Imagery and Visualization

What do you see? Hear? Feel? Smell? Taste?

How many times have you replayed an error or mistake in your mind over and over after losing a big game? I’m guessing it has happened a time or two. Simply put…this is imagery. Although not as productive as it could be, it encompasses the basics. Imagery, also referred to as visualization or mental rehearsal, means utilizing one’s senses to create or re-create an experience in one’s mind. Imagery is the result of your memory system (Burton & Raedeke, 2008). Your brain recalls and reconstructs parts of information that are stored in your memory to develop a meaningful image. By using this skill, athletes are able to recall past experiences with great detail. 

Although some might refer to imagery as visualization, the two practices are different. Visualization is picturing yourself doing something; however, imagery is not limited to the visual sense and brings in a more vivid image by encompassing the following:

  1. Modality: This includes the senses. Imagery can involve sight, touch, sound, taste, smell, and kinesthetic feel (Burton & Raedeke, 2008).
  2. Perspective: This is whether the image is internal (through their own eyes) or external (watching as if they were watching another person perform) (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). 
  3. Angle: This is the viewing angle. A person might image from above, behind, from the side, or in front (Lodato, 2021). 
  4. Agency: This is the author of the skill or behavior being imagined (either one’s self or someone else) (Lodato, 2021).
  5. Deliberation: This is the degree to which the imager is deliberate or spontaneous (Lodato, 2021).

In addition, imagery may also involve emotions connected to the experience being imagined. A softball player might visualize herself getting a great hit. Not only can she herself make a perfect swing, but she can feel her muscles as her bat and the ball connect in her mind. She can hear the crack of the bat and notices the emotions that rise up inside of her as the crowd starts to cheer. She is aware of the smell of the freshly cut grass and also notices the salty sweat on her lips as she imagines herself playing on a hot summer day. 

So now that you know what imagery and visualization are you might be wondering how in the world seeing yourself do something is going to help you accomplish these things. Although there is not one specific theory that can explain all the various findings associated with this mental skill, below are five theories that will shed a bit of light on why imagery can enhance performance. 

Theory 1: Psychoneuromuscular Theory. According to the psychoneuromuscular theory, imagery facilitates the learning of motor skills because of the nature of the neuromuscular activity patterns initiated during imagery. The imagined events program the muscles for action and because the imagined events activate the muscles as physical practice does and they strengthen neural pathways (Lodato, 2021; Weinberg & Gould, 2015). 

Theory 2: Symbolic Learning Theory. The symbolic learning theory suggests that imagery can help individuals understand their movement patterns. Imagery functions as a coding system, or mental blueprint, that helps people understand and attain movement patterns (Lodato, 2021; Weinberg & Gould, 2015). 

Theory 3: Bioinformational Theory. The bioinformational theory suggests that images are made of stimulus and response propositions and that it is vital to imagine not only stimulus propositions (statements that describe the scenario to be imagined) but also response propositions (imaginer’s response to the scenario). The response propositions are designed to produce physiological activation (heart pounding and some tension in muscles). Imagery that contains both the stimulus and response propositions are more likely to yield a more vivid image (Lodato, 2021; Weinberg & Gould, 2015).

Theory 4: Triple Code Model. According to the triple code model, imagery comprises the image, somatic response, and image meaning. The primary importance is placed on the psychophysiology of imagery and understanding the various parts of imagery: the image, somatic response, and the meaning, or significance, of the image. The same set of imagery instructions will never result in the same imagery experience for two people (Lodato, 2021; Weinberg & Gould, 2015).  

Theory 5: Psychological Skills Hypothesis. The psychological skills hypothesis suggests that imagery develops and refines mental skills (i.e., confidence and concentration) and reduces anxiety (Lodato, 2021). 

In addition to understanding why imagery works, it is also helpful to know how to utilize it well. In order to make imagery more effective, an athlete might find incorporating the PETTLEP program guidelines to be helpful (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Using the PETTLEP program, performers emphasize the following: physical, environment, task, timing, learning, emotion, perspective.

Because imagery takes place in the mind, it can be used practically any time. Before, during, or after practice or competition, during off-season, while recovering from an injury. Any time! And just like physical skills, the more an athlete practices imagery, the stronger the effectiveness on performance (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Below, I will focus on three specific times imagery can be used.

Pre-practice: One way to utilize imagery in a systematic way is to include a 10 minute imagery session shortly before practice. To focus their concentration an athlete might image the skills, routines, and plays they expect to perform (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). 

Pre-competition: When utilizing imagery before competition, it is important that athletes determine the optimal timing. Some might like to utilize this right before competition; whereas some prefer to utilize imagery an hour or two before the performance. The athlete should make sure the imagery fits nicely into their routine in order to not be rushed. Before the upcoming competition, the athlete should image exactly what they want to do in the performance. 

In-competition: Although there is not ample time during competition to sit down and use imagery and visualization, athletes might find they are able to utilize this during extended breaks (i.e., time-outs, in between periods, half-time). During these breaks, this is an ideal opportunity for athletes to refocus and visualize themselves performing successfully. 

If you’d like to learn more about imagery and other mental skills, contact Brooke today!


Burton, D., & Raedeke, T. (2008). Sport psychology for coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Lodato, V. (2021). Imagery and visualization. (PowerPoint). COUN6230/7445 Psychological Preparation and Mental Skills Training. Retrieved from 

Williams, J. M., & Krane, V. (2015). Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2015). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (6th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Don’t let your worst enemy live between your own two ears.”

-Laird Hamilton