“I visualized all the moves the night before. It's about 400 Moves In total. You have to keep all of that in your mind, add endless footholds. It was no surprise that I didn't sleep that well that night. I was nervous and certainly felt some pressure.” - Babsi Zangerl


The use of visualization or imagery practice in sport and performance has been long regarded as one of those tools that seems like magic. For a long time most of the research centered around using imagery practices to improve skill sets and to help performance anxieties—say shooting a basketball or swinging a golf club. There are some studies that show a scattering of evidence pointing to the fact that imagery can improve strength in single joint movements; like a biceps curl. 

Within the last few years there have been a few research papers published regarding the notion that imagery can also improve strength and power metrics in compound, total body movements. Dello (et al. 2021) conducted a study on professional basketball players during a period of 6 weeks to see what effects are possible using detailed imagery. They tested all of the participants' 1RM in the bench press and the back squat, as well as their vertical jump heights and their seated medicine ball throw distances. The participants were then placed in 3 randomized groups. Group 1 was to perform an imagery practice, 3 times a week, that consisted of rehearsing a strength session using 85% of their 1RM on both of those lifts; group 2 was to perform imagery practice, 3 times a week, that consisted of rehearsing a power session using their optimum power loads for these two exercises; and group 3 was to not do any mental training at all. All 3 of these groups participated in a high intensity run twice a week. After 6 weeks of only engaging in their respective groups' tasks, the researchers retested all the participants on the initial movements.

Who might you guess improved? 

Group 1 and 2, who mentally rehearsed at 85% of their 1RM, and a training session with optimum power loads respectively, improved their 1RM numbers, vertical jump heights, and seated medicine ball throw distances anywhere from 2-9%. Those in group 1, who focused more on strength, improved more on their strength metrics, and those in group 2, who focused more on power output, improved more on their power output metrics. Finally, group 3 declined in their strength and power numbers altogether

This is a big breakthrough in understanding the effectiveness of mental imagery, but the most important aspect of this imagery practice is how they conducted their visualizations. It is not enough to simply think about lifting weights off the ground. You have to actually be there, in the gym, putting forth the same effort that you would during an actual training session, with the best form and speed possible. Sports psychologists would refer to this as the PETTLEP Model for Motor Imagery. Holmes and Collins (2001) developed this method as a guideline for sports psychologists and professionals to develop imagery practices that are specific to the individual, their needs, and their goals. This acronym stands for Physical, Environment, Task, Timing, Learning, Emotion, and Perspective. 

This model puts forth the idea that to gain all you can from a visualization practice, the visualization itself needs to be done with the appropriate movements, say the exact beta that makes up your goal route and the tactile sensations of the holds and the associated fatigue (physical). The visualization needs the proper visual priming cues, maybe a photograph of the route or a video of yourself or someone else on the route (environment). The visualization needs the proper pacing of the route; move to move and the potential resting and clipping positions on the route (timing). The visualization should be adjusted to the individual's level of performance (learning). The visualization should include what thoughts and feelings the athlete anticipates to go through while in send mode, attaching these thoughts and feelings to the fatigue or pressure they might be feeling (emotion). Lastly, the visualization should be from the lens that the athlete choses, either from their eyes (first person) or the eyes of an onlooker (third-person) (perspective). The important thing here is that these aspects make up a great visualization, but you don’t need all of them to achieve the vividness we are looking for.

How does someone bring this all together to support their training and performance?

Start with your goal route or boulder. Learning the beta is the bare minimum. I would advocate that you learn the intimacy of the route. The way you feel as you tie in for the route, the texture of each hold, the tension between each position, the speed of movement between each section, the pressure on your toes, the feeling of the pump and fatigue in your body as you advance through the route, the emotions that run through you as you advance and the nervous energy that comes with the hopes of sending, the clipping and resting positions, the length of the rests, the total time on the route or boulder from start to finish, and the atmosphere that you typically climb in.

Not sure where to begin?

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An easy way to consolidate all of this information is to take high quality video of yourself over various burns. This will allow you to revisit all of the above information and bring you back into the performance environment rapidly. From here, your goal should be to engage with a visualization practice at a minimum of 3 times a week for the duration of your time working toward the goal, and during your time performing. 

It is important to know that there is another important time to engage with your visualization practice, before attempting the goal route. There is a lot of evidence that supports the act of these two practices together. Visualization that occurs repeatedly over time enhances our brain - body connection, in relation to the goal route, in a more long lasting way. Additionally, engaging with the same visualization practice before the actual attempt has immediate positive effects relating to coordination, timing, and coping with performance anxiety. 

In the prescriptions above, we are looking at practicing visualization within an environment that you would be comfortable in. This is great for getting in a few repetitions of visualization each day. That might be your living room or a spare bedroom, where no one will bother you. The inherent challenge there is that your performance environment might not always be silent or calm. You might be a competition climber, in which case you have to be able to perform in a chaotic environment. You need to be calm within the storm.

Pairing your visualization practice with climbing training can be beneficial for creating a more realistic performance environment. Finish your bout of climbing, come down, take your shoes off, get a drink of water if needed, and then sit or stand, whatever you prefer and dive into the visualization process. The reason you might consider pairing these two practices together is because you have the added advantage of tactile sensations from having just climbed. Your heart rate is likely elevated, your body temp is likely elevated, your feet might be uncomfortable from wearing your climbing shoes. You might have a good burn in your forearms. All of these physiological factors can produce a deeper visualization and consequently enhance your body and mind’s familiarity and comfort with it. 

The main point to reiterate is that engaging in a visualization practice will not only improve your skill acquisition but will also improve your strength, power, timing, and confidence with the goals that you are tackling. Not only do you need to visualize your goal routes, but you need to make those visualizations as real as possible. They need to have close to the same timing, intensity, sensations, emotions, and movement style that the goal has. 

You should aim to acquire as much footage as you can to help remind you of the demands of the route, and also to help get you into the space and time of the performance environment. Remember that it is essential to do this a few times a week and before your actual performance attempts, and for an added effect, coupling your visualizations within your training sessions will help to get you deeper into the performance mindset. 



Dello Iacono A, Ashcroft K, Zubac D. Ain't Just Imagination! Effects of Motor Imagery Training on Strength and Power Performance of Athletes during Detraining. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2021 Nov 1;53(11):2324-2332. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002706. PMID: 34033625.

Holmes, P.S., & Collins, D.J. (2001). The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: A functional equivalence model for sport psychologists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(1), 20-83.



Alex is a high-level rock climber that originally moved to Lander to train at Elemental as part of the Climb Strong Program. He has been climbing for ten years and is well versed in anything from big wall free climbs to hard boulder problems and competition climbing. He has lived in Lander since 2016 and has worked and trained with Climb Strong since day one. In seeing the success of his own climbing Alex has since taken a role in passing on this valuable knowledge to others eager to push their own limits. Alex is available for training consultations and for long-term climbing coaching.



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