vertical jump training

Train the Brain for Vertical Gain - The Power of Visualization

Written by Jack Woodrup for

The power of using mental training and visualization to perform at higher physical levels is something that elite level athletes consider to be an integral part of their routine. Indeed, if you have ever watched just about any event at an Olympic Games you will see athletes using visualization all the time.

The Olympic lifters in their 'psyche ups' all do some sort of mental preparation before they lift. Gymnasts do it, track and field athletes do it, swimmers do it, in fact you would probably be hard pressed to find a top level athlete who doesn't use mental training. Why, because it works. So how do you apply these techniques to vertical jump training? Read on to find out.

Your First Dunk Is Always The Hardest

Overcoming self imposed mental limits is one of the hardest things to accomplish as an athlete. If you don't believe you can do something, than you never will. Want an extreme example of how a broken mental barrier can improve performance substantially.

In 1943 the world record for the 1 mile race was 4 min and 2 seconds. By 1954, 11 years later, Roger Bannister had shaved a further 2 seconds of 1943 mark and finally broke the 4 minute barrier. Just six weeks later John Landy took a further 2 seconds off Bannisters time. So what happened in 1954 that suddenly had these runners reducing records in mere weeks compared to the 11 years it had previously taken? Did they all start training with amazing new methods? No. Did they develop breakthrough shoe technology? No. All that happened was that a mental barrier had been broken.

Previous to Bannister running under 4 minutes, people said it was impossible. And because it was impossible very few athletes believed they could do it. Once it was broken however, people no longer had belief issues as now, they KNEW it could be done. The act of beating the 4 minute barrier reset everyones expectations.

It is for this reason that an athlete trying to slam dunk a basketball will find that very first dunk the hardest. Before they have done it they will always have some doubt in their mind. Once they have that one dunk under their belt they will find they can do it regularly. In fact most people we know who have recently thrown down their first dunk, now upon reflection, can't remember what was so hard in the first place.

Seeing is Believing and Why Spud Webb is the Greatest Dunker of All Time

It is the mental hurdle of self doubt that makes Spud Webb such an amazing athlete. At 5'7 he won the NBA Slam Dunk competition beating the much reigning champ and much taller Dominique "the Human Highlight Film" Wilkins(6'8 with a 40+ inch vertical). Before him people just didn't think short guys could dunk. In many ways he is the Roger Bannister of jumping.

He is also an ideal person to use as a role model for your visualization. You see, one of the best ways you can use mental training and visualization is by watching other people do what you want to do and then substituting a mental image of yourself into the picture.

For shorter athletes this might mean getting on YouTube and watching Spud Webb, Kadour Ziani and Nate Robinson videos. Those guys really show you what can be achieved. For taller athletes obviously you might relate better to Vince Carter, LeBron James or Air Jordan.

Whoever you choose to mimic in your mind, the simple act of visualizing yourself exploding into the air will start to reprogram your expectations. The more you imagine yourself doing something the more your brain will start to believe it is possible. On a physical level you will actually start to create neural pathways making your body more efficient at the jumping motion.

More speculatively, there is even some research that suggests that you can generate nearly identical physiological responses from purely visualizing yourself training as opposed to actually doing the workout. We are not fully convinced about the validity of this research just yet but it certainly opens up some possibilities.

Dee Brown Dunking

Figure 1: Seeing is believing! Unless of course you are Dee Brown.

Further Mental Training

Using visualization isn't just about creating self belief. It has been shown that using visualization before a maximal effort (as a vertical jump is) can actually cause the body to fire up more muscular motor units. You can literally command your body that you need it to lift a notch and it will, purely by mentally preparing it.

A good example of this is by taking a running jump at a target such as backboard or a ring. Then go and get ready to take another running jump, only this time, spend 20-60 seconds visualizing yourself running in and hitting a higher level on the target. You will be surprised how much higher you can get just from doing this. I have heard of people getting as much as 6-8 inches higher from doing this alone.

You might be saying wow that is great, but in a game I don't have 60 seconds to stand around mentally preparing, what good is that. Well, in a game obviously it isn't applicable, but in your training it helps reprogram your limits. If you can jump that high once, you can jump that high again. And you can then shoot for that goal as your new baseline target.

Another great mental training trick is to start dunking on a lower ring. If you have an adjustable height hoop set it at a level that you can nearly dunk on. Then practice jumping until you can. Once you can dunk at the new height raise the ring a few inches. These small incremental gains soon add up.

If you don't have an adjustable basketball ring you can try tying a bit of string between two upright poles. Football goal posts are ideal. Mark your maximum jump and each time you do it you try and jump that little bit higher. This may seem too simple but it works amazingly.

If you are training to dunk a basketball it is much more preferable to use an adjustable ring. However, if you don't have access, the string method is still very effective. For example if you can touch a bit of string 11 feet high without a ball, you should have no trouble jumping high enough to throw one down. If you are just training your vertical for pure sports or athletic reasons the string method will obviously do nicely.


Visualization is a powerful tool that has many direct training and performance benefits. Without getting into the gym and doing the work you won't be able to jump high regardless of your mental preparation, but if you are training hard and stuck at a performance plateau that is below where you want to be, then perhaps the problem isn't physical.

Try spending 10 minutes a day visualizing yourself jumping high and achieving your goals. Imagine yourself to be as powerful as Superman as you take off, but as light as a feather once in the air. Your technique, timing and elevation can be all be perfect in your mind. With enough positive reinforcement your body will soon get the message. If mental preparation is good enough for elite athletes who regularly perform amazing physical feats, it should be good enough for you.

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