Wednesday, July 23, 2014


You've heard it a million times. The power of visualisation. What exactly does it mean, and why does it work?

Visualisation is simply the process of creating an image or movie scene in our head- daydreaming, if you will. Some people are better at this than others, but it seems as if this skill can be worked upon and developed. You can even teach this skill to a kid; Sit them down and ask them to imagine their favourite food (probably ice cream). Tell them to imagine their favourite flavour, the fact it is hot out, and the cool creamy texture on their tongue. Within seconds, you will see them licking their lips and mouth watering with a smile on their face. Do they want an Ice cream now? You bet!

The reason for this is an inextricable Link between mind and body. If you focus on a situation where you are normally confident (for me, it's the first tee at the golf club I grew up on) you will instantly feel a sense of confidence and put your body in a posture which signals that to others. Before we had language, we used postural cues to convey to others our thoughts and emotions. We are still attuned to these cues these days.

As an example, if you walk into a room with your head held high and chest out, shoulders back, it signifies confidence to the room. Now, you could simply fake these positions through being aware of them. Or, you could work on things which make you more confident. The former person has to be constantly aware of their posture to project the right things to the room. The latter person has this posture automatically.

Focus tool - inattentional blindness

Visualisation is a great focus tool. By visualising in great detail, we can improve our attention onto what we do want to achieve. This doesn't necessarily have to be done during the shot (I personally perform better with a zombie-like performance state during the shot itself), but pre-shot visualisation can really help.

Tiger woods has been known to say that he struggles to visualise correctly. I'm not sure I believe him, or think that his definition of visualisation may have been too strict or unrealistic. But, watch his eyes as he is preparing for this shot. What do you think he is doing here?

Visualising can also help to block out unwanted stimulus. Just as when you focus on a good book, you sometimes don't hear the clock ticking (until someone brings it to your attention), visualising the shot as you wish it to be can block out crowds, danger, unwanted swing thoughts, playing partners rattling the change in their pockets etc.

I wrote about this more in THIS ARTICLE

Neuronal activation

If you flash an image of a coke can to anyone, their brain will light up neurons associated with this. Usually an image of a red truck with the tune "holidays are coming " will rush through your head automatically. This is due to the conditioning your brain has experienced through all of the marketing and advertising.

The same is true of movement. If you visualise a certain outcome, your brain will be firing neurons associated with that movement pattern. This can also work in reverse; see the water in the left and you may say to yourself "I had better stay away from that". Now you are accessing neurons related to a slice shot, or push right.

For this reason,

  • the visuals you try to imagine
  • the words you use to yourself and 
  • the feels you subsequent try to create should all be as positive as you can. 

Now, this may not mean aggressively positive (as in "hit it to that pin tucked 3 feet from water"). We should still exercise a good STRATEGY, but you should be visualising what you want, now what you are avoiding.

Muscular activation. Skier study

A study was conducted with skiers where they sat in a chair, hooked up to EMG ( which measures muscular activation) and were asked to imagine going down a ski slope. The results of the EMG showed that, even though the skiers were sitting motionless, their muscles were firing in a way were similar to actually going down the slope - simply by visualising it.

Obviously, this links to the above point about neuronal activation. As movement stems from the brain, any visuals we use can activate both neurons and muscle fibers. This electrical activity in the muscles builds up as a potential. We have other mechanisms in our brain which convert this potential to movement or not, but needless to say, visualising the wrong or right thing can have a big effect on your performance.

This is evident in ideomotor effect (CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE), where an idea causes a motor response. Get a person to hold a long necklace like a pendulum. If you ask them to visualise the pendulum moving back and forth, it will start to do it ( try it!). This will happen even if the person holding the pendulum believes they are not moving it at all. The pendulum merely amplifies the small signals being sent to the arm by the brain.

