“The ground at Tranmere was empty. I didn’t care. I’d learned the trick of creating atmosphere in my head.” (Roy Keane)
“I was also trying to add imagination to my coaching, emphasising the need for players to have a picture in their minds, to visualise how they could have a creative impact on the shifting pattern of the game.” (Alex Ferguson)
In the simplest terms, visualization is creating or recreating images in your mind. It could be pictures you have from memories of actual life experiences, or you could completely make up the images. We spend so much time training our bodies for soccer, but it has been shown through research that players can make significant progress from training their minds to work for them too. Like the physical side it takes a lot practice though, to learn to fully control your thoughts and then add so much detail to them that they get as close as is possible to reality.
Going through movements in your head can be almost as useful as going through them during a real practice. The body can be trained to take certain technical actions automatically, or even to develop muscles without the exercise itself. In a 2001 study reported in the New Scientist, it was found that “ten volunteers, who took part in mental workouts five times a week, imagining lifting heavy weights with their arms, increased their bicep strength by 13.5% and maintained the increase for the months after the training stopped.”
How do I do it?
The first step is to find out what kind of visualizer you are. Imagine a free kick just outside the area, complete with a wall and a large crowd of spectators. The ball sails into the top corner as the goalkeeper lunges despairingly. Now think about where you were imagining it from: were you looking through the eyes of the player taking the kick, or were you seeing it from high up, like soccer on television? If you were looking through the eyes of the player, you visualize with an internal perspective (which can give you a better ability to work on the feeling part of visualization). If you imagined it from the tv camera view you are using an external perspective, which tends to be better for tactical visualization and review.
How do I make it better?
Training your visualization takes repeated daily practice at trying to improve the quality of the images you are creating. To make it as realistic as possible it needs to be more than just pictures though; you need to incorporate sounds, smells and feelings. How soft was the ground? Could you smell the wet grass? What were the parents screaming (presumably “shoot the ball” or “call it both ways, ref”)? The images should be in color, they should be like a three dimensional experience for you. Adding all of these factors can take a lot of time and practice as it can be difficult to keep everything in your memory as you concentrate.
How do I practice?
Set aside twenty minutes of your day somewhere comfortable and free from distractions – maybe a bedroom or empty office. Trying sitting down with your eyes closed. Some people will prefer to stand or lie down; others might do it with their eyes open. With practice you can find what works for you. Make sure there are no interruptions (cell phones, family members, television etc). Set yourself a goal for the session and a time limit (e.g. I am going to imagine taking penalty kicks for ten minutes).
Start with the most important factors to you and build the scene in your mind. Where is the game being played? Who are the players? What is the field like? What does the moment in the game mean? Then add in more detail (smells, sounds, actions). Next imagine performing the action that you are trying to practice. Try to add as much detail to your movement and feeling as you can then control the result. Rewind the moment and try it again. See how long you can stay in the relaxed but focused state of mind that is perfect for visualization.
Finally, try to run through the moment in real time. This will make it more realistic. Slow motion may be good on television but we want your mind to see things as it will have to in the game. Test you ability to imagine in real time but picturing walking from where you are now outside to the mailbox. Time how long it took when you imagined it, then time the real walk and see how close you were to it.
An activity to try
One theme to try in visualization is imagining the perfect soccer day possible – the perfect weather, temperature, field conditions, location, opponent, referee and so on. Build that picture up in your head, then imagine the very worst day (the opposite of what you had before). Finally, try to imagine the perfect day over the top of the worst one. If you can do it well enough, the next time you show up like Roy Keane did (in the quote at the top) when the conditions were poor, you can imagine they are perfect and help take control of your performance.