Visualization in sports psychology

I am an athlete who appears to have aphantasia, struggling with conventional wisdom to employ visualization techniques as a rehearsal/practice method.

Worse, since I don’t see images in my mind, I’m struggling even more to find resources on how athletes like me take advantage of visualization-like techniques as a practice method. I am making it up as I go along and I can’t tell whether any of it is truly helping.

Is _nobody_ writing about how people with aphantasia–or merely not-very-vivid visualization abilities–do effective mental rehearsal for their sport?!

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Hello J.B., you raise a very good question, especially since it’s well documented that athletes use both visual and even motor imagery in “mental training.”

No published aphantasia research that we can point you to as of yet. We’re in contact with a few motory imagery researchers and briefly discussed this topic on a recent podcast episode

Hopefully with more aphantasia research and its potential impact on all the modalities, will shed new light on sports psychology.

Thanks, Jennifer. Even absent formal research, I’d be happy to learn more about the effectiveness of non-visual mental rehearsal in sports. Everything I’ve read so far has compared specifically visual mental rehearsal to physical practice and concluded that the visual mental rehearsal was quite close to physical practice in effectiveness. Can we say the same for non-visual mental rehearsal? As you say, there’s no research yet, but are there plausible mechanisms that would strongly suggest it? This is the kind of thing I’d like to know: if I do non-visual mental rehearsal, am I wasting my time and am I fooling myself if I believe that it’s significantly similar to physical practice in effectiveness?

I am also an all-senses aphant but I am past my athletic days, being 85. The main thing to consider about athletic visualization is that it is a way of communicating between the part of your mind that builds desires and the part of your mind that handles motor control. If you can recall the physical feelings associated with practicing your sport, try to recall those feelings and then try to work out how you should feel if you performed better. Visualization is one effective way of doing this and works well for most people. For those of us who do not visualize, we need to go deeper into our system;  identify and study the major feelings and then try to work out how you would feel when your performance improves.

If you have problems doing this, describe how you feel when doing your sport and I will try to suggest ways of dealing with it.

Hi, Jonathan. Thanks very much for this. In particular, this part speaks to me in a way that I hadn’t experienced before:

> it is a way of communicating between the part of your mind that builds desires and the part of your mind that handles motor control

This more-fundamental principle gives me some clue about how visual mental rehearsal works and how to substitute for it.


I experienced one interesting phenomenon about 8 months ago. I was practising with a new coach and they encouraged me to simplify my mental state and focus more narrowly on some physical aspect of my movements. I  managed to really throw myself into that and about 15 minutes later I noticed something strange: after throwing a ball I had a retrospective sensation of having made a physical mistake without having felt that mistake while I was throwing the ball. (In bowling, the total time spent moving to throw a ball for me is less than 2 seconds.) It was as though not trying to think about the movements while I was moving helped me notice a mistake in movement, albeit after the fact and somewhat vaguely. I could say, “That didn’t feel right”, but I couldn’t yet clearly point to the symptom let alone the cause. Perhaps this was an incident of unknowingly beginning to differentiate the major feelings between when I do it well and when I don’t. And maybe I could benefit from doing more of that more consciously.

Even now, I have difficulty articulating the differences. Maybe I need to feel them more. This gives me an idea for my next practice.

Hi J.B, 

I am a Sport and Performance Psychologist in Australia and I also have Aphantasia. I literally work with athletes and performers (performers being anyone from singers, dancers,  doctors, artists, musicians, to fighter jet pilots) every day and talk about visualisation and mental rehearsal…but of course have no personal experience of it. Given the intersection of my work with athletes and performers (and my own athletic endevours) I have a particular interest.

Although the research may have advanced since I last looked at it in depth the main theory used to explain why imagery works is the “psychoneuromuscular” theory – which essentially says that when the brain processes imagery then impulses are sent to the muscles involved (allbeit at a lower intensity). The  neural pathways are thereby strengthened and learning and practice of motor skills is facilitated. 

From both the research and my experience working with clients; visualisation or imagery is useful and helpful for the majority of those who use it. Imagery capability is a continuum from low to high, however, and as each individual will sit somewhere on the continuum; some athletes and performers can do it well and some not so well. Regular imagery practice seems to improve imagery capability. I have generally found that more elite athletes have more effective imagery (in terms of control and vividness of the image). 

With my clients, I always talk about mental rehearsal rather than imagery per se as the use of the other senses (hearing, smell, tough, and  taste) seems to increase the effectiveness of the mental rehearsal. So, depending on whether you are all senses aphantasic or not you could try and utilise the other senses into mental rehearsal (but without the visual aspect) and this may have utility.

Assuming, however, you are all senses aphantasic, I would say this. Mental rehearsal, although advantageous, is primarily helpful because it allows an athlete or performer to practice mentally when they can’t practice physically. So simply practicing more physically and training smarter versus harder may allow you to reach a similar point. Talent is necessary but insufficient for success. Successful athletes also have an enormous appetite for hard work and many “outwork” their opponents, competitors, or teammates.