Neuro plasticity long term belief systems and confidence rugby kicker visualising

It has been demonstrated that, when we think about something, our brain literally changes it's structure. This is called neuro plasticity. Our brain consists of a bunch of neurons (amongst other things) which are connected in millions of ways. When we activate neurons through thought or intention, we fire an electrical impulse. Do it enough times and the pathways of the signal get strings get and more efficient. Do it even more, and a substance called myelin wraps itself around those neurons, increasing the likelihood that this becomes a habit.

This is why learning and practice works. Done in the right way, practice benefits our ability to draw out the desired outcome. But this also works on a subconscious level too, and is strengthened by emotions. As an example, if every time you met a friend you smelled the Abercrombie and Fitch scent, you would eventually link the two. Now, any time you smelled that scent, you would think of them. If you happened to develop a romantic relationship with that person, that link would become stronger. Years later, long after the relationship was over, you smell that scent and immediately thoughts of them, and the emotions associated with them arise.

Whole belief systems and basically who you are as a person is a result of this process. A large part is genetic, but we know a lot of personality is a result of our environmental conditioning too.

Attaching it to a trigger squeeze grip

Imagine taking control of this mechanism and attaching visualisations, and the emotions associated with that, to something else. Imagine if every time we visualised our good shots and felt those good shot emotions, we squeezed our thumb and forefinger together. Eventually, with enough repetitions, the good shots would be attached to this finger squeeze, and just like a perfume reminds us of an old flame, we would instantly be flooded with confidence when we make this finger squeeze action in a pre shot routine.

A clockwork golf?

Long term

There is obviously no way of definitively proving this, but it is likely that the long term benefits of visualisation are huge. With what we can achieve in our brain through neuroplastic processes, and the subsequent effect this has on the rest of our body on a cellular level, it is very advantageous to understand this process and take control of it. Not just for golf, but for life.

If you can set your brain up to be more conditioned to see the right things, think the right things, interpret scenarios in a specific way and draw out certain emotions, you can really maximise your potential in lots of areas. It is even commonly accepted that we can produce certain genetic changes within ourselves (research the field of epigenetic). Although be realistic, you are not going to get Usain Bolt's sprinting genetics just by visualising it over and over ;)

If you are consistently visualising appropriate things, you are improving your brain's ability to seek out things which relate to it (CLCK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT THE RETICULAR ACTIVATING SYSTEM). You are changing your brain's attractor state patterns, re-wiring the brain (literally), conditioning your cells to certain emotions etc.

Can visualisation beat practice?

No. Well, no study has shown this yet. But a study showed that basketballers who visualised free throws improved EQUALLY AS MUCH as ones which physically practiced. This was compared to basketballers who did nothing and didn't improve at all. So, visualisation has the potential to improve you even when you are unable to practice. Imagine combining practice AND visualisation. At the very least, if you are unable to physically practice for whatever reason, doing a 10 minute visualisation session can still allow you to improve. No excuses for not getting to the range.

I have my own anecdotal evidence that visualising a certain move can help you achieve it technically. I have improved my own swing technique just by visualising myself from different angles in a desired position, and going through the motion at different speed in my minds eye. When I was younger, my swing path was about 10 degrees to the right. As hard as I tried, I could never get the club to move to the left through impact. Yet, through effective visualisation of impact, I am now able to easily achieve whatever swing path I desire. It's as if my visualisation opened up the pathway to change my technique.

Just by visualising what I wanted the club to do through this point in space
I was able to effectively change it.

Analysing faults

This brings us to an important conclusion, and one which I am adamant of making players and coaches more aware of. We are so quick to look at the effects (kinematics) such as what the club did to cause the hook. We know the face was closed to the path, but what caused that? Well, now we are entering an era where we can analyse the kinetics of what caused the kinematics. Maybe the rotor cuff fired hard, applied a torque to the club and closed the face down too much? But what caused that?

Not all faults have a physical cause.

Read it again. In fact, as all movement stems from the brain, you could say that almost all technical faults come from an incorrect mental process.

