When is the last time you visualized the day in front of you? Created a mental road map for accomplishing your goals over the next 24 hours and imagined ways to overcome potential challenges?

Michael Phelps, Allyson Felix, Ronaldinho and Lindsey Vonn do this on a daily basis. In fact 70-90% of Olympians now regularly practice visualization techniques, also known as “imagery”, since Soviet studies in the 1970’s began to validate their positive impact on performance. Researchers now conclude that properly performed techniques may improve motor skills, grow muscle strength, decrease anxiety, increase self-confidence, and improve concentration (Post & Wrisberg, 2012; Ungerleider & Golding, 1991).

Visualization (aka “Imagery”)

Defined by the USA Swimming Team as “creating or recreating an event or a scene in one’s mind,” Phelps famously credits this part of his training for success in the 200m butterfly at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He won gold and set a world record despite not being able to see for the last 75m while water filled up his leaky goggles. As Phelps’ longtime Olympic coach, with an unprecedented track record of twenty-seven gold medals, Bob Bowman explains:

He’s the best I’ve ever seen and maybe the best ever in terms of visualization. He will see it, exactly the perfect race. And he will see it like he’s sitting in the stands, and he’ll see it like he’s in the water. And then he will go through scenarios – what if things don’t go well? [… you know if my suit ripped or my goggles break, what would I do…] So he has all of this in his database, so that when he swims the race he’s already programmed his nervous system to do one of those. And he’ll just pick the one that happens to come up. If everything’s perfect, he’ll just go with the perfect one. If he has to make a change, he’s got it in there.

Sweat the Technique

The most widely used system today goes by the acronym “PETTLEP“. For best results, the visualization should match the planned performance in the seven following aspects and include each of the five major senses (sight, sound, feel, smell, and taste):

    • Physical – The athlete should stand in the correct stance, wearing the same clothes, and holding any implements that would be used during performance.
    • Environment – If possible, the athlete should complete the imagery in the same environment where the performance or task will take place. Where this is not possible, videos, photographs, or a similar environment can be used as a substitute, e.g., a rugby player standing on grass in his or her back garden.
    • Task – The task being imaged should be identical in nature to the task actually being performed, and this should be altered as the skill level of the athlete changes.
    • Timing – The imagery should be completed in ‘real time’ and should take the same length of time to complete as physically performing the task.
    • Learning – As the athlete becomes proficient and autonomous at the task, the imagery should be updated in order to reflect this and remain equivalent to the physical level of the athlete.
    • Emotion – Any emotions associated with performance should be incorporated into the imagery. This can be aided by the use of stimulus and response training.
    • Perspective – The imagery should usually be completed from an internal perspective (i.e., through the athlete’s own eyes). This can be controlled by the use of a video to aid the imagery. However, external imagery may be useful for some form-based tasks and personal preference should also be taken into account.

How does it Work?

While the science behind visualization techniques is still relatively new, there have been comprehensive studies performed to identify possible mechanisms of action. It appears there is a strong overlap of the neuromotor and neurosensory pathways recruited in actually performing an action, and during a well-performed visualization. Termed “functional equivalence”, this suggestion has been confirmed by both MRI and EEG studies (Lotze & Halsband, 2006; Neuper & Pfurtscheller, 2010). As Bowman suggests, there may indeed be a level of pre-“programming” involved in performing various actions throughout the pool. In 2004, one sample study from the Cleveland Clinic concluded:

The improvement in muscle strength for trained groups was accompanied by significant increases in electroencephalogram-derived cortical potential, a measure previously shown to be directly related to control of voluntary muscle contractions. We conclude that the mental training employed by this study enhances the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength.

Off the Pitch

Due to its success on the field, visualization and imagery techniques are now being used in multiple different high performance settings, including: surgical training, musical training, aerospace training and special operations. Visualization is also being employed for stroke rehabilitation and as an adjunctive treatment for other neuromuscular deficits such as multiple sclerosis.

Increased awareness of the technique and its potentially broader applications has also seen interest from business and leadership experts and self-help guides, as a way for everyday folks to better reach their daily, weekly, monthly and ultimately lifelong goals.


Lotze, M., & Halsband, U. (2006). Motor imagery. Journal of Physiology-paris99(4-6), 386-395.

Neuper, C., & Pfurtscheller, G. (2010). Electroencephalographic characteristics during motor imagery. The neurophysiological foundations of mental and motor imagery, 65-81.

Post, P. G., & Wrisberg, C. A. (2012). A phenomenological investigation of gymnasts’ lived experience of imagery. The Sport Psychologist26(1), 98-121.

Ungerleider, S., & Golding, J. M. (1991). Mental practice among Olympic athletes. Perceptual and Motor Skills72(3), 1007-1017.