You’ve Got To See It To Achieve It: A Beginner’s Guide to Visualization

visualization Jan 07, 2021
athletic woman laughing while seated

With the turn of the new year, there’s one word that always takes center stage: Goals.

I love goals. I love thinking about them. Setting them. But mostly I love achieving them. But here is what I can’t stand. Goals that stand alone.

You know why? Because most people (even driven ones like you and I) fail at goals far too often. And it’s not because we aren’t disciplined or driven. It’s because when we set goals but don’t work on the thoughts behind the goals, it can become a puddle of broken promises. Setting goals ALONE can be an exercise in disappointment, start a cycle of shame, and create limiting thoughts that keep us small.

But you know where goals really can shine? When they are paired with visualization.

Visualization is the fuel, goals are the destination. Get your thoughts trained and on board using visualization and your goals become easier to achieve, more enjoyable and more in line with your day to day actions.

Whether you are new to visualization or want to further your practice, this guide is here to talk about all things Visualization.

What is Visualization?

Visualization is a mental rehearsal where you create a picture or storyline in your brain, kind of like a movie! It is a powerful way to practice a sport, activity, or situation without physically doing it because it allows you to ‘experience’ it before it happens. When you visualize success, you subconsciously increase your belief in your abilities. And as your deep, internal belief strengthens, your performance changes.

In our opinion, visualization is the single best tool for getting your subconscious brain aligned with what you truly want, making your biggest goals possible without the inner resistance or self-sabotage that can happen without us being aware of it..

What Happens When You Visualize?

Visualization has been widely studied over the last decade, and the findings of many of these studies are staggering (see more on this below). What is clear is that our brain does little to distinguish between visualized movement and real, physical movement. That’s why many of the best athletes in the world cite visualization as a tool they use regularly to prepare their body and mind for competition.

When you visualize having a certain experience or performing a movement, your brain activates the exact same neuromuscular patterns as it would if you were actually performing the movement.

In this way, visualization preps your brain for action and allows you to practice without risk of injury, fatigue, failure, or social pressure.

Visualization is a powerful tool for achieving your goals because it preps your mind to be brave. The truth is, your brain is wired for survival and will always try to steer you away from risk and back to safety. Therefore...

If you don’t have a way of mentally preparing yourself to take big bold action toward your goals, your brain will sabotage you in a million different ways.

Conversely, the more clearly you can see your goals and all the little important steps leading up to them, the more achievable those goals will become; and that’s exactly what visualization helps you do.

In our previous blog, Top 5 Reasons to Visualize (w/Scientific Proof) we discuss how visualization can help you build confidence, control emotions, improve skill, help injuries, and resolve stagnation. If you want to go deeper into this topic, we highly recommend going back and reading the full blog.

Who Uses Visualization?

The best athletes in the world know that visualization is a vital component of any good training plan. Below, we’ve featured quotes from a few standout athletes who use visualization. We hope you enjoy, and we encourage you to share these powerful quotes with your athletes and community.

“I’m a person that visualizes all of the time, I started doing that at a young age.I really believe it helps my game, and also, calms me, I’ve already been there 100 times throughout the week [...] I anticipate those situations before they happen. That allows me to make quick decisions. I think it also gives me that sense of poise and grace under pressure. I really don’t worry too much. I trust my teammates, I trust the calls, I trust myself more than anything, and so I just go out there and play the game of football.”

Russel Wilson, 
Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks,  
2014 Superbowl Champion

“I don’t think I could possibly do a jump, or especially a new trick, without having this imagery process. For me, this is so very key to the athlete I’ve become.

Emily Cook
U.S. Olympic Freestyle Skiier
8 World Cup Podiums

“Before the (Olympic) trials, I was doing a lot of relaxing exercises and visualization. And I think that helped me to get a feel of what it was gonna be like when I got there. I knew that I had done everything that I could to get ready for that meet, both physically and mentally.”

Michael Phelps
U.S. Olympic Swimmer
Winner of 28 Olympic Medals

“I’ve been visualizing ever since I was 12 or 13 when my amazing mother introduced me to it [...] I find it very helpful. I believe we create reality with our mind.”

Bianca Andreescu
Tennis Player
U.S. Open Champion at 19 yrs old

What Does Research Say About Visualization?

You’ve heard about it for years, your favorite athletes use it, but how can you know for sure that visualization actually works? What does the research say?

One study conducted by The University of Chicago measured free throws across three groups. The first (control) group did not practice shooting free throws. The second group practiced by shooting free throws every day, and the third group visualized shooting free throws. After 30 days, the participants were tested.

  • The group that did not practice - did not show significant improvement.
  • The group that practiced by shooting free throws - improved by 24%,
  • The group that visualized shooting free throws - improved by 23%.

Another study by Sports Psychologist, Guang Yue, of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, studied visualization-induced strength gains across four groups. The first (control) group did not practice any physical or mental training. The second group practiced visualizing finger contractions, and the third group practiced visualizing elbow contractions. The fourth group practiced physical finger contractions.
After 12 weeks, the participants were tested.

  • The group that did not practice - did not show significant improvement
  • The group that practiced by visualizing finger contractions - improved by 35%
  • The group that practiced by visualizing elbow contractions - improved by 13.5%
  • The group that practiced physical finger contractions - improved by 53%

A similar study from Bishop’s University examined visualization and hip flexor strength across three groups. The first (control) group did not practice any physical or mental training. The second group practiced visualizing hip flexor exercises, and the third group practiced physical hip flexor exercises.

