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Imagery, or visualisation, not just for the elite

Imagery, or visualisation, has been used by elite athletes for a number of years to tweak their athletic performance closer to the level of perfection many of them desire. This psychological strategy is not reserved as an elite access only tactic for achievement though, the rest of us happy non-elites can use visualisation to achieve our own personal goals too. It can even be used to help you overcome nervousness that goes along with things like sitting an exam, an interview for a new job, or entering a 10km fun run for the first time.

Imagery is the simple act of picturing aspects of whatever life event you have coming up, and mentally working through what you will be doing and experiencing during this time.

Years ago, I used to take part in downhill mountain bike races, which is a time trial bike race down a steep, rough, narrow track with a lot of jumps and vertical drops. Dumb, but loads of fun. The start line for these races was a great time to see people using imagery effectively. We were given a 30 second call when it was our turn to set our bikes up on the start line. This was the time where you would often see the next racer sitting on their bike with their eyes closed, moving their head side to side, and forward and back. What they were doing was picturing each part of the trail ahead of them and visualising the way they were going to ride, or fly, through to get to the bottom of the hill the quickest.

I have used imagery for non-athletic pursuits, such as sitting university exams. In this case, I would sit at my study desk and visualise the exam room, desk, and exam paper in front of me. Then visualise the kind of questions I may be asked, and how I would give the best answer to the question. If I couldn’t give a satisfactory answer, I would return to my notes until I could. This works to not only achieve a better mark, but also to calm the pre-exam jitters down a little.

Don’t just take my word for the positive effects of imagery on academic performance…

A university in USA tested the effectiveness of both imagery and positive thinking on a group of first year psychology students. Prior to an exam, the class was divided into three groups: Group 1 was taught the use of imagery in their study, similar to the way I used it, Group 2 learned positive affirmation statement such as “I am good enough to pass this exam” “I deserve to pass the exam” “I will get an A”, and Group 3 were instructed to study for the exam in the way they normally would study. All students were asked to record the amount of time they spent studying for this exam, and all the exam results were collated and averaged for each group.

Results showed that the imagery group spent the most hours studying for the exam, and achieved the highest average mark. Group 3, the control group, came in second in average mark and hours spent studying, and in last place was the power of positive thinking. This showed that positive thinking is not a strategy that can be used in isolation to achieve a goal, it is, however, an important part of the whole picture as I will explain soon.


When setting goals, we use the SMARTER acronym to ensure we have considered all that needs to be included. Not to be left out, imagery has a less cool acronym: PETTLEP. I know, it’s not even a word. It is an effective guide, however.

Holmes and Collins in 2001, and 2002, devised PETTLEP as a structured way to use imagery to improve performance. PETTLEP imagery has been shown to be effective in increasing the efficiency of single physical tasks, such as performing a biceps curl exercise in the gym, and a golf swing. Studies have also shown it to be effective in improving more complex tasks, such as musical performance.  So, once you have your imagery focus, find a comfortable place and follow these steps through your imagery script:

Physical: What will you be experiencing physically when you are performing the activity? Think of clothes you will be wearing, equipment you may have, etc.

Environment: Where possible, complete the imagery in the environment where the activity will take place, or as close as possible to it. If your activity is walking down the path from your house. Perform the imagery outside. If you plan to walk on a treadmill, perform the imagery in the space the treadmill is in.

Task: Make the task imagined as similar as possible to the activity that will be performed.

Timing: Complete the imagery in real time. If the task is a longer duration, visualise one aspect of the task at a time. For example, if you are planning 30 minute walks, visualise the routine of getting ready for the walk.

Learning: Update your imagery script as you become more familiar with the activity. Remove the things that are not part of the activity, and include those that are.

Emotion: Include within your script visuals what you will be experiencing emotionally while you perform the task.

Perspective: Research has shown that imagery scripts in both first and third person are effective, and therefore, both should be used.

The positive thinking is an important part of an imagery script. Be sure to focus on the things you want to happen, and eliminate from your script the things you don’t want to happen. If we return to the downhill mountain bike races for a second: if a rider knew there was a tree in the middle of the track that they wanted to avoid hitting, their imagery script would have them riding around the tree, not into it, including where they would be looking, their body position, how much pressure they would have on their brakes, the gear they would be in, whether they are pedalling or coasting, etc.

Imagery is an effecting tool to add to your box of mental strategies, whatever your goals may be. It takes a bit of practice, and expect to be interrupted, often by your own brain, acknowledge the interruption and carry on. Practice your imagery every day so it becomes your calming habit for things that are coming up in your life that you may be feeling anxious about.

Feel free to contact me with any questions or make an appointment, text/phone 021 99 00 54 or email [email protected]

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