Visualization: The power of the movie theater in your mind

Updated: Jan 24, 2019


You don't need to touch a basketball to improve your game. Simply by using your mind to practice, you can get tangible results. Visualization is the psychological practice of rehearsing and imagining yourself playing successfully as if it were a movie.

The Zone

Have you ever witnessed a game where someone was “in the zone”? Maybe you've had a similar experience in a game where you were clicking on all cylinders.

Were you thinking about how to shoot? Were you remembering to bend your knees, get your elbow at a 90 degree angle under the ball, keep your fingers spread out, and hold your follow through?

Probably not.

When you ask someone who's experienced being in the zone what they were thinking about, the answer is usually “nothing” or “I wasn't thinking”. They are often described as “playing out of their mind” or being “unconscious”.

Evidently, some part of the mind is not active. Why? Someone in the zone is said to be “feeling it” not thinking it or remembering instructions- because images are more powerful than words and showing is better than telling. Their mind is focused on the mental image of the desired outcome.

It's the art of relaxed concentration through visualization.

Free Throw Experiment

In the 1950’s at the University of Chicago, Dr. Biasiotto conducted a study on how effective visualization could be in enhancing performance- specifically for basketball players.

The players were split into 3 groups.

Over the course of a month, the first group was told to spend an hour a day practicing free throws. The second group was told to just visualize themselves making free throws every day. The third group was told to do nothing.

The third group saw no improvements. However, the second group shot 23% better, and the first group shot 24% better.

The second group improved their free throw shooting percentage without touching a basketball.

They were only 1% below those who worked on it every day for an hour.

Now imagine how much improvement would take place if a player used visualization in addition to diligent practice.

Why visualization works

Think of your mind as a movie theater. This movie theater is no average theater. You have complete control over what you watch. But something special happens when you go to this theater and watch a movie. Your subconscious brain is activated.

“One of the most powerful effects of good visualization is that it programs the subconscious brain. You want to think of the subconscious brain as a self-guiding missile. When a self-guiding missile is fired, it starts moving towards its programmed target. As it moves towards its target it assesses its coordinates in relation to the target, and makes mini adjustments to correct its path. Our subconscious brain works in the same way. It identifies our coordinates and naturally moves us towards our target.” (

This is how players are able to get into that zone where they don’t have to think. They have already played the movie of the outcome they want, and their subconscious does the rest of the work for them. Subconsciously, that movie is still playing and the body knows how to move to make it happen. The mind and the body are in sync. The player can simply relax while being concentrated, without having to overthink. There is a heightened awareness, but the conscious thoughts are quiet.

Typically when players get into this flow, they have no idea how it happened. In fact, the hot streak normally ends when the player starts thinking about how they are doing it. So when an opponent is ‘in the zone’, just ask them what they are doing differently. If they take the bait, they’ll start thinking about it, telling you how they’re having perfect hand placement when they catch the ball, bending their knees low enough, elevating to the right height, and holding their follow through strong. Almost every time, the streak will end. The fluidity gets interrupted by unnecessary over-instructing, when all that player needed was the visual.

Your brain actually has a hard time differentiating between what you visualized and what actually happened. The part of your brain that is stimulated when you lift your right hand is the same part of the brain stimulated when you imagine lifting your right hand. Mental action and real action share space in your brain. This is why visualization may result in a sudden boost of confidence because your brain actually thinks that you performed as successfully as you imagined.

“Brain studies now reveal that thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions. Mental imagery impacts many cognitive processes in the brain: motor control, attention, perception, planning, and memory. So the brain is getting trained for actual performance during visualization. It’s been found that mental practices can enhance motivation, increase confidence and self-efficacy, improve motor performance, prime your brain for success, and increase states of flow – all relevant to achieving your best life!” (

This is not limited to basketball. You can use this for weightlifting and conditioning as well. Visualize yourself getting a new PR on your bench press. Visualize yourself running sprints. Visualize yourself pushing through tough drills.

Take full advantage of the power of the movie theater in your mind.

Action steps