There are scientific reasons why visualization works, and athletes have been proving it for decades with their amazing achievements.
Visualization is a key aspect of the law of attraction. Whatever you want to be, do, or have, it’s so important to develop the ability to imagine it as if it already exists.
All of these athletes have done exactly that, and it has helped them go down in history for their accomplishments. But first let’s take a quick look at why visualization works.
The Science of Visualization
Brain studies in recent years have shown that a common “core network” underlies both remembering and imagining. In part that tells us that the brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination.
One thing we’ve learned from that, and athletes have proven, is that what we do mentally can be as important as anything we do physically. When you practice mentally by visualizing, you are increasing your chances for success.
This applies to everything from an athletic skill to any life event. You can use visualization to prepare for making your presentation in front of a corporate board, or to help with something as personal as becoming a more patient parent.
Here’s where our reticular activating system kicks in. That’s just a fancy name for the filters in the brain that prevent sensory overload by sorting what’s important from what isn’t. It’s why a young mother will sleep through the dog who barks at nothing all night, but she will instantly wake up at the slightest sound from her baby.
Visualization sends a message to your brain about what’s important. Those filters will then make sure that anything important to your vision does not go unnoticed.
Another way that common core network helps us is in developing learned behavior patterns. Since the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imagined, visualization can trigger neurons in the brain to react as if what we imagine is actually happening. This builds new neural pathways that the brain will use when the event does occur.
Each time you visualize, you strengthen those neural pathways. The stronger they are, the easier they are to activate when you need them, and the better they serve you.
To take it one step further, you can make a vision board to help you stay focused on your vision. Seeing your vision board is a constant reminder to pause for a moment and indulge in that vivid, mental image.
What This Olympic Sports Psychologist Says
Dr. Nicole Detling is the renowned sports psychologist who played a fundamental role in the incredible success of Team USA athletes at the 2010, 2014, and 2018 Olympics. She specializes in helping athletes use visualization techniques to achieve peak performance.
Though focused on success, she reminds us that failure can be important because we can learn from it and use that lesson going forward. She also emphasizes the importance of letting go of the past because, obviously, we can’t change it.
Dr. Detling says that in any sport, and even in life, the most important play is always the next one. One purpose of visualization is getting the mind focused on moving forward, because forward is where the next performance happens.
She shares her powerful message in this brief video.
Famous Athletes Who Have Used Visualization
The list below begins with some of the earliest users of visualization (that we’re aware of), but the athletes are not sorted into any particular order. They represent a wide range of sports, and each one is known for phenomenal achievements.
Al Oerter was a 4-time Olympic gold medalist, with his first win in 1956 in Melbourne. He is one of the first known to use visualization as part of his training, and he had a unique approach.
Before a meet he would envision himself in every possible situation. He imagined what place he was in and which throw he was about to make, including everything negative that might be working against him. He even considered that it might be pouring rain. Then he visualized what he would do to handle the situation and achieve victory.
Billie Jean King
In 1973 Billie Jean King beat Bobby Rigs in the most famous tennis match of all time. Dubbed “the battle of the sexes”, it was about a lot more than tennis alone. So was this amazing athlete, and she also had a unique approach to visualization.
To prepare for a game she first imagined everything that could go wrong during a match. Then she visualized how she would react to the unexpected and handle what was beyond her control.
Once a game began, she concentrated on staying in the moment, and her mental game was highly focused. For instance when serving she visualized exactly where she wanted the ball to go.
Olympic champion diver Greg Louganis learned visualization at age 3! He was preparing for a stage performance and struggling with a dance. His teacher realized that if he kept practicing he’d be too tired to go on stage that night, so she had him use his imagination instead. He says that visualization is how he achieved such extreme focus as an athlete in later years.
If you don’t know the Greg Louganis story, below is a video of his famous dive at the 1988 Olympics. He hit his head on the diving board, and what happened after that proves his amazing ability to maintain focus no matter what.
Canadian bobsledder Lyndon Rush piloted his 4-man crew to win the bronze medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Only limited training runs are allowed during the Olympics, so instead he uses visualization to practice.
By the time the actual race begins, he has already run the course hundreds of times in his mind. He has even been known to take advantage of airport layovers to practice (mentally) racing down the narrow, twisting turns of the bobsled track.
Lindsey Vonn has won 2 Olympic medals, and Sports Illustrated dubbed her “America’s Best Woman Skier Ever”. Her training includes tech gadgets like fitness monitors and cameras, but her secret weapon is all in her mind.
Vonn says that by the time she actually arrives at the starting gate, she has already run that particular race a hundred times in her head. She believes that what gives her a competitive edge is her visualization ability.
Mikaela Shiffrin won an Olympic gold medal in women’s slalom at age 18, making her the youngest to achieve that in the event’s history. Before she boarded her flight to the winter games in Sochi, she used visualization to see herself standing atop the podium.
Shiffrin explains her visualization this way: “You can visualize this in your head. And you can mentally prepare. And you can make the moment happen. And create your miracle.
Muhammad Ali is best know for focusing on the desired outcome. He visualized himself standing victorious as the referee declared him champion. His mental image included all the details – smells of the ring and his own sweat, sounds from the screaming crowd, and vivid flashes of cameras snapping photos.
If you’re familiar with Ali, you know that he was also a profound believer in positive affirmations. He gave us the best wording ever for a positive affirmation: “I am the greatest.”
Wayne Rooney is an English pro football player who is the record goalscorer for Manchester United. In describing his mental process he says, “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.”
Details are very important to his visualization. For instance, he always finds out what color shirts, shorts and socks the opposing team will be wearing so that his mental imagery is more vivid and accurate.
Mary Lou Retton
Olympic medalist Mary Lou Retton is one of the greatest American female gymnasts ever. She used visualization to imagine herself performing perfect routines on each piece of equipment, and she didn’t stop there. She then pictured herself standing on the podium wearing her gold medal, and she could even hear her national anthem playing in the background.
She is also all about positivity, as expressed in this quote: “I try to look at every situation with a positive attitude. I don’t go into situations thinking maybe or probably. I go into it thinking I’m going to do it.”
Jack Nicklaus won 18 major championships during his incredible career, and he placed great value on winning the mental game first. It’s the reason he would take so much time standing over a putt.
As a child, Tiger Woods learned about visualization from his father. As an adult, Tiger first became the most successful golfer of all time, and then became known for the greatest sporting comeback of all time.
No one questions his amazing athletic ability, but many believe that his mental game played a key role in his incredible achievements. The key, it seems, is his commitment and consistency.
Michael Phelps is the most successful Olympic athlete of all time and holds records for the number of medals he has won. He was taught mental imagery techniques by his coach, Bob Bowman. Part of Phelps’ training is to watch a mental video of a race when he wakes up in the morning and before going to sleep at night.
Like so many other athletes, Phelps uses all his senses to create a mental image. His vision includes every detail from the starting blocks to the winning celebration.
Serbian pro tennis player Novak Djokovic is a world champion and considered one of the best of all time in his game. His method is best summed up in his own words, and his quote is the perfect way to end this article. We leave you with his words of wisdom:
“Visualization is a big part of everybody’s life, not just athletes. I strongly believe in visualization. I believe that there is a law of attraction: You get the things that you produce in your thoughts. Life just works that way.” ~ Novak Djokovic
New York Times
Famous Sports Stars
Harvard Business Review
Peak Performance Sports
The New York Sun
National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine