Success: It's all in your imagination

Positive thinking and visualizing your success can help you improve your performance.
It's a Sunday morning long run and you find yourself locked into an easy rhythm. The miles are flowing by and your thoughts start to drift. You imagine what it would be like to be the best runner in the world.

You sweep aside all challengers with ease. No, that's too easy; you heroically clinch victory with the last stride of the race. You blow kisses to the crowd. No, that's not your style, either. You modestly accept their applause and politely field questions from the admiring masses.

OK. Back to reality. "What's the point of dreaming?" you say to yourself. "I'll never be that good!" You wipe your runny nose with your shirt sleeve, tilt your head into the wind and try to concentrate on finishing this run with a bit of self-respect.

Why not imagine what it would be like to be the best? Great astronomer and scientist Dr. Carl Sagan once wrote, "Imagination will often carry us to worlds that may never exist, but without it we go nowhere."

This principle unquestionably applies to sport, and it has been well documented that our thoughts and images create neuromuscular impulses. The implications for athletes are clear: Since our bodies tend to do what they're told, all we need to decide is what to tell them.

Using mental imagery

There are two distinct forms of mental imagery: internal and external. When an athlete uses internal imagery, he or she visualizes racing from a first-person perspective and imagines the sensations that will be experienced during the event.

Using external imagery, an athlete views him/herself from an external, third-person perspective. Both forms of imagery are used by top athletes to help them boost their focus, improve performance and learn complex skills or tweak their form.

For several years I used external imagery techniques in my training. I always wanted to win the race easily and I thought that if I practiced hard enough, and imagined winning with a clear picture, that would do it.

But the race itself always turned out to be a battle to the line with an equally determined rival. After a while I started to imagine races where I would see myself giving every ounce of effort and holding my form until the end. Unlike the performances of those around me, these were things that I could control, and I felt that they gave me an edge in my races.

Mastering your emotions

Emotions can have a powerful effect on an athlete's performance. A lack of emotion may produce a flat or uninspired performance, while too much emotion -- such as a bad case of nerves -- may prevent you from racing to your potential. Athletes can use mental imagery to find their optimal mental state: calm, quietly confident, or, according to your style, brash, bold and intense. Whatever your best emotional state for performance may be, repeated use of mental imagery will help you achieve it.

You can also use mental imagery to challenge your attitudes and perceptions of your abilities. If you're trying to break personal barriers, imagery can help move you beyond your self-limitations. Outcome expectancy -- believing that you're capable of great things -- is reinforced when you use these techniques.

Tips for practicing mental imagery

  • Practice in a quiet place for five to 10 minutes.
  • Try external imagery first. See yourself running with your current technique and level of fitness. Imagine things that you can control: your effort, the energy that you can bring to the run and efficient technique.
  • Repeat this exercise every day for a week. Consider this process a regular part of your overall training.
  • Once you're in a mental training routine, identify several skills or abilities that you'd like to improve.
  • Incorporate the desired change into your imagery and practice regularly.
  • After two weeks of using external imagery, try to develop internal imagery techniques.
  • In a 10-minute session, do five minutes of each technique. Increasing the amount of time spent practicing these skills can only help to reinforce the positive benefits.

    Reprinted, courtesy of Triathlete magazine. For more articles and information for Triathlete, please visit

    Discuss This Article