But after devoting most of their lives to a particular sport or discipline, I would say that most elite and professional athletes and performers have physically practiced so extensively they reach a comparatively similar “expert” level. At this point, in my experience, its no longer the physical skill or capability that distinguishes success….rather, at least in part, a host of psychological factors are also important. In my experience, emotional regulation (particularly controlling performance anxiety, anger, and frustration) become just as important, if not more so, as the actual physical skills. Therefore if you can’t visualise you could still focus on other aspects of performance like emotional regulation.

Personally,  I also think there are advantages to aphantasia for performance. For example, its highly likely you will never “relive” unsuccessful sporting moments or failures or not to the same level and thus your confidence and motivation may not be impacted in the same way as someone who does relive those moments and dwell on the past. Practically, I would suggest, therefore, that it may be useful for you to investigate how your aphantasia might help your performance and not just hinder it.  



Hi, Shayne. I find this quite helpful, so thank you. It confirms a few conclusions I’d already made, such as why visual mental rehearsal seems to help, that it’s possible (although maybe unlikely) that I could improve my visual imagery vividness by practice, that tapping into another senses might help quite significantly (I seem not to be able to see nor smell, but I believe I can hear and feel well enough), and that emotional regulation might be closer to my bottleneck than physical refinement through mental rehearsal.

I hadn’t thought about the possible upside before. Indeed, I probably don’t relive failures as vividly, although I certainly remember them. (I’m remembering one hilarious one now!) I have been using various meditation practices to help me with general emotional regulation and in particular letting go of the past. The book “Zen Golf” helped me get started in this direction. I have made huge strides in emotional regulation in the past few years, even to the point where one coach told me that it was probably time to re-focus on some physical aspects of the game. (That’s partly what’s led me here.)

I’m at the point where I can’t readily distinguish which I need more: refining physical movements and regulating emotions. I have enough time and energy to try hard at both, so I’m looking for options, and I can’t spend hours per day doing physical practice, which led me to visual imagery and mental rehearsal and now I’m here.


Thanks again.

I don’t have an answer to your question, just offering solidarity. I was a competitive figure skater growing up and never understood what my coach meant when she told me to “visualize my routine in my head”. I just shrugged it off. When I learned about Aphantasia at age fifty – I was like “OH! That’s what she meant” I was absolutely floored to learn that people could really to it.

I wonder if that was part of the reason I kept forgetting my routine in the middle of competitions. As you can tell, I wasn’t a very good competitive figure skater…

Thanks, Teresa. Solidarity feels good. I still have the occasional experience of my mind wandering _way_ off course while in the middle of throwing a ball. I wonder how that relates to your experience of forgetting your routine in the middle. My routine is less than 2 seconds long, so there’s less to forget than there is in a long program. 🙂

I had been playing tennis since I was 5 years old, and when I ended up getting injured, I switched over (at age 12) to playing chess. I remember on the bus rides for chess, our coach would tell us to ‘play chess in our heads’. 

Like everyone with aphantasia, I had that ‘Ohhh’ moment when I found out that I did have the condition. And so since then, I’ve always tried to think of how I, well, THINK. As a successful athlete growing up until my injury, I had a tennis coach who always focused on telling me to use my muscle memory; and I find that was my saving grace. 

Muscle memory is what I rely on, whether it’s chess or tennis. With tennis, and I am no mathematician by any means, I was always taught to remember what the right way to hit feels like. I could never learn from watching videos, only repetition, and repetition in the correct way. I knew if my arm felt like it was off by even a bit, I knew exactly where the ball’s trajectory would end up going. I learned to understand the physics of tennis, as well as what I could do to control it. It was never, “imagine this” or “picture that”; my coach only focused on what it should FEEL like. 

With chess, I didn’t have that luck. I remember (as I was bad at math in high school) my coach sitting me down, telling me to close my eyes and do a 3-digit subtraction problem in my head. And, I couldn’t do it – to the point where I was crying. I never understood what ‘mental’ math was, besides it being an expression. But, I figured out my own way of doing it – muscle memory. I would make the positions of moving the chess pieces while remembering the notations and lining those two up. 

I don’t know if this is relevant, but it’s been my experience as an athlete. 

Hope it helps! 

In case anyone sees this, a little update.

Since I posted this nearly one year ago, I have made some progress in my mental rehearsal habits.

– I have let go of the desire to visualize and instead frame the exercise as “imagining”. This takes away the pressure to see images and the disappointment and doubt that come from not seeing them.
– I notice that I seem to see something like grainy stick figures of my body, but it feels more like the idea of it rather than an image of it.
– I have tried a couple of guided imagery sessions, and even though I don’t _see_ anything, I have found the guided aspect of it helpful. I would like to do that more in order to increase the effectiveness of the activity.

I feel grateful for the advice in this thread. Thank you for helping me get past my trepidation about the effectiveness of mental rehearsal without visual imagery.