Using Visualization to Improve Learning and Performance

posted on: September 30, 2020
author: Brian Lomax

Visualization (also known as imagery) is an area of study in sport psychology that has received a great deal of attention over the last few decades. It is often discussed from the perspective of players and how they can use it for mental rehearsal and preparation. Novak Djokovic is a good example of a player who uses visualization in this manner. However, since visualization can also improve learning and retention, we should address this topic from the perspective of coaches. Visualization is a technique that coaches can use to help players learn and retain skills more effectively.


Numerous research studies have demonstrated the positive effects of visualization on performance and learning. In fact, athletes who combine visualization with physical practice consistently outperform athletes who engage in physical practice only. The same results are true for learning and retention. But as coaches and teachers, how can we incorporate visualization into the learning process? The PETTLEP model of imagery can guide us.

PETTLEP is an acronym that stands for the following:

P – Physical (wearing sport specific clothes, holding the racquet/equipment, etc.)
E – Environment (on the tennis court or at a tournament site)
T – Task (visualization should be focused on a specific task and should include feeling the movements; task should be based on learner’s capabilities)
T – Timing (the visualization should occur in real-time; it should not necessarily be sped up or slowed down)
L – Learning (the content of the visualization will change as the student progresses)
E – Emotion (the player should experience the emotions required to be successful in order to achieve the task)
P – Perspective (experiencing the visualization from an internal or external perspective; both have their uses)

Notice that this model is quite different than traditional forms of visualization that you may be familiar with. For instance, it does not suggest getting into a relaxed state, assuming a comfortable position, or being in a quiet room. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This is good news for tennis teaching professionals and coaches. The tennis court is the perfect place for your students to visualize skills.

Visualization and the Serve

Practicing the serve is a great opportunity to include visualization into a student’s learning process. Prior to each serve, ask the student to stand on the baseline and visualize the path and the trajectory of the ball over the net (through an imaginary or actual hoop), and subsequently to the target in the service box. The student can then visualize hitting the serve along that same path. During this process, feel free to engage with the player about what they are seeing. Use the seven item PETTLEP checklist as a means of asking questions. Not everyone has well-developed visualization skills, so learning to visualize well may take some practice before they can form clear images.

After the student has visualized the serve, ask them to hit a serve. If the serve is a fault, the student should visualize the correction to the path, and visualize hitting the serve along the new path. If the serve is successful, the student will repeat the previous visualization of the path and of the serve. This process can be followed for every serve attempt. Research has shown that this combination of visualization and physical practice of the serve can result in higher accuracy at the same velocity.

External Focus

In this scenario, the entire focus of the visualization was external to the player. That was on purpose. Having an external focus has been shown to be beneficial for tasks that include accuracy. If you are working with a player on the coordination tasks of the serve, an internal focus and perspective would be more appropriate. In that case, you could use video as a model of the serve that the player could then visualize/image themselves doing prior to hitting the serve.

In conclusion, visualization is a technique that goes beyond mental preparation for players. It is a valuable tool in the teaching of tennis (and all sports). If you teach your players to visualize, you’ll notice a positive impact on their performance.



Afrouzeh, M., Sohrabi, M., Torbati, H. R. T., Gorgin, F., & Mallett, C. (2013). Effect of PETTLEP imagery training on learning of new skills in novice volleyball players. Life Sciences Journal, 10(1), 231-238.

Guillot, A., Desliens, S., Rouyer, C., & Rogowski, I. (2013). Motor imagery and tennis serve performance: The external focus efficacy. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 12(2), 332-338.

Holmes, P., & Collins, D. (2001). The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: A functional equivalence model for sport psychologists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13, 60-83.

Zhang Li-Wei, Ma Qi-Wei, Orlick, T., & Zitzelsberger, L. (1992). The effect of mental-imagery training on performance enhancement with 7-10-year-old children.
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norouzi, e., Hossini, R. N. S., Afroozeh, M. S., Vaezmosavi, M., Gerber, M., Puehe, U., & Brand, S. (2019). Examining the effectiveness of a PETTLEP imagery intervention on the football skill performance of novice athletes. Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, 1-10. DOI: 10.1515/jirspa-2018-0010

Wakefield, C., Smith, D., Moran, A. P., & Holmes, P. (2012). Functional equivalence or behavioural matching? A critical reflection on 15 years of research using the PETTLEP model of motor imagery. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6(1), 105-121. doi:10.1080/1750984X.2012.724437

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About the Author

Brian Lomax founded PerformanceXtra™ in 2009 with a mission of helping athletes achieve their goals and their top performances more consistently through a progression of mental skills that enables them to focus on what is truly important.

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