Neil Gresham's Guide to Visualisation

Article by Neil Gresham
Friday 22nd January 2010

Climbers are great daydreamers. How many times have you found your thoughts drifting off to that frustrating route or boulder problem which has been eluding you for weeks, when you should be concentrating on the work in front of you? These images of climbing are often powerful and rich with colour and emotion, and they form critical links with our future sporting performance. The ability to imagine can enhance the ability to do: when applied to climbing, this principle can have huge benefits. Route sequences can be learned more quickly, technique refined and bad habits corrected. Speed, skill and agility can be enhanced, and a greater consistency of performance can be attained.

Don't think for one minute that by simply daydreaming about your latest project you will be able to complete it. The step from the sort of subconscious, random, haphazard visual thinking which we all practice, to truly valuable, deliberate 'mental imaging' is rather like the step from your first experience of climbing to your first 8a redpoint. In other words, visualisation needs to be understood, practised and channelled before its benefits become tangible. This article will provide you with some practical guidelines for doing just that.

Robin Sutton and Al Cassidy visualising the moves of the men's final route at the 2008 BLCC at Blackpool Towers. Photo copyright David Pickford /

Visualisation Explained

Visualisation is the skill of imagining yourself performing a specific task or activity whilst continuously guiding yourself using a particular theme towards a specific goal. This can be performed either internally or externally. For example you may imagine how it actually looks and feels for you to be climbing or, alternatively you may choose to come out of yourself and view proceedings in the third person, as if watching yourself on a TV screen. Most athletes and coaches favour internal visualisation seeing as the majority of the worthwhile benefits from visualisation practices are understood to be derived from their kinaesthetic (or 'feeling') component. That is to say that the sensation of feeling yourself climb is thought to be more valuable than that of seeing yourself (Mahoney & Avener, 1977; Rotella et al 1990). However, external imagery can occasionally be useful for helping to detect a fault by providing you with a more subjective picture of your climbing.

Imagery and Autogenic Training

The more powerful your imagination, the more multi-dimensional and vivid your visualised images will be and, in turn, the greater the affect they will have on your performance. This fact is so well understood and accepted in the World of sport that athletes are often set abstract perceptory tasks by their coaches simply to improve their ability to imagine. These are known as autogenic training exercises. Such practices may not be of direct  benefit to sporting performance, but they will improve your ability to visualise tasks which are specific to your sport. For example, before Tessa Sanderson was allowed to visualise her javelin throwing action, the British Olympic team coach, Wilf Paish made her spend hours imagining the sight, feel, smell and colour of peeling an orange. It's unlikely that climbers would ever be disciplined enough to take things to this level, which goes to show just how far behind we really are. Perhaps drinking a post-redpoint pint of beer would be more relevant image!  

How It Works

There are two commonly regarded theories as to how visualisation practices actually lead to increases in physical performance or improved skill acquisition. The psychoneuromuscular hypothesis predicts that relevant muscles are actually excitated by electromyrographic activity during visualisation sessions thus providing kinaesthetic feedback from which to make skill adjustments. The symbolic learning hypothesis states more simply that visualisation practices merely provide a conceptual framework for improved cognitive preparation and planning. To date it is still not clearly understood which of these theories is more significant, eventhough research concludes decisively that visualisation definitely works, regardless of causal factors.

The Shortcut To Better Technique

The reason for practising any skill or technique in sport is to teach the brain how to organise the movement of the body more precisely. When we make a particular move in climbing, we are running specific signals to our muscles from the brain and back and, each time we perform this move, the specific neural pathways are 'cleared' and widened' so that the connections can be made more quickly and efficiently. Think of the process of learning climbing technique as if it were the process of navigating across a complex city centre. It is inevitable that you will take wrong turnings and lose your way before you finally learn to take the optimum route as if on 'auto pilot' without the need for conscious thought. Visualisation practices can shortcut the process of learning climbing technique and enhance the practice of climbing skills.

