David Beckham puts down the ball 25 yards out from goal in front of the Stretford End. It is the final minute of the last match of World Cup qualifying. The England captain knows that if he scores, his side is going to the World Cup finals. He takes a short run-up. He strikes the ball perfectly. It bends up and over the wall and crashes against the back of the net. 66,000 fans explode with unbridled joy. What does Beckham do? He turns around, picks up another ball and repeats the free-kick. For none of this is happening on Saturday 6th October 2001 at Old Trafford. It is all taking place in Beckham’s mind in the weeks, months and years leading up to him scoring one of the most famous goals in English football history.
This is the power of visualisation. To some, the notion that imagining a moment or action happening can make it more likely is the sort of thing that only happens in the movies.
Proof that it is a real-life route to success however comes from both science and the mindsets of world-class athletes in numerous sports over the past 50 years, all of whom used the power of visualisation in different ways.
Formula One world champion Niki Lauda would use it to prepare and familiarise himself with the task ahead. Walking every track before a race, he imagined his breaking points and the racing line he would take. Having already driven the race before in his mind, Lauda found it easier to do it the second time around when sat in his car. The result? Three world titles and a place amongst the greatest racing drivers who ever lived.
Mike Tyson used the power of visualisation for another purpose – to breed confidence and belief that he was the best in the world. He would box Muhammad Ali over and over in his head, always winning. Having beaten the greatest boxer who ever lived numerous times in his mind, Tyson convinced himself he could never lose to any mere mortal opponent during his heyday. And he hardly ever did.
Jonny Wilkinson visualised winning the Rugby World Cup for England from the moment he first started playing the sport. Very few athletes have ever had the razor-sharp focus as Wilkinson. It meant that when the opportunity presented itself for a last-minute drop goal in the final against Australia in 2003, he was not daunted or overcome. He could seize the moment because he had been there before inside his head.
Wilkinson talks about the power of visualisation in his autobiography: “If you have realistically imagined situations, you feel better prepared and less fearful of the unexpected.”
And what of the science behind it? During the 1980s, the US Olympic Team began experimenting with visualisation. Athletes were asked to visualise running their race, imagining how they looked and felt. When they were hooked up to a machine to measure the response of the body, it was discovered that the same muscles fired in the same sequence when they visualised as they would if the athletes were on the track.
Visualisation, therefore, helps to hardwire patterns to the brain through muscle memory, whereby the process to complete an action becomes second nature.
What the US Olympic Team discovered is that you can train your body and mind almost as effectively through visualisation as you can practice. The major benefit of this is that athletes can visualise anywhere. On the team coach to games or events. In the evening when they are sat at home after dinner. In the shower. Whilst eating lunch. Suddenly, practice is not restricted to the training pitch, nor does it have to take a physical toll on the body. The power of visualisation can be utilised anytime, anywhere.
This is particularly helpful when a player is out injured. They may not be able to train physically, but they can keep themselves ticking over mentally and remain connected to their sport. There are other chemical benefits to visualisation too. When a person visualises, the brain releases dopamine and noradrenaline, two hormones that are both proven to improve performance.
When an athlete visualises themselves taking that penalty kick, the body becomes trained to respond by releasing dopamine and noradrenaline. When it then does so when the situation arises in real life, the chances of success rise.
Football coaches who work with young players at the grassroots level tend to focus less on the mental side of the game. That is not the case with We Make Footballers, where franchisees are encouraged to embrace the power of visualisation. The reason for this is because it is even more effective in children. The power of visualisation works when the visualiser truly believes that they can achieve what they are imagining and that it will one day come true.
Dr Leslie Sherlin talks in her book ‘The Rise of Superman’ about how it is easier to work with children as they have few inhibitions, they are less cynical than adults and are more open to believing that anything is possible.
She writes: “Children are too young to know what impossible means. ‘Can you do something?’ ‘I don’t know? Let me go try.’ And they’re too young to know what to be afraid of.”
To a child, it is not impossible or unlikely that they will one-day captain England at football. They are therefore more susceptible to the power of visualisation; their belief is stronger and the effects more profound. Children do not just imagine themselves in such scenarios, either. When a child plays football in their back garden or down the park, then they will often pretend to be their favourite player.
This is another example of a different strand of visualisation. They imagine that they are taking a free kick like Cristiano Ronaldo. Dribbling like Lionel Messi. Flicks and tricks like Neymar. This sort of visualisation is powerful. A child who watches the best in the world to imagine they are that same player will copy the same little details that make said player so effective. They will dribble with their head up like Messi. Strike the ball in the same sweet spot Ronaldo does. Take the first touch to get into space to perform a piece of skill like Neymar.
Beckham, Lauda, Tyson and Wilkinson all dreamed of being the best in the world at what they did from a young age. They visualised it over and over again, took what they had imagined doing and put it into practice on the training pitch. When the time eventually came along for their moment of sporting glory that would write them into the history books forever, they were ready for it.
Whether it is the free-kick that sends England to the World Cup or the We Make Footballers student scoring with his weaker foot for the first time, that is the power of visualisation.