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Concentration and Visualization

The ability to maintain a state of full concen­tration is vital to top athletic performance, particularly during a key game or tense moment. Here is a description of successful concentration offered by kicker Morton Andersen after a game-winning field goal:

How did kicker Morton Andersen learn to concentrate?

I got my target. I looked through...all the arms waving, but there were no distractions. I was very single-minded of purpose, really. I felt very comfortable...

I don't know if you guys believe this, but visualization–if you do it enough–is a very powerful thing. Your mind is so powerful, it tells the body what to do.

I've trained for many years now. My mind is pretty well trained to do what I want it to do. That's what I rehearse. That's what I take pride in. That's a big part of my routine. My dominant response came to the forefront when I needed it, and that was a positive response. (Newberry, 1999).

Why does visualization work?

Andersen, a top professional athlete, en­dorsed the use of visualization. Visualization is a well-known technique in which important game situations are imagined, as vividly as possible, ahead of time.

Visualization is like a mild form of self-hyp­nosis (or behavior rehearsal) in which one prepares for specific events in a game, such as kicking a football under tense conditions. Then, when the event actually comes to pass, the athlete feels prepared, as if he or she has "been there before," and it is easier to perform well.

Visualization has been used by athletes for decades. Olympic coaches in East Germany used it extensively in the 1960s. In the 1970s, Michigan defensive football coach Gary Moeller had the entire defensive team study the book Psycho-Cybernetics (Maltz, 1960), which recommends programming oneself through visualization techniques.

How did a Michigan football coach use visualization?

Moeller's approach was explained to me by a defensive lineman on the team. Various scenarios were mentally rehearsed while being visualized as realistically as possible.

For example, the defensive team visualized occasions when the offense would fumble and lose the ball to the other team deep inside their own territory. Normally this would be very discouraging to the defense, which had just gotten off the field after stopping the other team, and now had to go right back on, due to an error by the offense.

Moeller had the defensive team prepare for this specific situation by programming themselves to see it as an opportunity. They rehearsed the act of responding to such a fumble by running out onto the field with enthusiasm, determined and confident they could throw the other team for a big loss.

After being told about this, I watched care­fully for visual evidence of this technique. Sure enough: when the Michigan offense fumbled deep in their own territory, the defensive team ran out onto the field with enthusiasm, as if this the greatest thing that could happen. The other team probably thought they were crazy.

More than once the defense came up with a big play right after a fumble, throwing the other team for a big loss. That was exactly what they practiced during their visuali­zations.

Nideffer (1992) recommends that athletes use self-cues which he calls "trigger words" to bring back the feelings cultivated during visualization sessions. For example, one athlete used the words balanced and focused as trigger words.

Nideffer also found that athletes liked to think of these sessions as self-hypnosis, probably because there is a certain mystique about hypnosis in our culture. People expect it to be a powerful technique. ("Behavior rehearsal" apparently does not carry the same cachet.)

Here is a self-hypnosis script from Nideffer, the fifth in a series of scripts specific to tennis. Before reaching this stage, the athlete has used relaxation techniques and entered a state of deep, vivid imagination.

In a moment it will be time to leave this pleasant state of hypnosis.... Before you do, however, you need to know that you will be able to create the feelings that you have when you are playing in the zone whenever you want....

You will be able to do this by taking a deep, centering breath,...inhaling deeply, and attending to the expansion of the muscles in your abdomen as you inhale.

As you exhale.... relax your chest, neck, and shoulder muscles and say "––––– and –––––-" [insert your two trigger words].

As you look across the net, take that centering breath...and repeat your phrase.... At the end of the exhale, notice that you have soft eyes.... You see the whole court....

You feel comfortable.... If you like, you may take one more centering breath, and repeat your phrase just before you begin your ball toss.... Then, you toss the ball, your concentration narrows and you focus on the spot where you are tossing the ball....

Nideffer argues that, for such techniques to work, they must be practiced for a long time, and the athlete must believe in them.

