The Mental Game with Dr Z: Issue IV – Visualization

Posted on Feb 28 2016 - 9:50pm by DV

Dr Z Bio PicBy Dr. Dan Zimet, Psychologist & Sports Consultant-

Visualization (aka Mental Rehearsal and Mental Imagery) involves using vivid and multi-sensory mental pictures to rehearse skills or induce a desired energy or mindset.  Simply put, it involves creating powerfully accurate pictures in your head.  Why does this work?  Amazingly, when neurologists use MRI data they observe remarkably similar activity in the brain when comparing visualization to actual skill performance.  You actually learn motor movements/skills just by thinking about those movements!

An abundant body of research supports the nearly universal use of visualization by the most accomplished athletes, and studies have repeatedly shown that the using visualization distinguishes the most successful athletes from their less successful counterparts.  If you find yourself thinking about handball, and seeing shots and game situations in your head, then you have instinctively received some of the benefits of mental rehearsal already!

Visualization can be utilized for four purposes:

1) Stress reduction;

2) Arousal/energy regulation;

3) Skill rehearsal;

4) Coping rehearsal.

Stress Reduction:  Visualization can be useful for distraction, relaxation, and confidence enhancement to help reduce anxiety and worry.  For example, by creating a mental image of a peaceful and calming situation or setting, an athlete’s body relaxes and his or her mind will be distracted from the upcoming pressures of competition.  This is a common meditation and mindfulness technique, which can also be used to help get to sleep.  When combined with deep breathing exercises, which will be explained in next, you’re utilizing one of the most powerful stress-reduction techniques.

Energy Regulation:  Visualization is also an excellent tool for bringing arousal states, or intensity levels, into the right zone for peak performance.  It’s important to know your sport as well as yourself when determining where your intensity needs to be.  While a weight lifter will need an extremely high intensity level, an archer requires a fairly low level of arousal.  Handball falls in the middle, since the sport requires both precision/control and explosive movement.  Furthermore, everyone responds differently to the pressure of a match.  Some athletes play their best when they’re hyped, while others play best when calm.

By selecting appropriate “mental movies,” an athlete can increase feelings of confidence and adjust their arousal appropriately.  For example, try playing back exciting points from your past as a way of increasing your focus and intensity.  If you’re looking to calm yourself, try visualizing specific shots or shot combinations likely to arise against your opponent.  Slow down the shots in your mind, rehearsing them with quiet and smooth precision.  For instance, visualize a graceful and perfectly executed lob-serve.

Coping Rehearsal:   This technique can help athletes overcome mistakes and manage adverse situations that arise during a match.  First, visualize a physical or mental mistake that took place during a match.  A good example is losing focus after a bad call, which resulted in losing several points getting played without solid mental focus.  In addition, the athlete may have expressed anger at the referee and made a snide remark, which exhibits unsportsmanlike behavior.  After visualizing the problem scenario, the athlete then mentally rehearses effective strategies for coping with the situation.  These strategies should help the athlete get refocused and return to a high level of play.

In our example above, the athlete may have stomped around the court, thought about the bad call on and off during the next few rallies, and only recovered when something during the play went right.  With visualization, the athlete can visualize making reasonable, positive arguments with the referee about the call.  Then, he can take a few deep breaths, hit a few ‘practice shots’ our bounce around to loosen up, and engage in constructive self-talk like “every match has some bad calls one way or the other, move on to the next rally and get it back” or more briefly, “let it go…new point, new opportunity.”  Again, depending on the athlete’s arousal level most conducive to excellent play, he might choose to use the call as fuel for a burst of intense energy.

Although an excellent tool, many athletes resist using Coping Rehearsal because it involves thinking about negative events that he or she would just as soon forget.  However, it is essential to remember that mental toughness is irrelevant when you’ve got your ‘A Game.’  Mental toughness is all about what you do when things are going poorly.  For that reason rehearsing the skills you could use during the bad moments is of paramount importance.  With that said, don’t use Coping Rehearsal too close to a competition.  It’s best when used soon after the negative situation.

Skill Rehearsal:  The most common use of visualization for elite athletes is for skill rehearsal.  Visualization reinforces good habits and can increase self-confidence while simultaneously contributing to the development of motor skills.  Visualization is an opportunity to practice without tiring yourself out or making a trip to the courts.  It’s an excellent way to improve your game during idle moments.  In the following section we will look more closely at a visualization exercise focused on Skill Rehearsal.

