The Power of Imagery…The Secret of Successful Athletes

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – W.Churchill

Have you ever felt unusually lethargic just before kick off? Have you felt super confident and energetic for some games, whilst other games you can barely get out of 1st gear? Chances are that it comes down to imagery and the story that you’re telling yourself.

Research shows us that the best performers use mental skills more than their less elite counterparts (Bota, 1993; Cumming and Hall, 2002; Wilson, 1999; Nesti & Sulley, 2015)

Imagery is when players use vivid visual description of images prior, during or after a performance (Bishop et al, 2007).

But does it really work? Well recent studies have shown for the first time that when visualising actions, at least two-thirds of the brain’s activity activates in a similar way to actual physical practice (Bates, 2017). In other words, if you use effective imagery your brain already feels like you have performed the task, firing the same neurons and creating the same mental maps that you would experience during practice or matches.

grass sport game match
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Sports Psychologist and Performance Coach Tom Bates has worked with professional clubs such as Aston Villa, Birmingham, West Brom and Bournemouth. Bates goes one step further when it comes to visualisation and claims that it can even be as good as physical practice.

“Visualisation is as good as physical practice, with some additional advantages. For example, when a player performs for real, they don’t have the opportunity to ‘rewind and re-focus’ on the outcomes. During visualisation, they can replay moves, access their full spectrum of emotions, and retune undesired outcomes. That’s why it is so important that the visualisation is real.”

The brain simply believes what you tell it most. And what you tell it about you, it will create (Helmstetter, 2011). Unfortunately for humans there tends to be a natural ‘negativity bias’ in our brains creating negative stories (images) that we tell ourselves (Carretie et al, 2001).

For that reason there is a large importance on the coaches to educate players on mental imagery not only for positivity reasons but also to prevent the damaging effects of negative imagery (Janssen & Sheikh, 1994). Basic and fun introductory lessons of imagery can even be given to young children to experience (Newberyet al, 2014). In fact Dutch giants Feynoord have a sports psychologist who takes players through a very basic and fun introduction to the use of mental imagery (Nesti & Sulley, 2015). 


Footballing and life benefits of imagery:

  • Enhances the learning of new skills (Ross & Haskins, )
  • Improves thinking structure (Bates, 2017)
  • Feel more prepared emotionally, and ready to compete. (Bates, 2017)
  • Increases positive psychology (Pain, 2016; Bates, 2017)
  • Boost confidence, self-belief, concentration, and composure under pressure. (Jones, 2003; Pain, 2016; Bates, 2017)
  • Improves overall performance and ability (Zinsser et al, 2000; Murphy & Martin, 2002). 
  • Decreases injuries (Johnson et al, 2005) and increase rehabilitation (Green, 1992; Reilly & Williams, 2003)


It is understandable why many amateur players don’t tend to use imagery. Firstly, how often do coaches advocate it and recommend it? Probably not very often due to maybe time or other priorities (some tips on introducing imagery for coaches later on in this article). Secondly, it may not feel very natural the first few times you perform imagery. Similarly to practicing technique or other skills, imagery too can be refined through daily practice by using all the senses to create or recreate an experience (Tuffy-Riewald, 2009).

person kicks soccer ball in field
Photo by Zac Frith on

I recently had a player who began doing imagery once a day, he was initially sceptical as it felt ‘unnatural’. He decided to persist and after a month of using imagery on a regular basis he claimed to feel more confident, more relaxed and more prepared for games. Interestingly, he stopped this routine during the off season, and when he returned and resumed his daily dose of imagery, he found it difficult and awkward to use, just like when he first started. But why? It can be likened to the physical feeling of when you first return to pre-season, your body doesn’t feel as prepared and your movements feel awkward. Neural connections hadn’t been made in a while, they don’t fire as quickly at it was for this reason why the brain was initially struggling to paint these pictures.

“Do you think a soccer player who is spending time everyday rehearsing negatives and talking to herself in a pessimistic way is going to feel great on Saturday? Do you think she is going to feel strong, fit, dominant, confident, focused and ready? By all means train your players hard. Put on the best quality sessions you possibly can. But be very clear in your mind about this – your players won’t be as ready as they should be for match day if they have a pessimistic explanatory style.  – D.Abrahams (Sports Psychologist at England Rugby and Bournemouth FC)


  1. USE SENSORY WORDS (Paint Images): Provide athletes with cues to make the imagery as real as possible, such as ‘look’ and ‘feel’ (Abrahams, 2013). Young players tend to think in pictures so have fun with it. Instead of “Trap the ball” say “Let your foot kiss the ball, imagine a big pair of lips on the inside of your foot.” Have a look at this video by Daniel Coyle for more tips. 
  2. USE IMAGERY IN PRACTICES: To include imagery in practice, coaches should direct the athletes to mentally practice each skill prior to physical execution (S.Tuffy-Riewald, 2009). 1. Show them a technical skill (i.e.) pass, step over, shot; 2. Imagine yourself performing this skills (using words such as feel, look, sound); 3. Show us the skill. Another great one for kids, name a well know player, “right kids, here’s a video of ‘The Messi” (a step over for example); Now imagine yourself as Messi, show us the skill!
  3. FINISH ON A HIGH: Especially just before kick off, before they head into the changing rooms or ready for kick off have the players end with a positive imagery.  Have the striker hit the back of the net (for advanced also have them listen to the sound of the net rippling). Have the midfielder hit a perfect pass before you dismiss them. Have the defender perform a strong jump and header (have them call out their name LOUDLY). Have the goalkeeper perform a good save or a strong jump and catch (again LOUDLY calling out a name or “KEEPERS”). These are strong images to take into kick off.