James McHaffie concentrating hard on visualising the very long (100 move+) and complex sequence of the ninth pitch (8b+) of 'Tough Enough' on Karimbony, Tsaranoro, Madagascar - one of the world's hardest big-wall free climbs. The baguette is an optional extra. Photo copyright David Pickford /


Two Types of Visualisation

Visualisation practices fall into two distinct categories: problem solving and mental rehearsal. Problem solving is the use of visualisation to assist concentration and control anxiety. These are exercises such as black box technique which were described in the last two articles. Mental rehearsal is the main concern of this article as this is the process of imagining yourself performing a specific activity or skill. There are five distinct types of mental rehearsal: instant preplay, during performance, 'As if' ,instant replay, and performance review (Syer & Connolly, 1987) Before learning these specific methods it is worth noting a few general guidelines which apply to all mental rehearsal techniques.


General Guidelines for Mental Rehearsal Practice

Session duration and structure

Always start your practice sessions with a relaxation period so as to focus your mind. During visualisation practice sessions, your body and mind will be communicating at a subtle level which is easily overridden by conflicting information. Stay seated upright and be alert. Always start off with short sessions (3-6 minutes) and aim to build up to longer sessions (20-30 minutes) as your concentration improves. Initially it is well worth interspersing brief stints of mental rehearsal with intermittent relaxation exercises. Refer to concentration techniques (click here to read the full article on concentration & relaxation) if you find you are struggling to stay focused for the duration of even the shortest sessions.

Aim for maximum authenticity

Use the present tense and aim to use all your senses in order to make your imagery as authentic and vivid as possible. Aim to concentrate on every last detail from the sound of clinking karabiners to the feel of your toes inside your rock shoes. Most people will inevitably find it easier to use some senses than others. For example, it may be easier to see the rock and surrounding scenery whilst you are climbing than to feel it's texture, the tension in your muscles or the sensation of balance. You should aim to start your visualisation sessions by focusing predominantly on your stronger senses and then developing your 'weaker' senses as you progress. Research shows that it is even worthwhile bringing the taste of sweat on your lips and the smell of  chalk into your imagery in order to maximise its authenticity. You should also incorporate emotional factors, summoning aggression or calming yourself down where appropriate. It is usually best to practice in a quiet, relaxed environment, although you should aim to incorporate stress or distraction factors into your imagery where relevant.

PlanetFear editor Dave Pickford engaged in the extended crux sequence his 2009 new route, 'Point Blank' (E8 6c) in Pembroke's Stennis Ford. Effective visualisation can be of tremendous benefit on long, sustained climbs. Photo: copyright James Marshall

Remember also to concentrate on climbing at the correct speed and to attempt to slow yourself down or speed yourself up as your goals dictate. This can be a particularly useful device for redpoint or competition climbers, or possibly for climbers interested in hard headpointing. If you are learning the sequence for a new redpoint project or a new type of move, you may wish to perform it a few times in slow motion in order to analyse it's component form and making any relevant changes before finally replaying the 'finished version' it at the correct speed.

Goal Setting

Always set specific goals which are realistically obtainable. It may be fun to imagine yourself burning off Steve McClure or soloing past Johnny Dawes whilst he screams for a toprope, but ideal model visualisation, as it is known, has been proven to be of limited value. You must imagine yourself performing at your own highest level, perhaps displaying a combination of your own best characteristics and those of a far better climber, without actually attempting to be as good as or better than that climber.

Your goals in mental rehearsal should complement your actual climbing goals; for example: to power through a crux section of a project with absolute efficiency, to recover fully on a particular shake-out, to place an awkward wire with ease and without panicking, to commit to a runout with absolute confidence and without pausing to doubt yourself for a second, and so on. If your goals are this specific, you'll be able to learn from them by replaying them after the actual performance is over to see which ones you achieved and which still require further effort. Above all, you must have absolute conviction in your ability to achieve the goals which you are visualising. If the slightest doubt creeps in to the visualisation process, it will destroy the entire purpose of its practice.

Variety and Consistent Practice

Ideally, an athlete should practice visualisation regularly for short periods over a long time to obtain the best results. It is also preferable to use the same venue at similar times of the day. Vary the format of your sessions as soon as you start to stagnate or feel you're revisiting old ground, but don't chop-and-change on a random basis. See each particular visualisation routine through to it's logical conclusion. Remember above all else to enjoy it. If you can't climb, apart from going to the pub, visualising yourself climbing should be the next best thing!


To find out more about Neil Gresham's bespoke performance coaching services and coaching holidays, visit

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