  • The group that did not practice - did not show significant improvement
  • The group that practiced by visualizing hip flexor exercises - Improved by 24%
  • The group that practiced physical hip flexor exercises - Improved by 28%

Unsurprisingly, non athletic studies and stories show similar evidence of the power of visualization. For example, Natan Sharansky. Sharansky spent nine years in soviet prisons (and at least half of that in solitary confinement) after being accused of spying for the US. He spent much of that time visualizing playing chess. When he was released in 1996, he beat the then current world chess champion.

These studies (and many like them) suggest that mental practice is nearly as effective as physical practice. To be clear, we are not in favor of forgoing physical practice for mental reps alone, but these findings provide hope for sidelined athletes, injured athletes, and athletes that want to reach their full potential by integrating both physical and mental workouts.

We should emphasize that visualization is also a wildly effective tool for non-athletes - for public speakers, parents, performers, entrepreneurs, and even professionals preparing for a job interview or presentation; its benefits know no bounds!

And the best part is, you can do these ‘mental reps’ anytime, anywhere, without getting physically fatigued. So, when it comes to this method of training, there really are no excuses.

How Do You Visualize?

The best way to fully understand the power of visualization is to try it yourself. But before you dive in, here are a few tips to help you get started.

Don’t worry about doing it right - Let go of judgement. Normalizing visualization may feel weird, even if you’ve done it before, and it’s all too easy to get caught up wondering, “Am I doing this right?” It’s okay to feel silly or out of your element. Just remember that the more you do it, the more natural it will feel, and the more powerful it will become.

Choose an attainable goal: Your goal should feel realistic and also be enough of a stretch that it makes you just a little bit nervous. If you’ve never played basketball before and you want to dunk, this goal might be hard to imagine. If you can’t see yourself doing it, focus instead on the step before, or the step before that until the picture becomes clear.

Be willing to do the work: Think about the sacrifices your goal may require. Ask yourself if you care enough about your goal to be willing to do what’s necessary and make sacrifices to achieve it.

Find the tool that works for you: Little things can make a big difference. Consider investing in an egg timer so you can give yourself timed intervals to practice visualization. Get a dedicated journal to reflect on each experience. Make a mood board to help see your visualization more clearly.

If you want help getting started, we have a number of great options. The important thing is to find the one that makes it easy to practice visualization every day.

  • Try the self-guided visualization (see below)
  • Listen to the audio guided visualization (see below)
  • Use a visualization system like The BRAVR Method
  • Work with one of our certified mindset coaches to have a custom visualization designed just for you (email us for a referral).

Use 5 senses: Focus on each visceral sensation, one at a time, until the visualization feels real. For example, if you want to visualize yourself making free throws, start by putting yourself there:

  • See the court through your own eyes - Like you have a camera on your head
  • Smell the gymnasium; even the pizza wafting from the concession stand
  • Hear the crowd and the sound of your own heavy breathing
  • Touch the cloth of your jersey, the basketball in your hand, and the vibration of the court
  • Feel the excitement, the pressure, the expectation

The more you can see, smell, taste, hear, and feel your visualization, the more powerful it will be.

An Audio Recorded Visualization

It can feel intimidating to invent your own visualization out of thin air, so we want to remove that barrier altogether. Here is a guided visualization that we recorded for you to help bring you into your body to a state of renewal.

Simply carve out 5 minutes, find a safe, comfortable space, press play, and follow along to the recording.

🎧 Click here, choose your platform of choice, and search for E:126, Bonus Guided Visualization (posted 1/8/2021)

A Self-Guided Visualization

Here’s a simple self-guided visualization designed to help you start visualizing your goals in 2021. This exercise takes 10 minutes or less and will become more vivid the more you practice it (we recommend doing it every day!)

  1. Start by journaling. Ask yourself, “What do I really want?”. Let all your goals and aspirations flow from your pen and onto the page.
  2. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.
  3. Choose one goal from the page. In as much detail as you can muster, visualize that goal in your mind. Live in that space. Feel what you would feel, see what you would see...
  4. Open your eyes and journal
    • What did you see?
    • What did you hear?
    • What did you smell?
    • What did you feel physically?
    • What did you feel emotionally?
    • How do you feel now?
  5. After you’ve taken time to reflect, close your eyes and replay the scene in your mind once more, this time, try to go even deeper. 

Repeat this exercise as often as possible.

How do you feel? Excited... nervous... motivated... calm?

Visualization isn’t an instant fix. But in time, these visions will become your reality. If you’re able to truly believe them AND if you’re willing to put in the work to manifest them for yourself, you’ll find that your biggest goals are yours for the taking.

More On Visualization

If you want to learn more about visualization, make sure to check out some of our other free educational resources:

Recommended Tool

The BRAVR Method is our #1 best selling visualization tool, used by teams around the globe. It provides a proven, simple, affordable system that incorporates mental training disciplines such as breathing, affirmations, visualization, and positive self-talk into one 5 minute daily exercise. If you want focused practices, a team of athletes who are motivated to improve every day, and a SYSTEM that makes it easy to incorporate mental training into daily practice, we recommend The BRAVR Method.

Whether you're new to visualization, or are a long-time visualization enthusiast, I hope that this blog taught you something that can help you begin - or strengthen- your visualization practice in 2021. 

Cheers to big goals, and the mindset tools that help us achieve them! 

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