Kerr, Yoshida, Hirata, Takai, and Yamazaki (1997) did a systematic study of relaxation techniques in a study that the editors of Sport Psychologist's Digest labeled "Zen and the Art of Archery" (alluding to a popular book of the same name).

In this case, the manipulations had no effect. Instructions to relax and concentrate, using three different techniques (verbal instruc­tions, quiet rest, or exercise) did not change archery performance.

What were the results of a study on relaxation and archery?

Perhaps the athletes did not have enough time to practice the techniques, or the athletes did not believe in them (the two factors Nideffer felt were most important). Perhaps the instructions were not well matched to the needs of archery competition.

Negative results are ambiguous, so we really do not know what went wrong. We only know that archery scores did not improve in this study.

It is remarkably difficult to do well-controlled research that rules out confounded variables in sport psychology. Placebo effects and experimenter effects are always likely.

When Nideffer said belief is necessary, for self-hypnosis to work, that is like saying, "There must be the possi­bility of placebo effects." And that might be true. Belief is powerful, and some techniques might be vehicles for belief and self-fulfilling prophecy to have a powerful effect.

The only way to rule out placebo and experi­menter effects, for the sake of research, is to use a double-blind design. This requires a control group that receives a realistic fake treatment and thinks it is genuine.

Then all parties (researchers and experi­mental subjects) must be kept ignorant about which group a particular research subject is in: the real treatment group or the placebo group. That may be difficult to achieve in sport psychology.

What are complications in sport psychology research?

Issues about operational defini­tions also come up in research on sport psychology. How exactly should concentration or focus­ing instructions be defined, for research? By a course with a trainer? With an audio tape? Using instructions on a page?

Outcome measures can also affect the results and the apparent effectiveness of a technique or experimental manipulation. Consider a controlled study of distractions, in which expert golfers' performance in normal and distracting conditions was compared.

Using performance as a measure, there was no difference between distracted and not-distracted groups (Herrebroden, Saebo, and Hystad, 2017). However, the participants did say afterward they found the distractions "moder­ately disturbing and detrimental to their performance."

If a question­naire alone had been used for measurement, the results might have been stastically significant. They might have been reported in a journal article or convention paper as proof that distraction affects golfers. Instead, performance measures were used, and no difference was found.

These are not minor issues. Any researcher in sport psychology faces genuine challenges in deciding how to define concepts and how to take measurements.

The goal is not just to produce significant results, although that increases chances of publication. The goal should be to make a realistic assessment of whether a manipulation will affect sport performance in the real world.

It is always possible that well controlled research will show no differences. In fact, the better the controls, the less likely a piece of research is to show significant results.

What happens as controls are improved, in research?

That is normal for science. That biggest problem in sport psychology resesarch is that rigorous controls may not even be possible.

One can always fall back on easy-to-use interviews and question­naires, calling it "qualitative research." But such research easily produces false leads, because people interviewed (or given a questionnaire) are likely to endorse an idea that sounds good, whether or not it really affects athletic performance.

What is an alternative to using well controlled research?

Another option is to emphasize case studies (intensive looks at particular individuals and their techniques). This approach is used in some sport psychology textbooks, and it can be very useful for sport psychologists, just as it is for law students. (Case studies have long been a valued mode of instruction at Harvard Law School.)

By examining case studies, a student training to be a sport psychologist can learn details about particular athletes using particular tech­niques. This adds to a sport psychologist's repertoire of possible interventions and suggestions for helping individual athletes.


Herrebroden, H., Saebo, E. S. and Hystad, S. W. (2017) Are distractions disturbing and detrimental to the performance of expert golfers? A field experiment. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. Retrieved from:

Kerr, J. H., Yoshida, H., Hirata, C., Takai, K., & Yamazaki, F. (1997) Effects on archery performance of manipulating metamotivational state and felt arousal. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 84, 819-828. doi:10.2466/pms.1997.84.3.819

Maltz, M. (1960) Psycho-Cybernetics. New York: Pocket Books.

Newberry, P. (1999, January 21) Andersen finally in the dance. OnlineAthens. Retrieved from:

Nideffer, R. M. (1992). Psyched to Win. Champaign, IL: Leisure Press.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

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