Visualization is something we all do each and every day, but rarely do with great intention. Intentional visualization can be a powerful tool for athletes both in competition and in long-term goal planning.

One of the most famous practitioners and advocates of visualization is swimmer Michael Phelps. With 28 Olympic medals to his credit, his process is worth examining.

Phelps has shared how he used visualization as a powerful preparation tool leading up to competition. Before races he always visualized two different perspectives (through his eyes and through spectators’ eyes). Doing this allowed him to not only picture his perspective and his experience, but also allows him to imagine his technique and form. To do the latter, he would use old race footage as a stimulant to the visualization.

Phelps would also always visualized 2 different outcomes. He would start by picturing perfect execution, noting exactly what it looks like, feels like and even tastes like. Then he would transition to visualizing what happens when something goes wrong, a slip in concentration or an imprecise stroke. He would note his body and mind’s response to these problems and train his mind to cope with it. By training his nervous system to respond to “imagined trauma” he conditioned himself to the mental and physical responses his body threw at him, this way when they popped up during the race, he would not be feeling them for the first time – his response was already pre-programmed.

The case for athletes using visualization as a performance tool was further validated through a 2003 study on weight lifting.

Science also appears to support the theory of visualization on performance improvement. Researchers at the Cleveland Institute found that simply visualizing weightlifting could increase muscle strength. The study compared a group of people who followed a strict plan for muscle building in the gym against a group of people who simply visualized workouts in their heads. The group who went to the gym saw their muscle strength increase by 30%, while remarkably those who merely pictured a work-out saw an average increase in muscle strength of 13%.

The study demonstrates the power that the mind truly has on the physical aspects of the body. Thinking our way to strength and performance appears to be a very real idea.

Writing for Psychology Today, Angie LeVan, revealed that brain studies now reveal that thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions. Mental imagery influences several processes inside the brain including; motor control, attention, perception, planning, and memory. So when athletes visualize, the brain is actually getting trained for performance.  Research has shown that mental practices can have a positive impact on motivation, confidence, self-efficacy, along with improving motor performance.

Now that we know the power that visualization and mental rehearsal can have on athletic performance, athletes should consider incorporating into their process.

Building a process is a highly individual endeavour and will probably involve some testing to get just right. Phelps’ 2 perspectives, 2 outcomes, structure provides us with a a great model for athletes to adopt and make their own.

Like Phelps, athletes should leverage film wherever possible to stimulate their minds.

Phelps’ swimming coach Bob Bowman offers some great advice on designing your thoughts to have a major impact, “You should feel like you’re watching a movie, only you’re in it. Your visions need to be vivid and involve all 5 senses, in addition to seeing your performance, you should feel it, smell it, and hear it.” Bowman also talks about the importance of brining visualization into small chunks of practice to make it really powerful. For example, if young athletes can find a way to visualize the stress and intensity of a last-minute play, and bring it to a drill in practice, they’ll be conditioning their minds and body to deal more effectively with that situation.

Go start building your visualization plan today.
Visualize to actualize.


Vinouth K., Ranganthan Vlodek, Sieminow Jing, Z. Liu, Vinod Sanhai Guang, H. Yue. (2003). From Mental Power to Muscle Power – Gaining Strength by Using the Mind. Neuropsychologia. Vol 42. 7. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028393203003257?via%3Dihub

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