Visualisation for High Performance

by Mike Conway, Emotional Agility and Mind Coach

Visualization is spoken of often in elite sport. However, few know how it works and how to get the best out of the technique. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines visualisation as:

“The formation of mental visual images and the act or process of interpreting in visual terms or of putting into visible form”

I like to think of it as creating an experience so rich it feels real.

In simple terms, as the neurons in our brains transfer information, they interpret images as if they are live action. In other words, we can visualize something, and the brain generates energy which informs our neurons to perform the movement. Through visualization, we are programming our unconscious mind to store the visualization experience, as a visualized memory which when practiced becomes second nature to us. As the brain can’t differentiate what’s real or isn’t we clearly have a powerful tool at our disposal (visualization) to deeply embed important information into our unconscious brain This is significant. It’s the effective use of the powerhouse in us all, the unconscious mind, which can and will give us the 1%ers and more. Which in any high-performance environment, is mission critical. We can use this powerful tool for anything: to visualize scoring a goal, running our best race, leading a training session, taking an exam, presenting at a conference. We can also add colour to the experience to extend and enhance the experience so when we face the next real live experience the likelihood of success is greater. But visualization isn’t just for embedding those things that are real into our unconscious mind.

There are many examples of prisoners using visualization techniques to survive their incarceration. The lecturer Brian Keenan is a prime example. He was kidnapped in Beirut and was kept captive for over four years. He created a blind minstrel 17th century Irish hero as a friend during his time in a tiny cell. It helped him survive this horror experience.

My first experience of visualization was in Cardiff in 1991. I was undertaking a significant presentation to the Welsh Health Office with a couple of colleagues. I had a habit of feeling quite anxious when I was delivering presentations. Not uncommon to get nervous on such occasions but it was something of a monkey on my back for a while. This was one of those times. I felt underprepared and out of my comfort zone. Under these conditions I would be an incessant talker, pace up and down, looking for ways to take my mind from the thought of the presentation. I would feel better when it was over.

My senior colleague undertaking the presentation with me, noticed my anxious ways. He sat me down and told me about his hero, the famous 400 metre hurdler, Ed Moses and how he dealt with pressure moments.

LEARN FROM THE BEST: ED MOSES                                             

At the Olympic final of the 400 metres, every athlete was doing the same as I was in my anxiety moment: bouncing around on the track; nervously waiting for the signal for the start of the race. Not Ed. He would lie down on the track, sunnies on and visualize himself enjoying the experience. No focus on fear. Just enjoyment.

My colleague suggested I start applying the same principles. Despite all my study and health background how was it that such ideas had passed me by? This was the moment I started studying, researching, applying, and teaching these principles at a deep level. They work!

Since then, I’ve enjoyed delivering presentations and have been interviewed many times with enormous comfort. I tune my attention towards successful moments of the past and focus my attention on enjoying the experience rather than the fear of making mistakes.

Here’s a simple principle – you become what you focus on. You focus on fear and your mind will follow as will everything else connected to your persona. You focus on enjoyment and the opposite will happen. Through habit you become an optimist. Someone who constantly searches for positive outcomes. This is something which must be learned. You might say easier said than done. Knowing the changes that need to be made is one thing, but does this mean an individual knows the steps and they are embedded to achieve greater success? Of course not. At the conscious level there certainly can be some improvement but we know that the brain is plastic and more malleable in its calmest state. A state where the unconscious mind can be tapped into and where the biggest improvements can be made. Hence, I try helping people understand that, getting into a calm and relaxed state and leads the mind to become a powerful friend!

Why not try it yourself?

FIVE STEPS OF VISUALISATION                                                   



Two great visualizers are worth referencing. Firstly Johnny Wilkinson, the legendary rugby player known for his near perfect kicking game, practiced, and practiced and practiced in all conditions. He would focus his attention on the success of the moment rather than the negative. This is mission critical. Be clear of the outcome.

“You are creating the sights and sounds and smells, the atmosphere, the sensation, and the nerves, right down to the early morning wake-up call and that feeling in your stomach. It helps your body to get used to performing under pressure. I visualise the ball travelling along that path and imagine the sensation of how the ball is going to feel when it hits my foot for the perfect strike.”

Secondly, Wayne Rooney is a great advocate of visualizing too.“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.”


Visualization is a key tool for anyone striving for higher performance. I’m going to provide you three cases where using visualization made a difference to the performance elite footballers I’ve worked with.