  1. THE 2 HOUR RULE: Avoid thinking about football until a couple of hours before kick-off. A lethargic feeling just before kick off is usually a result of a player thinking about the game all day. Don’t forget, the brain cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. When a player thinks about playing and performing on the morning of a game they will start to release adrenaline this will exhaust a player’s adrenaline load if done too early. If kick-off is at 3:00pm then 1:00pm is a great time to start thinking about all the positive actions that you’re planning for the game. It’s a great time to get that injection of adrenaline before warm-up (Abrahams, 2013).
  2. USE ALL THE SENSE: The more senses you use the more real the imagery becomes. Instead of picturing yourself taking a free-kick, imagine the feel of the turf underneath your feet, imagine the feel of striking the ball perfectly, imagine the sound the ball makes when you strike it perfectly, imagine the sound the ball makes when it hits the top corner of the net, what does that look like, even imagine the smell of the freshly cut grass. See more tips on imagery from Dan Abrahams youtube video here.
  3. PICTURE YOUR BEST GAME (AND MORE): A great bit of mind medicine just before a game, think of your best game and exaggerate it. Below is an example taken from Dan Abrahams (2013) book “Soccer Brain”:

Goalkeeper Imagery: What do the most incredible, sharp saves look like? How do they feel? Picture 10 out of 10 reaction times for your saves. Now turn up the volume. Picture 12 out of 10. Now 15 out of 10. What does that look like? How does that make you feel? –

Striker Imagery: What are you doing to score 10 goals in a game? What kind of movement do you have? How are you finding space? What does the power in your shots feel like? What does incredible movement look and feel like? Tell me about body shape, body weight and direction.

Defender Imagery: What does rock solid look like? What are you doing in the air? What are you doing in your challenges? Stretch your imagination – what does it look and feel like when you are first to the ball every time, when you win every 50/50 and when you keep every striker in your pocket.

Experience is simply the word we give our mistakes – Oscar Wilde

Phil A Phillipou

Twitter @coachphilp

Facebook: Coach Phil P


Reference List/Recommended Reading

  • Abrahams, D (2013) Soccer Brain: The 4C Coaching Model for Developing World Class Player Mindset and a Winning Football Team. Birmingham. Bennion Kearney LTD
  • Bates, T (2017) The Future Coach – Creating Tomorrow’s Soccer Players Today: 9 Key Principles for Coaches from Sport Psychology. Dark River.
  • Bishop, D; Karageorghis, C; Loizou, G (2007) A Grounded Theory of Young Tennis Players’ Use of Music to Manipulate Emotional State. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29, 584-607
  • Bota, J (1993). Development of the Ottawa mental skills Assessment tool. University of Ottawa.
  • Carretié, L; Mercado, F; Tapia, M & Hinojosa, M (2001) Emotion, attention, and the ‘negativity bias’, studied through event-related potentials. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 41, 1, 75-85
  • Cumming, J. and Hall, C. (2002). Deliberate imagery practice: the development of imagery skills in competitive athletes. Journal of Sports Sciences 2,137–145.
  • Green, L (1992) The use of imagery in the rehabilitation of injured athletes. The Sports Psychologist, 6, 416–28.
  • Helmstetter, Shad (2011) What To Say When You Talk To Your Self. Park Avenue Press.
  • Janssen, J & Sheikh, A (1994) Enhancing athletic performance through imagery: An overview. In A.A. Sheikh & E.R. Korn (Eds.), Imagery in Sports and Physical Performance (pp. 1-22). Amityville, New York: Baywood.
  • Johnson, U; Ekengren, J and Andersen, M (2005) Helping soccer players at risk. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 27: 32– 38.
  • Jones, M (2003) Controlling emotions in sport. Sport Psychologist, 17, 471-486.
  • Newbery, D; Barker, I & Rose, S (2014) Complete Soccer Coaching Curriculum for 3-18 Year Old Players: Volume 1.NSCAA Player Development Curriculum. Coaching Media Group.
  • Murphy, S & Martin, K (2002). The use of imagery in sport. In T. S. Horn (Ed.), Advances in sport psychology (pp. 405-439). Champaign, IL, US: Human Kinetics.
  • Nesti, M & Sulley, C (2015) Youth Development in Football: Lessons from the World’s Best Academies. Oxford: RoutledgeWilson, A. M. (2001). Understanding organisational culture and the implications for corporate marketing. European Journal of Marketing 35, 353–367.
  • Pain, M (2016) Mental Interventions, Chapter 17 Soccer Science: Using Science to
    Develop Players and Teams Edited by Strudwick, T Human Kinetics, USA.
  • Reilly, T & Williams, M (2003) Science & Soccer. 2nd Ed. New York.
  • Ross, G & Haskins, D (2013) Creativity in Football. Sports Coach UK. The National Coaching Foundation.
  • Tuffy-Riewald (2009) Make Mental Training Part of Physical Training. Soccer Journal, September-October 2009
  • Zinsser, N; Bunker, L and Williams, J (2000) Cognitive techniques for building confidence and enhancing performance. In Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance (edited by J.M. Williams),. 284–311. New York: Mayfair.

Author: coachphilp

Masters Degree in Fútbol with Real Madrid Universidad Europea (Voted #1 Football Masters Degree in the World) 16 years coaching over 3 nations. “Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have laboured hard for.” - Socrates

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