Visualization is the process of creating a mental image or intention of what you want to happen or feel in reality.
It is in fact, used by athletes as a technique to ‘feel’ their best outcome of a training session or race or just to relax. It entails using imagery to guide them as to how a skill should be mastered, visualization in that aspect, is similar to a script, where one simply plays a “movie” of the successful execution of that skill for your eyes to register so your body can program it.
Athletes use this method to train for competitions, giving them an edge as well as heightened self-awareness, which enables them to get in tune with their bodies, make changes to their routines, switch techniques, pace, etc. Some use kinaesthetic imagery as they want to “feel” each and every movement, let it flow through their body instead of just visualizing it.
It’s identical to a warm up, to paraphrase; a gymnast will feel the texture of the chalk dust on their palms, do some twirls on the metal bars, dig their feet into the mattress. Having a walk through helps athletes get familiar with the pattern, in other words; increased visualization leads to increased habituation.
HOW IS VISUALIZATION USED IN SPORT? WHAT MAKES IT SO EFFECTIVE IN SPORTS PERFORMANCE?
Visualization is used by athletes to go through different scenarios in their heads, using different senses; visual (pictures, images), olfactory (scent), auditory (sound) and kinesthetic (movement).
Imagining the desired outcome, going over every single detail, like a magnifying glass, gives the athlete’s body to sense the feeling of what it would be like to perform a certain move or skill. This gets rid of competitive anxiety, making one familiar with what to expect in various, different situations and how one ought to or should react in them. Being able to feel the movements flow their body, smoothen them out, lets the brain register the routine and attention to detail through one’s eyes. This also allows a sportsperson to stay on top of their game, know where they need to catch up, rehearse a particular move, time a certain skill, in other words, it allows them to be cognizant. Increased efforts towards mental rehearsal lead to increased confidence, self-consciousness, and optimal arousal under pressure and enhance skills to gain control over their mind and body.
To illustrate, take the case of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals to his name, 18 of which are gold. Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, instructed him to always visualize his outcome, his success, his victory. Bowman would simply tell Michael to mentally “record” his races before going to sleep. Waking up, Phelps would start visualizing every aspect of his race, from the warm-ups to the blocks to the last stroke before finishing the last lap. These “videotapes” prepared Phelps for success, as he was slowly familiarized with all the possible and probable reactions in every situation, he used them to push himself harder, train better, reach his true potential by fortifying strategies and manage his expectations during races.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
- Consistency is key– It isn’t easy for everyone to conjure images in their mind but practising regularly for 10 minutes every day can improve visualization. For example, doing it first thing in the morning for about 10 minutes one could visualize walking or running, why in the morning and not at night? It is recommended to do so in the morning after having woken up as our minds are still slightly lucid, making it easier to conjure up images. But one shouldn’t worry if they cannot immediately start visualizing, not everyone can come up with distinct, crystal clear pictures, it is a habit to be developed over time.
- Rehearsing the outcome, you want – Consistent mental rehearsal of the outcome one wants to achieve will eventually get programmed in your subconscious (one must, however, visualize regularly). The subconscious is like a self-driving car, it will start moving towards your destination, on its way it’ll make the required changes to avoid a crash; adjust the speed limit, indicate with blinkers when required, shift gears. However, many people start to visualize all the possible negative outcomes or ways things could not work out. Not to worry, one could simply just stop the “tape” in your mind, rewind and start again, each time one imagines something negative, they could just restart, the subconscious does not judge us for overseeing every possible pro and con. By visualizing success one can dominate the competition, stay on top of their field, be in touch with their mind and body.
- Using all the senses – One must visualize their performance in detail, what they can see, feel, hear, smell, etc. If they feel through visualization that a few changes need to be made in their routine, they should go ahead and do it! Following what one visualizes that could make their performance better, must be attended to, if a figure skater thinks she should slow down or jump higher when doing a double axel, she should physically cater to that mental image of what is taking her closer to victory. Being aware of changes to be made through visualization and physically feeling the movement makes it easier and more efficient for the brain to program and execute it when actually performing. Adding movements that coincide with mental imagery will let one take advantage of the power of visualization.
- Prospective perspectives – There are two ways one usually is able to visualize; either like watching oneself on TV as well as the surroundings or watching oneself from outside one’s own body, like astral projection seen in Dr Strange. The former perspective mentioned is known as disassociation and the latter is known as an association. Association is the more powerful of the two, making one feel “connected” to their visualization. However, disassociation also has its benefits like understanding what their body looks like when performing which is elusive for divers, gymnasts, etc. It is better if one plays around with both the perspectives and figures out what works for them.
As a sports coach, you can lead visualisations sessions regularly for your team. You can take them through games plays, strategies and tactics to prepare them for potential game situations.
I highly recommend you try these techniques and let me know how it goes…
Simran is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Psychology at Sophia College for Women, Mumbai. She aspires to set up a Mental Health Clinic for those who cannot access mental health services due to financial or cultural drawbacks. Her main aim is to change the outlook of Indian society towards mental health and related social issues. She is currently writing blogs on Sports Psychology to gain some experience in the field and explore her future options. In her free time, Simran likes to debate and read up on social issues, read, bake and cook new recipes.
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