Visualization for Soccer



Visualization in soccer is like a motion picture in the mind, imagining a successful outcome in situations particular to the sport. Mental imagery, guided imagery, mental rehearsal, meditation or using the “mind’s eye” are other common terms for the process. No matter the name, visualization is an important tool that allows players to mentally create game circumstances and the results they want to induce in reality.

Visualization is a growing part of sports psychology, a proven technique like rehearsing a performance or viewing a video, and a key component of the mental preparation for the game.

“I always like to picture the game the night before: I’ll ask the kitman what kit we’re wearing, so I can visualize it,” said Wayne Rooney of his preparation process. “It’s something I’ve always done, from when I was a young boy. It helps to train your mind to situations that might happen the following day. I think about it as I’m lying in bed. What will I do if the ball gets crossed in the box this way? What movement will I have to make to get on the end of it? Just different things that might make you one percent sharper.”

In this “functional daydreaming” the more vivid the mental imagery, the better.  Accordingly, we recommend a multi-sensory approach.  Not just creating a picture, but utilizing all the senses to improve the experience: sound, smell, taste, nervousness, pressure; the feel of cutting in the grass and kicking the ball; contact being made by an opponent, and sensing the actions of others around you.  Moving one’s limbs, contracting the muscles, engaging in motions – even if ever so slightly – all help reinforce results.

For example, the coach has just appointed you the target player to head the ball at goal on a set corner-kick piece. You’ve run it in practice, now run it in your mind. The kicker signals the play to start. Everything goes as planned. Teammates start their distraction/influence runs. You hold your position near the far point of the penalty area.  The kicker kicks a perfect lofted ball, into the space cleared by your teammates, for you to run on to. You move to the ball and head it properly down to the goal line inside the opposite post. Goal!

Now consider the following and what you would do. The ball is too short, or too long, too close to the goal or too far away. The distraction/influence runs don’t work. You are marked man-to-man and your defender stays with you. A post-man is covering the goal where you want to head the ball. Defenders have intercepted the ball, but it’s now bouncing free.  How do you react to each of these circumstances?

Visualization is a skill. Just like an on-field performance, it should be practiced every day. Even as little as five-minutes is beneficial. Up to thirty-minutes is optimal. Like any practice, repetition is key.

After performing mental imagery, trying it out on the practice field reinforces the skills you’ve visualized. Proper visualization must be a positive experience. Players naturally remember things that didn’t go right, but instead of dwelling on the negative, visualization can correct errors and make it a positive.

In visualization, using correct skills, technique, and decision-making are absolutely critical. Everyone has heard the cliché, “practice makes perfect,” but that’s not true if a skill is practiced improperly. “Practice does not make perfect, correct practice makes perfect.” – John Harves  One MUST use imagery of a skill or other action being performed correctly. 

An informal study conducted by a former college coach, observing a top-ranked suburban high school team, found that only four out of 10 players performed the instep drive correctly while shooting. The majority of these players had gone through instruction in “travel/select” club programs. If the other six players used their existing technique in their visualization, they would be repeatedly reinforcing incorrect behavior.

We recommend the following process for the successful application of visualization to soccer:

1. Find the right place and time. Whatever works, free of outside distractions. Eyes may be open or closed, music on or off. It may be night time, just before bedtime or daytime just after waking. Similarly, before practices or games is an opportunity. Stand, sit, or lie down. Twitch or fully move muscles or not. Avoid interruptions.

2. Create a conducive atmosphere. Find the location and environment that is right for you; physically relax; mentally relax; warm up; always attain peak performance. One can do it almost anywhere.

3. Develop a consistent routine and a system. Concentration is very important. It’s normal for the mind to wander to other thoughts; condition the brain for successful outcomes; regular use of visualization enhances motivation and reduces stress.

4. Select and perform the desired skill or skills. Generate and repeat successful mental experiences; anticipate problems and solutions; develop the muscle memory for physical skills.

5. Vary the situations. “See” what you want; see what you need; engage in contingency planning; play out “what if…” scenarios.

6. Change the perspective. Visualize from what you would see; visualize how others would see you. As an individual, one perspective may be preferable, but you should always try both. Differ the points of view; swivel the head; keep the eyes constantly moving; analyze your own needs and apply visualization accordingly. Be realistic. Skills or situations may be varied from easy to hard, but if you are young, don’t dwell on something you haven’t been taught or can’t physically perform. Go from the little picture (such as seeing the foot strike the ball) to the big picture (such as seeing everyone else moving around).

7. If a visualization turns negative, simply stop and correct it.

8. Finish by feeling good about the experience. In addition to skill building, visualization will promote confidence, focus, composure, and clear thinking.

Visualization is another tool in the toolbox. Players don’t have to be an adult or a professional; anyone can do it. Children with vivid imaginations take to it quickly; others can be taught.

Visualization is not a panacea. It’s effective if utilized properly as part of a practice routine; it is not effective if it’s perceived as a grind or a waste of time. Enjoy it like EA FIFA soccer “in the mind.” Don’t give up after one or two times – like any new skill, it takes time to become proficient.

Soccer Coaching Tips:

  • Players can be introduced to visualization at a surprisingly young age. Without going into any of the terminology or conceptualization, coaches may ask a team of six-year-olds to sit down, close their eyes, and picture themselves dribbling and scoring a goal. Then ask the players to get up and do it.
  • Visualization for soccer is not the same as soccer vision.  Soccer vision is the literal ability of a player to see, comprehend, and properly respond to, as much as possible of what is happening on the field while playing.

(Coach William R. Iandolo contributed to this article.  Edited by Michael D. Ashley.)

© Copyright, John C. Harves