4.5 – Visualisation And Mental Rehearsal

‘Our imagination can be seen as the language of our on-board computers.
Training our imagination and then trusting our Unconscious Mind
to perform can help us to enter The Zone.’


At its simplest, visualisation is what happens before we take any action. Before we make a cup of tea, we have a picture in our mind of making a cup of tea. Before a tennis player hits a serve, there is a picture of that serve in their mind. What makes a difference is whether this process is within their awareness and whether they have taken time to experiment with the elements and the quality of the picture.

When a player imagines an upcoming challenging situation, whether it be a high level tournament for a performance player or a club mix-in where they don’t want to let their partner down for a recreational player, how are they playing it out in their minds before it happens? Do the pictures in their heads help or hinder entering The Zone? The quality of their visualisation has the power to dramatically effect the outcome.

Repetition of useful imagery – mental rehearsal – programmes the mind/body system to perform in the way the player would like. In a way it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

‘You always get more of what you focus on.’
Paul McKenna

Of course, whether or not we are fully aware of it, we constantly mentally rehearse and visualise from the smallest action to the biggest distant future dream-goal – it is how we function in the world. Helping a player to get in the driving seat of their self-fulfilling prophecies can avoid many a potential car crash, big or small.

Coaching Tips For Visualisation

  • Encourage your players to build a visualisation routine into their training.

  • Ask awareness-raising questions to find out what pictures are in your players’ minds during training sessions and performance. Discover what works and remember that this could be different for each player.

  • Find out what pictures create a calm, quiet state of mind for your players so that they can focus on these when appropriate to help to create the mental environment for The Zone.

  • Build visualisation into a between-points routine – ‘Plan the play and play the plan’ can involve specific visualisation routines that can help a player to have more Zone experiences.

  • Be aware that the language you use whilst coaching quite literally triggers pictures in your players’ heads and has a direct effect on their state of mind and subsequent behaviour and performance. Be aware that the picture in your mind that you are attempting to communicate may not be the picture that appears in your player’s mind!

Mental Rehearsal

‘You can do Mental Rehearsal and immediately go into Alpha
and Alpha State is the beginning of The Zone’
Julie Silverthorn – Training Trances

Mental Rehearsal, as a technique, is where a person can learn to take themselves deliberately into a relaxed state of mind and focus on visualising in detail what they want to happen to prepare for a specific event. Once learned, practice makes the ability stronger and the state can be used to mentally rehearse and to tap into the resources of the unconscious mind for insight, behavioural change and anchoring The Zone. The repetition can increase mental/emotional resilience and increase the chances of accessing The Zone when in competition.

There are different methods to experiment with, but the basic process is the same in all of them:

  1. Physical and mental relaxation

  2. Visualisation / Connection with the Unconscious Mind

  3. Return to full waking consciousness

It can help to look at the process as a U-diagram.

Simple Example

(For most people, this can take anywhere from 5 minutes to half an hour, depending on how many scenarios they visualise).

Stage 1
A progressive relaxation technique could be used. Focus on one particular area of the body (i.e the toes), becoming aware of a deepening relaxation and then move up through the body, one area at at time, all the way to the top of the head. Eyes can begin open and then close during the relaxation. If it helps, saying ‘I am becoming comfortably aware of the deepening relaxation in my _____________’ at each stage can create more focus for the conscious mind and so can deepen the trance state.

Stage 2
Visualisation of performing in The Zone under pressure. It has often been said that the unconscious mind can not distinguish between a vividly imagined event and a real event. To help make the visualisation more vivid, add colour, sounds, feelings and more detail. Seeing the scene as if actually looking out of your eyes (being ‘associated’ into the image) makes visualisation even more powerful and fires off the nerves and muscles that would be used if actually there. Vividly imagining playing in The Zone in this way connects with the unconscious mind and begins to install unconscious programming so that when the challenge actually happens, there is a good chance that the rehearsed behaviour is triggered to happen automatically.

Consider adding in visualisation of responding in the most useful way when extra challenges happen and things do not go so smoothly. This can reduce pre-match anxiety as a player will feel they are ready for anything and they may put less pressure of expectation on themselves.

Experiment with associated and dissociated (bird’s-eye view) visualisation to see what works best for the individual – as a default, use dissociated first and then associated for each scene imagined.

Stage 3
Allowing a gentle return to feeling fully awake upon eye opening. Some people like to count themselves back, say from 5 to 1, opening their eyes when they get to 1. A suggestion to self can also be added, stating that when they open their eyes they will feel wide awake with all the resources they need to continue with their day and with all of the unconscious programming in place and continuing to strengthen in the background.

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