How to Use Visualization to Improve Athletic Performance
Learn how visualization can help improve athletic performance by relieving stress, preparing for events, and improving outcomes. Athletes use visualization techniques to see themselves winning, crossing the finish line first, or making that perfect shot. But did you know that visualizing can also help relieve stress and improve relaxation?
What is Visualization?
Begin with the end in mind. Chances are, you've heard this statement from a parent, coach, or teacher at some point in your life when he/she was trying to get you to focus on a goal rather than on an obstacle. It was first coined by Stephen Covey in his famous book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," and while it has tremendous application for improving your outcomes in sports, it is also the core of what makes visualization such a powerful tool for creating focus.
So what is it exactly? Visualization is the process of creating a mental image of an action, outcome, or event through detailed imagining and memory recall. This process can be used to relieve stress and achieve relaxation, psychologically prepare for meetings and events, and to improve outcomes in areas ranging from career advancement to athletic performance.
For a lot of young athletes, visualization may seem hokie. Lifting weights, cardio, and practice reps all make sense because you’re doing something physical that leads to a more consistent outcome. But the important thing to remember is that your mind is the most powerful muscle in your body, and if you’re not strengthening your mind, it can be the biggest obstacle to achieving the results you want on the field. So think about visualization as practice reps for getting your mind right.
Visualization works by activating your motor cortex: the part of your brain that is responsible for planning, controlling and executing voluntary movements. When you think about moving, your brain signals the motor cortex to activate. If the signal is below a certain threshold, the motor cortex will simply activate, but not initiate movement. So what does this matter to you? It means that consistent visualization can cause gains in ability, even without ever executing movement. That’s right. Visualizing reps trains your mind as if it’s doing reps - without actually doing reps.
How does visualization promote relaxation & stress reduction?
But beyond its value in helping you perform better on the field, visualization has the ability to help you manage your mind and body connection in every area of your life. Whether you want to reduce stress overall in your life, or get into a relaxed and focused mindset before an athletic event, visualization is an effective way to calm the body and mind. It has been found that using guided imagery meditation can improve sleep, relieve anxiety, decrease pain, and increase mental function.
This kind of focused relaxation involves imagining a comforting and peaceful scene, then visualizing yourself in that place. You then carefully immerse yourself in the sensory details of the scene, focusing on what you can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Practicing this kind of meditation decreases the level of cortisol in your body, slowing your heart and respiration, leading to the vast benefits described above.
What is Visualization Training & how can you practice visualization?
Like anything worth doing, this requires practice, and that’s where Visualization Training comes in. It is the practice of carefully and systematically employing visualization techniques in your athletic training routine. If you want to see results from visualization, repetition is key. Like anything else in your training routine, you have to be consistent in order to see gains in ability and outcome.
To practice visualization:
- Do it at the same time every day. Make it a habit. It may help to stack it onto another existing habit. Current habits are ingrained in your neuronal networks and have become automatic- for example, you may shower at the same time every day without really thinking about it. So, if you want to remember to practice visualization, taking a moment to visually run over your match or routine in the shower, like Canadian bobsledder Lyndon Rush, can help you be consistent.
- Spend at least ten minutes a day on visualization. This small amount of time can reap big rewards. It’s common for athletes to spend 10-15 minutes a day, five days a week, practicing visualization. The most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, swimmer Michael Phelps, has a “mental videotape” that he runs through when he wakes up in the morning and before he goes to bed each night.
- Start slow and be patient with yourself. Like we said, visualization requires practice. If you are not used to employing this technique, it may take time to build up your ability to remain focused and present as you imagine yourself performing.
How To Visualize
- Find a comfortable position. You may want to practice by sitting on a cushion, lying down in bed, leaning back in a comfortable chair, or lying on a yoga mat with your legs straight out or bent at the knees. Whatever you choose, make sure you’re in a position that you can sustain for the length of the visualization without having to move.
- Make sure there are no distractions. Turn your phone off, close the door, and choose a quiet place with warm or dim lighting. In order to optimize the visualization, you want to be able to completely immerse yourself in the imagery. Distracting noises, harsh light, or cold drafts can take your mind out of the game.
- Be clear on your goals. Like anything else with athletic training, it’s important to know exactly what you want to achieve. The big picture is important- you want to aim for the championship win- but with visualization you want to be specific. What is it that you want to improve? Are you working on a specific skill, shot, or movement? Is there a certain play that you’ve been struggling to execute? Do you want to be better at anticipating your opponent’s attack? Knowing what you want to get better at will help set the scene for successful visualization.
- Do a body scan. A body scan is a short meditative practice that focuses your awareness on your body. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, making sure to breathe down into your belly, instead of your chest. Once you’ve brought attention to your breathing, start by focusing on your toes and feet. How do they feel? Are you holding muscle tension in your arches? Are your feet relaxed or do you have your toes pointed to the ceiling? At first, just observe how you feel, and then, if you can, release any tension you notice. Once you’ve relaxed your feet, progressively move up your body, starting with your calves, then your knees, quads and hamstrings, etc. Work your way up to your neck and face, letting your jaw release and the tension in your forehead go. Once you’ve completed the scan, take a few more deep breaths before moving on to the visualization.
- Put yourself in the room. Imagine yourself in the environment where you compete. Are you on a court, a pitch, ski slopes, a stage? Picture the world around you, focusing on the details of the environment. How big is the space? How many spectators are there? What color is your jersey? Make sure that you have a really clear image of where you are.
- Engage all of your senses. Successful visualization requires more than just imagining what you can see. Think about what you can feel. How tight are your shoes? Is there a breeze? Think about what you can smell. Can you smell rubber and sweat, or fresh air and pine trees? What can you hear? How loud is the crowd? Can you hear a ball hitting the net? Finally, think about what you can taste. Maybe it’s connected to what you’re smelling, or maybe you can taste your mouth guard or the aftertaste of a sports drink. Engage all five of your senses to place yourself firmly in your competitive environment.
- Don’t forget emotion. What are you feeling? Are you excited? Nervous? Laser-focused? Feeling pumped? Think about how you usually feel right before you compete.
- Imagine a positive outcome. When you start to run through your visualization, make sure that you are always seeing yourself executing the movement successfully, or winning the fight, or making that shot. If your mind starts to drift to negative outcomes, take a moment and a few more deep breaths, then refocus. You want to be activating your motor cortex by imagining the desired achievement, so that those neural pathways become more ingrained, and when it comes time to actually compete, your brain and muscles will be primed for success.
- Run through the routine. Take yourself through it from start to finish. Remember to focus on the goals you set before you started, and to imagine it in specific detail.
- Practice, practice, practice. As an athlete, you know that athletic success is rooted in practice and repetition. The same is true of visualization. As you consistently run through your routine, your visualization skills will become further embedded, and the benefits to your performance will become more and more apparent.
While visualization may sound simple, it requires practice to perfect, and the results it affords you can be profound. Whether you’re motivated by the benefits of stress relief or by a desire to hone your athletic abilities, with intention and practice, visualization will be a powerful tool to achieve your goals.
- How Meditation Can Help Improve Athletic Performance
- How to Use Critical Thinking in Sports
- The Real Payoff of Playing Sports
- How to Set Goals in Sports
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