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Visualization and guided imagery


Physical performance is directly influenced by mental processes, such as persevering and being able to perform patterns correctly when nearing exhaustion. It may also be indirectly influenced by other mental processes, such as by using visualization.

Visualization is the conscious creation of positive images in the mind; it is becoming more and more popular in sports. Many coaches, trainers, and sports psychologists are using formal positive visualization techniques to help their athletes improve in their chosen field faster than would otherwise be possible. Positive visualization will not only helps improve techniques; it helps instill a positive attitude that improves overall wellbeing.

Thinking positive thoughts seems like a simple idea, but to achieve the desired results, the visualization process must be applied correctly. Negative thoughts are much easier for most people to relate to, so self-doubt tends to creep into the thoughts of students who are not properly taught visualization techniques.

Mentally practicing a single skill is referred to as visualization, while mentally rehearsing an event is referred to as guided imagery.

Guided imagery

Guided imagery involves creating or recreating an athletic experience in your mind. For example, you can use imagery to create or recreate a winning sparring match by incorporating visualizations of you using perfect combinations. The imagery goes beyond simply visualizing techniques, it includes everything you see, think, or feel as you spar an opponent.

Most of us as children experienced active imaginations and some of us still have them. However, most of us do not use them systematically or with a purpose in mind, so we only experience random daydreams. The Romans had a saying, "Mens sano in corpora sano," a healthy mind in a healthy body. You would not expect to be physically ready to compete without regularly training your body and practicing techniques. Likewise, mental skills, such as imagery, need to be trained, developed, and practiced if you want to use them to your full advantage.

When using guided imagery, you will begin to:
  • See success. See and feel yourself achieving your goals and performing to your capabilities. This will help raise your confidence in your abilities and prepare your body to perform as needed.
  • Feel motivated. Recall thoughts and images of past and future successes to help you train longer and harder. Also, taking inventory of your goals is a powerful motivator.
  • Manage your energy level. Use imagery to achieve your optimal energy level or to recharge yourself when you are tired.
  • Learn and perfect skills. See and feel yourself performing perfect techniques and patterns. This is often as effective as actual practice.
  • Learn to refocus. Help you refocus when needed. If you are feeling weak, sluggish, or awkward, reliving your previous best performance may help lift your spirits. You can also use imagery as a way of refocusing during an event by replaying the script that you made for yourself.
  • Be better prepared for competition. Just as you need to prepare physically for competition, you need to prepare mentally. Through guided imagery, you can prepare yourself for different types of opponents and circumstances, such as a sudden injury.

Practicing guided imagery

Guided imagery and visualization may be practiced at most any time or place. However, it is probably best to find a controlled environment that has few distractions. Spend at least 10-15 minutes a day practicing.

Your mind should be calm, and your body relaxed. When first using imagery techniques it is best to use them in stress-free situations. Start with images of techniques at which you are already proficient, then move to new skills, and only then move to the imaging of competitive situations.

Include all the senses in the imaging. Seeing ourselves perform is by far the easiest and the most common sensory component, but equally important is what you feel, hear, think, and even smell. Think how your muscles felt during a match, were they tired, burning, tense, relaxed? Hear the crowd, the referee's commands, your feet moving, and your breathing.

Steps to learning visualization and guided imaging

  • Positive reinforcement. The first step in learning visualization techniques is getting positive reinforcement.

    You can give yourself positive reinforcement by congratulating yourself when you do something right and no beating yourself up when you do something wrong. Learn from your mistakes and consider them just another step toward your attaining your goals.

    Instructors can use praise to foster an atmosphere of self-confidence for their students. Many students, especially beginners, look at an experienced martial artist and think that they will never be able to move that fast, or kick that high, or hit that hard. It is important to explain to students that improvement comes with hard work over a long period and that they are all capable of achieving their goals. As their instructor, you may be the most skilled martial artist that they know. Explain to them that you too were once a beginner of average ability. Convince them that their goals are attainable.
  • Relaxation. The next step is to learn is relaxation. Before positive visualization techniques can be applied, you must be able to relax with a calm, clear mind. You may already be familiar with relaxation techniques through meditation. For those who are not or for those who view meditation as an expression of a religion, a relaxed state may be obtained by the following procedure:
  • Sit in a relaxed position with the eyes closed.
  • Breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Visualize your breath being drawn into the nose, up to the top of the head, around and down the spine, and deep into the belly.
  • As you exhale, visualize the air rising up the front of your chest and out your mouth.
  • As you begin to relax, think about the various parts of your body, the legs, shoulders, arms, hands, face, and try to relax all the muscles. 
  • Then concentrate on one area at a time and relax it as you exhale. 
Through experimentation, people find different methods that help them relax. Once you can reach a relaxed, clear-headed state, you can move on to the next step.
  • Positive visualization. The next step is positive visualization. This is the most important step. Here, you must create vivid positive images in your mind. If you want to improve your hip throw, you must envision yourself executing devastating hip throws.

    The images must be vivid and detailed, just as if watching a movie. The movie is run over and over in your head while sitting still and relaxed. Any technique or combination may be visualized. A tournament win may also be visualized; you watch yourself beat opponent after opponent on your way to a first-place finish. 
  • Affirmation. The final step is affirmation. This is where the positive images that you watched over and over in your mind are recalled while you are performing. As you enter the ring, you reaffirm the positive visualization by thinking about how you have seen yourself already beat this opponent. As you hear footsteps behind you at night in an ally, you quickly recall how you have seen yourself defeat hundreds of muggers.

    This is the step where the benefits of visualization are transferred to your performance. Like the other steps, it must be practiced until it can be turned on at will.


Visualization and guided imaging are powerful training tools. Almost every major athletic training program uses some form of positive visualization and guided imaging. The four steps involved can be learned in as little as six weeks with the benefits becoming apparent almost immediately.

The four steps must be learned in order, and then continually reinforced and practiced. Daily use of positive visualization will help you rid yourself of the self-doubting, negative thoughts that often enters your mind and help you reach your potential.

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