 The first player, a striker from an elite soccer club, told me he got anxious at the start of a game. This continued until he got a good first touch. Once this occurred, he would be fine. If he got a poor first touch, this affected him for a long period of the game. He also noticed that he would get tired quickly when this happened.

I was delighted that the player has shared these inner thoughts with you. That confirms there is trust between you. Next step. Ensure that there’s no judgement. This player’s situation isn’t unusual, even at the highest level. In fact, sometimes the more pressure a player feels they are facing, even though it’s not real, the more difficult the situation becomes. Another thing to note in this case is that it’s not surprising that the player is getting tired more quickly. You might remember the short activity about our hormones. You might remember that as we get more anxious, greater levels of cortisol are being used. The higher levels of cortisol are there to protect us, giving us a spike in energy but ultimately constant high levels can hit us for six in our energy levels.

We need therefore to try and break the cycle. Through support and help, the player started using visualization techniques to experience his first touch in the dressing room before he went on to the field. Using a blend of mindfulness, breathing techniques and a positive memory bank of special moments when his first touch was successful, we reframed the first touch to always be excellent. His anxiety levels reduced. He would go from the tunnel to the pitch in a calm state. He is now successfully applying his trade overseas.

The second soccer player faced similar issues. He is an international goalkeeper playing overseas in one of the World’s toughest leagues. For years he has felt uncomfortable about his first big kick of the game. He had a fear of making an error and often he did. We used a blend of visualization and a real experience to overcome this challenge. Just before the kick-off, he would do one big kick with the ball to the coaches on the sideline. This has become part of his process of controlling his mind through visualization and practice.

The third, another overseas player who lost form in scoring goals. This affected his sleep patterns which then affected his training regime which then affected him scoring goals! The vicious cycle.

We addressed both sleep and scoring goals with visualization techniques.

The first step was an acknowledgment that they were all linked and most importantly this was something which can be resolved reasonably quickly with commitment. Together we focused on those many times when rest and relaxation worked well for him. He visualized these moments building a powerful anchor on rest and relaxation, building a strong connection with every positive detail, repeatedly until the visualization was as strong as the real rest itself.

One detail that emerged was that his relaxation was always very strong on the massage table! In helping improve performance, I often start on the sleep patterns first. I’ve found over the years much more success by doing this. Again. Check out the sleep guide with this article. You might find it helpful.

Once we’d started to strengthen the sleep processes, we turned to goal scoring. The principles were the same. Building a strong connection between memories of past success when the goals flowed.

Noticing all the senses. Applying the same in training and playing. That year, the player went on to be the most successful goal scorer in the league!

Notice that this isn’t relevant just for elite athletes. It’s relevant to parents, teachers, coaches, people in business and children too.  In the third case above, we

As a final example, I’m switching to another sport: swimming. Michael Phelps is the most decorated swimmer in the history of the sport. He has taken visualisation techniques to a new level. He builds pictures and images of every possible scenario that may emerge in any race. Hence, if something goes wrong in the real thing, he’s already experienced it and knows how to adjust. He has made this a fundamental part of his training regime. He would vividly rehearse his races hundreds of times so that when the actual race occurred, he would be on autopilot.


Ok Let’s try one more visualisation experience. Let’s not forget. Practice makes perfect!

I suggest you find a quiet environment where you won’t be disturbed. Try and avoid all distractions and interruptions, including that mobile phone!

I also suggest you find a comfortable place too. Maybe a nice chair where you can sit with your arms and hands relaxed and your feet flat on the floor.

Before you start, you might want to write a sentence on what you want the outcome to be. You might also include an image which connects too.

To help you in getting into a relaxed state, close your eyes and notice your breathing. Take a big deep breath through your nose and exhale gently through your mouth. Do this and notice how you start to relax. Smile at the thought you get an opportunity to relax and enjoy the visualisation experience which will be very positive.

Once you are in a relaxed state, direct all your energy onto the image which matters to you.

Notice the time of day ; the weather; the people around you; what are you wearing; what are the sights, sounds and smells and anything else which strengthens the image?

Notice how you are in control; happy and clear-headed. Notice those who you trust agreeing and communicating with you that your actions are right. Play out all the key actions which lead to a positive outcome. Acknowledge the success of your performance. You’re smiling and it’s a good day! Should you want to add the “Phelps” dimension, do so by adding in a hurdle or issue which you then overcome in the visualisation.

Slowly open your eyes and notice how you feel. You should feel relaxed and very positive about the experience.

You can undertake this visualisation again and again. You might even want to undertake the visualisation from another location in the ground. Maybe behind the goals or up in the stands. You might notice other positive features to the story.