefully it’ll affect my physical performance.”
Novak Djokovic (Tennis)
The number one ranked player in men’s singles tennis, uses visualization during training and major events. Djokovic’s use of visualization began when his first tennis coach taught him to visualize his shots to the sound of classical music.
Andy Murray (Tennis)
In order to mentally acclimatise before a major event, Andy Murray visits the centre court when the area is deserted and imagines his future success. “I want to make sure I feel as good as possible so I have a good tournament.”
Shannon Miller (Olympic Gold Medallist)
Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Shannon Miller believes strongly in the power of visualization and the importance of the psychology of success. In an interview with the Dana Foundation, she stated: “The physical aspect of the sport can only take you so far. The mental aspect has to kick in, especially when you’re talking about the best of the best. In the Olympic games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.”