Imagine this scenario - player steps onto first hole on a new course. It is very similar to the thirteenth tee at their home course; their dreaded hole that they always miss left on. Their subconscious is firing the brain wildly, and they are visualising the ball go left, just like their home course. So they aim right to compensate.

How would this hole affect you mentally? How would it affect your
Trackman Numbers?

As they are over the ball, they feel the have overcompensated, but they have set up their body now - they have to commit. Then they remember they were blocking it on the range. Aiming right and a block pattern is not a good mix. As they make their swing, the fear of blocking it further right sets in and they make an unconscious adjustment during the downswing which closes the face. End result - they hit the ball exactly where they didn't want to. A double bluff.

This above scenario is certainly a common thing amongst players. But the majority of players go straight to fixing the swing mechanics. This is the equivalent of fixing your broken car by getting a Plumber to take a look at the sink. Wrong fault buddy.

Time to work on Dem mechanikz

Higher handicaps will usually have a similar situation, but may go something like this;

Player sets up and there is danger on the right. They have been slicing all day so they don't want to go in the danger. They stand over the ball and their instincts take over, and they make a massive swipe at the ball, swinging 20 degrees left through impact (because the believe direction is caused by swinging the club through impact one way or another - see my article BALL FLIGHT LAWS for a better understanding). As a result of swinging 20 degrees left, the ball carves right into the danger they wanted to miss. This is still a mental fault, a misunderstanding of a slice cause, combined with poor strategy and poor visualisation.

So, question yourself. Question your players (if you are a coach). Don't just take it for face value that you sliced it because your path was left. What mental processes contributed to that? At my level, I would say 95% of my faults are mental to some extent. Whether that is overdoing a technical fix, or simple fear of a poor shot. I try to make my players as aware of this as possible. We have been so conditioned to automatically jump to fixing the symptoms of a shot (the club kinematics or body movement) that we almost completely ignore the engine which is driving them.

The mind is the engine

Take home notes

Visualisation is important. It can be a tool for

  • changing our attention
  • blocking out distractions 
  • improving our ability to create a desired movement (through muscular activation and neuronal excitement)
  • to change our perceptions of the world and what information gets through to our conscious mind (reticular activating system), along with genetic changes. 
  • And many faults can be attributed to processes associated with this.

One last example

I once worked with a very good player who was struggling with driving the ball. They were down to hitting 25% of fairways. I looked on the range at their swing. We analysed it with video, looked at the numbers. Yes, they could have been improved, but she was hitting 80% fairways on the range, even with RANDOM PRACTICE.

I took a different approach. Rather than change her swing (I knew she had it in her) I just needed to draw that technique out on the course. Even consciously, she said she was visualising positively and felt confident. But I knew there had to be something going on subconsciously.

I knew it wasn't a case of creating a new swing, but unlocking
what was already there

We spent one day going around the course and hitting a drive on each hole until she nailed one, before buggying to the next hole. Her task was to then go home and visualise each of those shots she nailed, imagining the routine, the feeling of confidence before the shot, the feeling of elation after the shot. As she did this, she held her driver in her hand and squeezed the grip.

After one week she was hitting 50% fairways. After 2 weeks she was up to 70% success. We filmed the swing - no change.

Now, obviously there is an element of snowball effect (player starts to hit a few more fairways, gathers confidence which has a further effect) and Placebo effect. But, those are mental elements too. If visualisation improves those, it is just another reason to do it.

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  1. Dear Adam, I am very appreciative and benefit from everything you write. Thank you for your commitment to look for , discover and publish what appears to me to be 'golf truth'. I too have on a similar mission and have been seeking this lofty but I believe VERY necessary goal by always asking WHY ? With regard to the article above, Billy McKinney recently lent me "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own" from which I have adopted the approach of 'brain maps', their modification and replacement AS necessary, to start to answer WHY improvement seems to follow the purposeful retention and understanding of thr last GOOD shot. Hope to communicate more in the future.

  2. Thanks Art. I am sure we will talk more.


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