Learning Through Imagery

The Power of Sport for Youth: Part One

Posted by: Harrison Baldwin | University of Denver Sport Psychology


Have you ever dreamed about playing in a championship game or visualized scoring a game winning goal? If so, then you have used imagery before!

Imagery is a very common mental skill, yet not many athletes use imagery to its fullest extent. In a nutshell, imagery is creating or recreating an experience in one’s mind that seems to be real. Just like watching game film can be beneficial for learning from previous experiences, imagery can be beneficial for learning new scenarios that you have not experienced yet. When you are visualizing a scenario, your brain sends nerve signals to the muscles that are required for action as if the scenario were real. In turn, the neural pathways in your brain get stronger and get better at sending those nerve signals throughout your body for when you will eventually need them. This is called Psycho-Neuromuscular Theory, and it is the basis of how imagery helps us perform better. Imagery has the capability of involving the five senses. Great visualizers are able to feel the ground beneath their feet, hear the roar of a crowd, or smell the fresh cut grass. Incorporating the senses into imagery is key to creating more vivid and realistic visualizations.

Main uses for imagery include improving concentration, building confidence, solving problems, and improving emotional response control. However, for the purpose of this blog post, I’ll be explaining how imagery can be used to learn new positions, new formations and new strategies that may arise at the start of a season.

Imagery for Learning New Positions

A change of positions can occur multiple times throughout your athletic career, so how can imagery benefit you going through this change? First, try visualizing yourself on the field in your new position. How has your viewpoint of the field changed? Who are the players around you now? What place(s) on the field put you in the best position to give/receive the ball? Visualizing these things as if you were in a game can help you better understand your new role on the team. It may help to try to visualize your new position in real-time and in slow-motion. Visualizing in real-time can help you make quicker decisions about where to be or who to pass to.

On the contrary, visualizing in slow motion can help you dissect plays and create game plans depending on the certain scenario you are visualizing. Taking on a new position may also mean taking on new responsibilities. New responsibilities like taking corner kicks, controlling possession in the middle of the field, or being the vocal leader for the back line can all arise with position changes. Imagining oneself succeeding with these new responsibilities can boost confidence and even enhance reaction time when faced with these tasks in game.

Imagery for Learning New Formations/Strategies

A new season may also bring on a change in formation and/or new strategies for attacking and defending. Knowing where to be, when to drop back/push up, and which teammates may be open can all benefit from imagery. Imagine your team on the field from a bird’s-eye-view (top-down) and try to visualize different in-game scenarios. Where are you supposed to be when the ball is at a certain part of the field? Which teammates are supporting you when you have the ball? Which teammates do you need to support when they have the ball? Where is there open space when a certain teammate has the ball? Or where can the opposing team build an attack from when they have the ball?

Once you feel comfortable with visualizing from the bird’s-eye-view try visualizing the same scenarios again but this time through your own point of view. Visualizing these scenarios from a top-down approach first and then a first-person point of view is advantageous because you get a better understanding of what the whole team is doing first and then where you should be or what you should do second. Overall, imagery can be a great tool to help you better understand your positioning and the advantages/weaknesses of a new formation/strategy.

Keys to Successful Imagery

When practicing imagery there are some important factors to remember in order to make it more impactful. First, try to practice your imagery in a quiet place where you can focus. Distractions and outside variables can make it difficult to focus on the desired image. It is also key to be in a comfortable position. Sitting upright or laying down in a comfortable position helps you limit your movements and directs your focus to the visualization. Second, you should start simple. Visualizing complex scenarios can be difficult at first and take time to build up to. Try to start with a simple image and focus on your ability to control the desired image. I like to start my imagery with a vision of a blue circle getting closer and then further away. I think this is a great way to warmup your brain before trying to imagine complex in-game scenarios. Noticing which senses are being used when visualizing can also help the image be more vivid and controllable. An example of this would be noticing and feeling the weather in your visualization. Finally, practice makes permanent. Just like with most skills, it is imperative to practice imagery routinely in order to improve at it. I suggest practicing imagery for 15 minutes about 3-4 times a week. I like to suggest doing imagery before bed because the environment is often dark and quiet.


The start of a new season can create a lot of change, and it is normal for you to feel overwhelmed with new positions, formations, or strategies. However, using imagery as a mental skill to better understand these changes can help fight the anxiety or nervousness that may arise from this newness. I encourage athletes of all ages to routinely engage in imagery as a way to learn, build confidence, and improve overall performance. Remember that imagery is a skill and takes practice so do not feel discouraged if it is difficult for you to focus or control an image at first. If you have any further questions on how imagery or other mental skills can improve your performance I recommend seeking out a mental performance consultant from University of Denver’s Center for Performance Excellence or emailing CRYSC’s Director of Mental Performance Katie Pagel at [email protected]!

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