How to use Visualization to improve your performance
Although some definitions distinguish Visualization as a voluntary act which involves that one “orders” the creation of precise images in the mind, from Mental Imagery as a way to have some images rise from the unconscious mind (especially in therapeutic fields), they are often used indifferently in the mental training arena and we will consider that they are the same: mentally (re)creating some situations with some specific objectives. The images are some mental representations of the sensorial experiences.
Mental Imagery has been used for a longtime mainly by elite athletes to improve their performance. Most common examples are related to sports with some complex body moves like divers or aerial ski jumpers, or to high speed sports like downhill ski or luge/skeleton. But it can be very useful for any sport. I used it when I was a swimmer. I actually didn’t really know much about it, it was just a way for me to prepare, rehearse my race to feel ready for my swim.
Visualization is the most powerful way to train your body and neural pathways between physical practices, to prepare for a situation and / or to create the state of mind you need.
What we can say about visualization
- According to neurosciences, mental imagery impacts many cognitive processes in the brain: motor control, attention, perception, and memory.
- Mental imagery activates the same zones in your brain and the same neural pathways as the real physical activity. If you would put sensors on your quad muscles and make measurements while visualizing yourself running, you would detect electrical impulses in the muscles, meaning you are activating the same circuits in your body. In the study From mental power to muscle power, some researchers observed an increase in a muscle strength due to only Mental Imagery. (Note for those who would have thought about this: it doesn’t mean you can train only by staying in your couch, because the strength of the activation is much lower, but it strengthens these neural pathways).
- Images may be an efficient way of coding or representing instructions for movement. Forming an image of a swim stroke from a video of Michael Phelps is more simple, quicker, and more complete than with words.
- Mental imagery is broader than just a visual representation and should bring in the 5 senses for more efficiency (visual, auditive, kinesthetic, smell, taste). We remember much more through senses. I did a lot of skydiving years ago and the memory is much more vivid with the smell of the gas of the plane, feeling the wind and hearing the noise when the door opens, and feeling the sensations in my body when diving than by just seeing myself jump. And I am sure you all have in mind a pleasant smell of a favorite food or a song that instantly takes you back in the past.
- Mental Imagery can be:
- Internal: you visualize from inside your own body. With this type of imagery, you mentally rehearse what you actually see with your own eyes as you execute an event.
- External: you visualize yourself as an outside observer, from the stand or like if you were watching a movie of yourself performing. This is useful to analyze your forms/moves/strokes or to distance yourself from pain during a race.
- Kinesthetic: you experience through your sense of touch
Examples of the use of Visualization in various sports
- Novak Djokovic is an unconditional of Mental Imagery. He used it a lot to come back to his best level after his elbow surgery in 2018, by visualizing himself move well on his legs, do great shots, even if it was the case on the court for months.
- In the first minute of this video, Tiger Woods explains how he struggled to visualize balls enter in the holes (balls were going all over the place in his mind) and how he had to invent his own creative way to use Mental Imagery, based on the feeling of his hands and fingers and his whole body awareness.
- Other Golf players like Jason Day also use Mental Imagery in their pre-shot routine.
- Michael Phelps also used Visualization a lot as explained in this short video : internal (form his own perspective when swimming) and external (from the stands), to prepare for the ideal race but also to plan for every possible scenario.
- Eventually, in this NY times Article, some athletes describe their use of Mental Imagery during the Winter Olympic Games in 2014.
What can Mental Imagery be used for
- To rehearse some specific movements and strengthen the neural pathways involved in your activities
- To prepare for various situations that might happen: visualize the ideal scenario A, how you want thing to happen but also scenario B, C, D which might occur during a competition (weather conditions, being down in a game, falling in your race, etc…). If you see it in your head again and again and again, then you will know what to do when it happens without panicking. This also enables to reduce the sensation of going into the unknown and therefore lowers your stress level.
- To strengthen your state of mind (confidence, thriving with pressure, focus, resilience, etc…).
- To focus on the positive and get rid of negative thoughts.
- Remain relaxed during competitions
- Deal with pain and increase one’s capacity to push the body to its limits
- Compartmentalize and let go of mistakes
- Bounce back after a setback
- Have fun
- To virtually practice during the off season or when injured (rehearsing your games, your moves, your meets on a regular basis) in order to come back quicker and a step ahead rather than a step behind due to the absence of training.
How to use Mental Imagery
A simple and usually helpful way to start using Mental Imagery is to visualize an upcoming event, whether a race, a game or a tournament. Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and put yourself in a comfortable position, closing your eyes. Breath slowly through the belly, in order to relax. Then start visualizing yourself at the venue, during warm-up. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel, smell? What’s your mindset? Visualize everything that makes sense and is important to you in your routines. Then visualize your event. If it is a race, you may visualize the start, the race, bringing in all your senses, applying your strategy, up to the finish. If it’s a team sport game, you may imagine a fast-forward game with some slowdown / zoom in on some key moments. It is possible that your heart rate increases during a visualization.
Important: if during a visualization of an activity like ski aerial, diving, gymnastic, figure ice skating, you see yourself fall or miss a figure, what you want to do is to press pause and rewind in your mental imagery, then start again and see yourself doing well and succeeding in your jump or figure, in order to avoid printing negative failing images into your brain. In general, if you have a bad reaction or negative experience with a visualization (stress, anxiety, negative images), just stop and reach out to a professional.
Note: Visualization can be used in other fields than sports, like before a school test, by visualizing yourself focused, going through the test efficiently, calmly responding if you don’t find the answer right away, etc… Or before an important work meeting, visualizing yourself confident, relaxed, smiling, with others smiling at you too, imagining what might happen and how you want to respond, etc…
It is then possible to visualize more complicated and customized scenario written with the athlete, in order to address specific situations. There are however some notions to have in mind as suggested by this research study The BASES Expert Statement on the use of Mental Imagery in Sport.
My way to use mental imagery with the athletes I coach
When I coach athletes individually, I create audios MP3 for them, completely customized based on their need, using specific techniques and skills to guide them through a specific visualization to prepare for an important event, improve some mental skills or work on specific moves and I then send them this audio that they can keep forever. They can listen to it whenever they want, on their way to practice, at night, before a game or competition. On the long term we build a playlist with different mental imageries with specific themes (peak performance, focus, confidence, free to fail, keeping fun, preparing for meet X or for game Y etc…) and the athletes can pick in this library whenever they want depending on their needs, months and years after our work together. For instance, I received a message from a swimmer (the name is not mentioned to respect confidentiality) lately who went through a tough period with physical problems and almost quit swimming, the year after we worked together:
I managed to find again a confidence that I didn’t have anymore, and also a stronger mental toughness; I relistened to all the audios we had created together and they helped me get back-up and recover. Once again thank you, the work you did with me really helped me find my best level again.
If you are interested in using mental imagery as a tool to improve your performance and keep having fun, reach out via our contact form in order to talk with a mental coach. And if you found this article helpful, don’t hesitate to share it.