The MOVE by BJC Blog


Visualization in Sport & Exercise

Monday, July 17, 2023

Visualization or imagery work can be a powerful mental tool used to improve your physical performance. The scientifically proven practice has been around since the 1960s and has recently gained popularity. While it may sound odd or “out there” to some, there’s no denying that it works.

Many of us at times, myself included, prefer to stay out of our own heads. But what if we could spend a little more time in our own thoughts and change the outcome of a situation? Or at the very least, prepare for what may be coming next?

In interviews over the years, Olympians and world-class athletes like Billie Jean King, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Carli Lloyd, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lindsey Vonn and many more have shared their experiences using visualization to prepare for competition, practice and everyday life.

If the practice of visualization is good enough for those in world competition, it seems na├»ve to waive off too quickly for our own daily use. Michael Phelps credits visualization as the reason he was able to win the 200m race that would lead him to break the world record in the 2008 Olympics. When Phelps’ goggles filled with water and he had to swim the final 175m with his eyes closed; he was able to revert to visualization training sessions and know exactly where the ropes were, how long 50 meters was and when to hit his turns perfectly.

What is visualization, how can you apply it to your everyday life and workouts, and why does it work?

Visualization, according to online counseling service betterhelp.com, is the formation of a mental image of something. It’s imagining an action or situation in the first person and seeing it through to a successful outcome or using all your senses to rehearse your sport in your mind.

How can you apply visualization to your life and your workouts?

  1. Visualize Success: Imagine the scene of your next challenge, picture yourself completing the task at hand, and feel the sensation of a successful performance. Spend time before your next marathon mentally preparing: at the end of each training run, imagine you are crossing the finish line, climb each hill while maintaining pace, picture the dense crowds as your heat waits at the starting line, and imagine finishing the event.
  2. Visualize Repetition: Repeat movements in your mind. Whether preparing for a leg day or a triathlon, you know where you’re headed. Visualize yourself through each phase of a squat or during each transition of the race. Repeat in your mind how you will step up to the bar, where your hands and feet will be placed, un-racking and re-racking the weight, or which layer of gear you will take off first out of the water before getting onto your bike.
  3. Visualize Routine: Your routine is your best friend in competition. Whether you’re on a dance floor or a deadlift platform, visualize the routine you are about to perform. Simone Biles is known for practicing her routines over and over in her head before even stepping on the mat so that she knows every move before her, and all that’s left is to execute.

But why does visualization work? We know that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, improves the neuroplasticity of the brain or the ability of the brain to modify, change and adapt overtime. Research shows that mindfulness, meditation, and visualization practices have a similar effect on brain neuroplasticity. Practicing visualization overtime leads to a “rewiring” of the brain, meaning that when we practice something internally or visualize it, our brain can then be prepared to respond in the most efficient and effective manner.

Buddha famously tells us that; “The mind is a powerful tool.” Visualization is about preparing for success, failure and everything in between. If we are mentally prepared for any foreseeable possibility when faced with a challenge, we’ll be ready to respond. 

Practice visualization during your warm-up time of your next workout. Learn how to incorporate mindfulness and visualization techniques in your everyday life at Move by BJC at 6 p.m. on Thursdays with Kimberly. View our entire class schedule at movebybjc.org/class-schedule.

- Jessica Varner