The Power of Visualization: How to Visualize Wins According to Sports Psychologists

UPDATED: April 1, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 31, 2024
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The power of visualization is a very real thing. Elite athletes use imagery as a powerful tool to help support their success on and off the court, playing field or course. Lisa Widmark, a sports psychology performance coach, recalls one experience with an athlete who would get nervous about being interviewed after a game. They discovered that the anxiety he had about interviews was also impacting his performance. Through their visualization practices, he overcame this trepidation, and his play during the game also improved. 

The practice of visualizing environments and successful wins doesn’t just apply to athletes. It can also be used in everyday interactions and business endeavors. Why does it work so well? 

“If you look at self-talk, 90% of it is the exact same thing, and most of it is negative,” Widmark says. “It’s trying to keep you from achieving all you can achieve or really, trying something new—it’s usually limiting. Visualizing your wins helps you change the script so that you can access the next level.

“It teaches your body what it feels like to win or to succeed or to make that presentation or to go in and talk to your boss about a raise,” continues Widmark, explaining that by visualizing, we can create the experience of having done the things that we avoid because they’re new or unfamiliar. 

Dr. Kirbi Kidd, a sports psychologist, says visualization gives people a tool for self-monitoring, too. 

These are some questions Kidd says that people can ask as they visualize: “How do I feel about this competition? Am I feeling panic? Am I feeling nervous? Is this a good kind of nervousness? What is my behavior like when I’m anxious? What is my behavior like when I’m confident? What is my behavior like when I’m unsure?” She explains that the power of visualization can go a long way to increase an athlete’s confidence, so they can go on to have those breakthrough performances.

The power and benefits of visualization

Finding controllables

Kidd says visualizing can also help athletes pinpoint what is controllable and what is not in their realm of control. Golfers are one group of athletes she sees balancing controllables with the unknown. 

“Golfers pretty much know their favorite course. They know their favorite temperature, what they prefer to wear, their favorite gear—what it feels like, how light it is,” says Kidd. “That is what helps them really lock into their talent and their controllables. To overcompensate for things that they can’t control, they visualize what they can control: Their mechanics, their movement, their confidence behaviors. That’s why it’s so impactful, because it really helps the athlete hone in on their confidence, hone in on their controllables and essentially have focus measures.” 

Getting comfortable with the unknown

When it comes to situations that have never happened before, such as giving a first speech or performing in front of a crowd for the first time, Widmark says the power of visualization can help us familiarize ourselves with a new environment. This can reduce the stress and anxiety that come with trying something new. 

“If you’ve never had that kind of success or that kind of situation, your brain is saying, ‘This is uncharted territory,’” says Widmark. “If you’re practicing it mentally, your body, your emotions, and your thoughts don’t really know that it’s not happening. Humans like to do things that are familiar, and through visualization, you can make it familiar.”

Overcoming fear and anxiety

Dr. Yolanda Bruce Brooks, clinical sports psychologist, says visualizing can be a good opportunity to process potential emotions. 

For example, before giving a presentation at a meeting, “You want to get a sense of yourself, including processing your greatest fear: What is your greatest fear in the presentation? If you don’t have your notes, your phone, your PowerPoint, how will you continue to move forward?” she asks. “Visualization helps you work and walk through that so you don’t necessarily have to react; you can respond. That helps keep things you can control—controlled, the things you can manage—managed. And the things that are outside of those boundaries? They will happen, but how will you respond as opposed to just reacting? That is something that visualization can do.”

Brooks points out that you can see where the anxiety builds up in the timeline. “You can gauge how you’re feeling about it, so when you actually go through that in real life, you recognize at what point there is anxiety and slow down,” she says.

How to visualize wins

To begin practicing visualization, Brooks suggests visualizing a timeline with a starting point. “Imagine the various steps or stages you go through all the way into game time,” she says. “That might involve visualizing getting up that morning, getting breakfast and getting dressed. You go to the facilities, you visualize yourself going through all the steps and stages. It helps you see what you’re doing and how you feel about the process.”

Widmark can’t picture imagery well in her mind, and she recommends that others who can’t easily conjure up mental images focus instead on creating an environment and on how things feel and how things will play out. Kidd agrees; and she suggests starting with one or two sensory experiences. 

“Sight is strong for many people, sound is very strong for people, temperature, pressure,” says Kidd. She advises one way to practice visualization is by thinking about a favorite dessert and getting as specific as possible with the senses. What’s the flavor? The color? The texture? The size?

“I believe if you are tuned into your sensory experiences, you are able to visualize,” says Kidd. “And the way to enhance and really experience the power of visualization and become stronger at it is to call out the details. Call out your sensory experiences of that visualization or the imagery you’re trying to construct.”

Photo by fizkes/


Iona Brannon is a freelance journalist based in the U.S. You can read more of her work at