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Imagine that! The power of visualisation and the Winter Olympics

“The Greatest Show on Ice” according to the Radio Times, the Winter Olympics begin next week against a background of controversy in the international sporting world. Not to mention the world of politics as well. But the focus will be on athletic excellence and the spectacle of men and women competing with each other at their peak of fitness.


Hundreds of hours of broadcasting dedicated to the competitive sports featured will be watched by fans all over the UK and beyond. And some of them will be watching more closely than others.

As millions of viewers settle down in front of the TV with a cup of tea, others will set their recorders and get out their notebooks to watch in a very different way. The competitors themselves, their coaches, support teams, teachers and students of sports will all be watching – and watching, over and over and again.

Clearly, if you are studying and training to be a sports professional, you want to learn from the best.  So watching Olympic athletes compete is an excellent way to learn from their techniques and strategies. But there is also another reason to watch video footage, and that is its role in supporting visualisation.

All athletes and sportsmen and women know about visualisation and most use it, whether they be skiers and skaters – or golfers and footballers.  Coaches and trainers are usually familiar with the use of guided imagery and adept in helping their athletes visualise themselves winning or performing at an outstanding level of excellence.

But to do this they need to be able to see themselves from the outside, as it were. One proponent of the use of video for sports visualisation is Dr Jim Taylor, a former member of the US ski team who now teaches at the University of San Francisco. In a HuffPost blog in December entitled ‘Watching Video is Great Mental Training for Athletes’,  he wrote: “Video enables you to more clearly understand and see what you need to work on and you can learn a great deal by seeing great performances in your sport demonstrated by your favorite Olympians or professionals. Video is also a form of mental imagery that can help you generate the image and feeling of performing your best.”

The key to using video for sports visualisation, he explains, is not to use it analytically or focus on mistakes but to focus on “the image and feeling of great play”.

Sports psychologists have long known the benefits of guided imagery and visualisation and there is a considerable body of research demonstrating that it works. So why is it not used more in other curriculum areas or in schools? Educational research suggests that the ability to visualise helps children in reading, learning new words and terminology and grasping abstract concepts.

Yet we also know that there is a small but significant number of people who are unable to create or recall mental images at will.  For these people, visualisation is impossible.  Cognitive neurologist Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter is studying this condition as part of a multi-disciplinary research project  entitled  ‘The Eye’s Mind:Visual Imagination, Neuroscience and the Humanities’. The team coined the word ‘aphantasia’ to describe this inability to visualise and the project has a Facebook page .

Visualisation is beginning to be better-understood as a methodology for teaching and learning and the Open University has a free course in using it for maths teaching here:

The BBC Winter Olympics webpage  includes a full schedule of events.