Playing football in a London park

Psychology in sport

How you think can affect performance

People often exercise with some end in view, and the goal you pursue can affect how you perform.

Sports psychologists recognise different types of goals. They may be positive, where you look for mastery of a particular skill so you can enjoy the achievement. Negative goals, by contrast, involve avoiding being seen to fail or act incompetently.

This can affect performance: negative goals are less likely to get a good result, so the football striker who dwells on how terrible it would feel to miss a penalty may be thwarted by the goalkeeper more often.


The use of visualisation pre-performance has interested many different psychologists. Athletes like Wayne Rooney, Jonny Wilkinson, Andy Murray and Pippa Funnell have revealed their pre-performance routines, where they imagine the perfect goal or result from start to finish. Dancers are also known for visualising their entire routines and tricky moves before shows, and some studies suggest that noticeable improvements can follow such mental preparation.

However, the technique works differently in different individuals, and at this moment in time, evidence of the benefits of visualisation is mostly anecdotal. Nevertheless, sports psychologists – such as Mark Bawden, who we interviewed for this issue – do believe it’s a useful tool in helping sportsmen and women improve their performance. 

Lead image:

Playing football in a London park.

Wellcome Library, London CC BY NC ND


Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Exercise, Energy and Movement’ in January 2012 and reviewed and updated in August 2016.

Physiology, Psychology, Health, infection and disease
Exercise, Energy and Movement
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development