This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 14 table of contents.

Concentration and Visualization

The ability to maintain a state of full concentration is vital to top athletic performance, particularly during a key game or tense moment. Here is a description of successful concentration offered by kicker Morton Andersen after a game-winning field goal:

How did kicker Morton Andersen learn to concentrate?

I got my target. I looked through...all the arms waving, but there were no distractions. I was very single-minded of purpose, really. I felt very comfortable...

I don't know if you guys believe this, but visualization-if you do it enough-is a very powerful thing. Your mind is so powerful, it tells the body what to do.

I've trained for many years now. My mind is pretty well trained to do what I want it to do. That's what I rehearse. That's what I take pride in. That's a big part of my routine. My dominant response came to the forefront when I needed it, and that was a positive response. (Newberry, January 21, 1999).

Why does visualization work?

Andersen, a top professional athlete, endorsed the use of visualization. Visualization is a well-known technique in which important game situations are imagined, as vividly as possible, ahead of time. It is like a mild form of self-hypnosis in which one prepares for specific events in a game, such as kicking a football under tense conditions. Then, when the event actually comes to pass, the athlete feels prepared, as if he or she has "been there before," and it is easier to perform well.

Visualization has been used by athletes for decades. Olympic coaches in East Germany used it extensively in the 1960s. In the 1970s, defensive football coach Gary Moeller had the entire Michigan defensive team study the popular psychology book Psycho-Cybernetics, which recommends programming oneself through visualization techniques. Various scenarios were mentally rehearsed while being visualized as realistically as possible.

How did a Michigan football coach use visualization?

For example, the entire defensive team prepared for occasions when the offense would fumble and lose the ball to the other team deep inside their own territory. Usually this was a disaster for the team which fumbled. Moeller had the entire defensive team prepare to view this situation as an opportunity. They rehearsed the act of responding to such a fumble by running out onto the field with enthusiasm, determined and confident they could throw the other team for a big loss. When the Michigan offense fumbled deep in their own territory, the defensive team ran out onto the field with enthusiasm, as if this disaster was the greatest thing that could happen. The other team probably thought they were crazy.

After a player on the Michigan team told me about this training technique, I paid more attention to such situations. Sure enough, I saw the defense running out onto the field with enthusiasm after disastrous fumbles. More than once the defense came up with a big play right after a fumble, throwing the other team for a big loss, just as they had practiced doing in their visualizations.

How can "trigger words" help?

Nideffer recommends that athletes use self-cues which he calls "trigger words" to bring back the feelings cultivated during visualization sessions. For example, one athlete used the words balanced and focused as trigger words. Nideffer also found that athletes liked to think of these sessions as self-hypnosis, probably because there is a certain mystique about hypnosis in our culture. People expect it to be a powerful technique.

Here is a script from Nideffer, "Stage 5" in a series of self-hypnosis scripts specific to tennis. Before reaching this stage, the athlete has used relaxation techniques and entered a state of deep, vivid imagination.

How does Nideffer work "trigger words" into a self-hypnosis script?

In a moment it will be time to leave this pleasant state of hypnosis.... Before you do, however, you need to know that you will be able to create the feelings that you have when you are playing in the zone whenever you want.... You will be able to do this by taking a deep, centering breath,...inhaling deeply, and attending to the expansion of the muscles in your abdomen as you inhale. As you exhale.... relax your chest, neck, and shoulder muscles and say "__________ and ___________" [insert your two trigger words].

As you look across the net, take that centering breath...and repeat your phrase.... At the end of the exhale, notice that you have soft eyes.... You see the whole court.... You feel comfortable.... If you like, you may take one more centering breath, and repeat your phrase just before you begin your ball toss.... Then, you toss the ball, your concentration narrows and you focus on the spot where you are tossing the ball....

Do such techniques always work?

Nideffer argues that, for such techniques to work, they must be practiced for a long time, and the athlete must believe in them.

Relaxation and focusing instructions do not always have measurable effects right away. Kerr, Yoshida, Hirata, Takai, and Yamazaki (1997) did a systematic study which the editors of Sport Psychologist's Digest half-seriously labeled "Zen and the Art of Archery" (alluding to a popular book of the same name). The manipulations in the study—instructions to relax and concentrate, using verbal instructions, quiet rest, or exercise—had no immediate effect on archery performance. Perhaps the athletes did not have long enough to practice the techniques, or perhaps the "instructions" in this particular study were poorly done, or perhaps relaxation and focusing instructions are just not as effective as people think. Negative results are ambiguous, so we really do not know what went wrong, just that archery scores did not improve.

What are complications in sport psychology research?

It is remarkably difficult to do good research on sport psychology. Placebo effects and experimenter effects are almost inevitable. The normal remedy for them in other types of research—a control group that thinks it is getting a genuine treatment, but really isn't—may be hard to achieve in sport psychology. Issues of operational definition also come up. How exactly should concentration or focusing instructions be defined, for research? By a course with a trainer? With an audio tape? Using instructions on a page?

These are not minor annoyances, they are genuine challenges for a researcher. Any graduate student in sport psychology would have to deal with these issues in order to do research. Compromises are made. Sometimes a researcher will loosen up on the controls but have a very realistic treatment, such as a professional trainer. Of course, a trainer might convey all sorts of expectations and emotional support and motivation to an athlete, not just training "how to visualize" or "how to focus," so this type of research is hard to interpret. Sometimes the controls might be good—there is a control group getting a placebo treatment, for example—but the experimental manipulation (such as reading a booklet) does not seem very realistic.

Perhaps the only way to resolve whether "visualization works" or "focusing instructions will improve archery scores" is to test the claim in a variety of ways, with a variety of research designs. Then, one would hope, the truth will emerge from a cumulation of results over time.

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