Visualization in Action

A common warm-up exercise for Paul Brady is to throw a three-wall wrap that drops softy to his left hand near the service line.  He then step in and kill the ball left-handed.  As I watched Paul play his match, I noticed that he often finds himself taking that exact shot, as numerous weak returns seem to come to this point on the court for him.  I was surprised to notice that I too have similar set-ups, but I had never systematically practiced the shot.  By using visualization, combining a mental video of Brady’s motion and experiences from my own shots, I was able to improve this stroke.  Here is the visualization exercise, which I did several times every day for a few weeks in addition to practicing the stroke during warm-up and taking the shot at every opportunity during practice games:

Visualization Exercise:

  • I sit comfortable, close my eyes, and take a few deep cleansing breaths.  I feel calm and grounded.  Ready and patient.
  • In my mind a see the court from the center point.  Well lit, light brown boarding on the floor, white walls and blood red lines.  This is my home court – I feel confident and comfortable.
  • I see the ball floating high on the right wall and then the front wall, bouncing near the left wall, and then floating slowly in an arc that will eventually bounce just behind the service line.
  • My opponent is behind me towards center court, and I take casual note of his position and then he disappears.  The ball is huge and bright blue, hovering.
  • I feel my body lightly shifting to a pre-shoot position.  Small steps, fluidly coiling, loose, graceful and athletic.
  • I feel unpacked power build in my chest as my left hand comes high behind me and my body sets into the peak of my backswing.  Smooth and slow.
  • My weight transfers forward and I feel power build in my right leg.  Stable, strong and balanced.
  • I unfold into the swing, elbow leading the hand.  Low, smooth, and loose.  Weight forward, I feel pressure in my right foot on the outside of my shoe.  I am anchored in position there, connected to the boards of the floor.
  • The ball rolls off my hand like a whip, my left arm comes up and away, I feel my left foot drag and my left shoulder stretches into my follow through, right arm behind.  I feel a slight vibration from impact and hear the thumping sound of a well struck ball.
  • I see the ball travel a straight, crisp line towards the left corner.  I hear the crack of the ball compress against the wall and roll away.
  • My weight comes fully forward and my balance shifts as I take a single hop towards center court.

Consider the following tips, taken from the AASP website, in regard to the above exercise and when creating one of your own.

  • Practice makes perfect. Imagery is a skill, and, just like any skill that you perform in your sport, you will need to practice in order to be perfected.
  • Quality… not quantity. Because imagery is a mental skill, you will need to concentrate on creating and controlling your images, which can be tiring when you first get started. For this reason, it is best to begin your imagery training by imaging high quality images for short periods of time, and then gradually increasing the time you spend imaging.
  • Set the scene. Try to make your imagery as realistic as possible by re-creating important details of your sport setting (e.g., practice and competition venues) in your mind’s eye. By including details like the color of your opponent’s uniform or the sound of the spectators’ cheering, you will feel like you are really experiencing the performance that you are imaging.
  • Plan your imagery. Images of your sport can frequently pop into your head, but to really benefit from imagery, you should plan the content of your imagery to meet your current needs. Here are just some examples:
    • If you are struggling to perform a certain skill or strategy in game situations, you should try imaging yourself performing that skill or strategy perfectly and confidently in an upcoming game.
    • If you often let distractions get in the way, try imaging yourself staying relaxed and focused in the presence of those distractions.
    • If you have problems handling your nerves in competition, try to imagine yourself performing exactly the way you want to under those conditions that normally would make you nervous.


Dr. Dan Zimet is a Psychologist and Certified Sports Consultant (anticipated 2016). Dr. Zimet has been working as a Psychologist for more than 15 years in private practice, specializing in young adult and adolescent issues, marital counseling and sport psychology.

Drawn to handball because his father, uncle and grandfather played, Dr. Zimet has accrued an astounding 24 combined singles and doubles National Masters Titles in 1-Wall, 3-Wall and 4-Wall, while also serving as the Maryland Handball Commissioner from 2003-2013. He cites victories against Andy Schad in the 2012 3-Wall National Final and winning tournaments with partners Alan Frank, Andy Schad, Eli Zimet (father), and Adam Zimet (brother) as his most fulfilling moments in handball. Dr. Zimet has set his sights on a top four WPH SR48 ranking and winning a USHA National Masters Title in each of the USHA national events.

Dr. Zimet lives in Columbia, MD with his wife Danielle and son Fletcher