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Visualization – the power of imagery

Think of a time when you have felt at your most confident and most relaxed, close your eyes and imagine you are there. Visualization is an incredibly powerful tool and I would like to share a ‘career changing’ example from a recent coaching session. Visualization is about mental rehearsal or creating a mental picture. It can be used to help change a person’s mental state. For example, visualizing walking along a beach on a warm sunny summers day, to help reduce stress. Or creating a mental picture of the future, for example “imagine that it is six months from now, you have achieved your goal, describe how you feel and what you see.”

We hear about visualization being used frequently with sports people. A friend is a sports psychologist and he works with professional golfers, helping them picture in their mind the ideal golf swing. He then takes time to work through every aspect of this and helps the golfer recreate the image of the perfect stroke when in a competition.


I recall an anecdote from Alan Campbell an Olympic rower who uses visualization as part of his build up to a competition. Just before the beginning of a race, Alan would listen to the song “Eye of the Tiger” by the American band Survivor. This may be a slightly cheesy song, but it had meaning for Alan. The meaning was connected to his training programme, and one of his principles of ‘train when the others don’t.’ Each Christmas morning he would train on the beach near his home in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. In all weathers, he would do shuttle runs up and down huge 45 degree sand dunes. As well as helping his stamina, he knew his opponents were not training on Christmas morning, and so he had a slight psychological advantage. While he was training he listened to ‘Eye of the Tiger’. On race day he would listen to the same music, close his eyes and take himself back to Christmas morning and relive the power and confidence he felt at that time. This was one approach that helped Alan win an Olympic medal.

 “Everything you can imagine is real.” – Pablo Picasso

I was working with a new coachee who had just relocated to the UK. The next day he was due to give his first executive committee presentation. He described how he had ‘frozen’ at previous presentations. He had lost his train of thought, he questioned why people were not making eye contact with him, and he would rush to get the presentation over with as soon as possible. This led him to believe that he was not good at delivering presentations, and so was apprehensive about what was to come the next day. Although he was an expert in his topic, he said that he hated giving presentations, in his own words, he was not witty like other presenters; others could tell jokes and anecdotes to add humour to their presentation. Although he felt at ease talking on a one to one basis, something changed when giving a presentation. However, presentations were an integral part of his new role, and he felt under even more pressure, as this was his first.

I asked the coachee to think of a time when he felt at his most relaxed and confident. He very quickly described being back in his hometown in Switzerland taking a run as part of his fitness programme along the bank of the river. I asked him to close his eyes and imagine that he was there, and to describe what he could see, hear, and smell, as well as how he felt and what he was thinking. He described the scene in great detail, as if he was seeing it there and then. He described feeling free, powerful, strong and confident. I asked him to think about the music that would remind him of this, which he could easily identify as he always listened to his iPod while training. The coachee now had a detailed mental image and music that helped him make a clear connection with feeling strong, confident and relaxed.

One month later, at our next coaching session, the coachee and I talked about the presentation. He said it was the best presentation he had ever delivered and had received fantastic feedback. He described the impact of the presentation as career changing. Reviewing what he had done to ensure this success, he said that 30 minutes before the presentation, he left his desk and went for a walk around the building. He put on his headphones and listened to his favourite music track, and with his eyes closed he relived his run. He was immediately transported back to the riverbank in his hometown. He described feeling immediately relaxed, and at the same time powerful and confident. With this preparation he returned to give the presentation of his life.

So how does this work? Research into neuroscience has revealed that visualization is almost as powerful as physical practice; the brain finds it difficult to differentiate. One example of research amongst many relates to the brain patterns of weightlifters when actually lifting weights that were very similar to the brain patterns of weightlifters when only visualizing lifting.

Jack Canfield, American author and motivational speaker is attributed with saying, “When we visualize goals as complete, it creates a conflict in our subconscious mind between what we are visualizing and what we currently have. Our minds are hard-wired to resolve such conflicts by working to create a current reality that matches the one we have envisioned.”

Also Stephen Covey, well known author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People said, “Develop your imagination – you can use it to create in your mind what you hope to create in your life.”

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