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Preparing for the Unexpected: How Imagery Can Help

Nicole Westlund, PhD Candidate
Western University, London, Ontario, Canada
Mental Coach, Eclipse Performance

One of the most important things an athlete can be is mentally tough. What does this mean exactly? There are many different viewpoints on what mental toughness is. In my opinion, I see mental toughness as remaining calm and poised in the face of adversity and persevering through it.

When competition starts, all bets are off and anything (and I mean anything!) can happen. Imagery is a great way to plan for any hypothetical situations and practice how you would deal with them in order to continue to perform at your best and not let a ‘hiccup’ cost you the game. You can just sit down, close your eyes and go through as many hypothetical situations as you can think of – keeping them realistic to your sport, of course! I have worked with an athlete who uses imagery to help plan for what she would do if she forgot her gear at home, forgot her good luck charm, slept through her alarm, etc. As you can tell, planning for the unexpected in advance, makes it that much less stressful if you happen to come across that situation on competition day. If something unexpected were to happen, you already know how you are going to deal with it.


My favourite example of a famous athlete using imagery in this way is Michael Phelps. At the 2008 Summer Olympics when Phelps was on his way to making Olympic history, a goggle malfunction almost cost him one of his eight gold medals1. During the 200m butterfly finals, Phelps’ goggles began to fill up with water shortly after starting the race, leaving him essentially blind in the pool. Rather than panicking, Phelps referred to his years of training and preparation. Because he had visualized how he would swim this race so many times before, Phelps knew exactly how many strokes he needed to take before having to turn at the wall. Not only did Phelps win the gold medal, he broke the world record.

When it comes to sports, especially competitive sports, it is so hard to predict what is going to happen. Using Michael’s experience as an example, athletes can gain a competitive advantage by always staying one step ahead – preparing for the unexpected before it even happens.


1 White, D. (2012, Jul 15). London 2012 Olympics: Michael Phelps sets mind’s eye on triumphant role in final part of Lord of the Rings trilogy. Retrieved from:

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